Current events leap off the screen at AFI DOCS


At the 2017 AFI DOCS Film Festival, just about every movie on offer is a window into another world. One of the top nonfiction film festivals in the world, Washington, D.C.’s AFI DOCS doesn’t always feature the number of boldface names that parade through DOC NYC, or the agenda-setting nature of Toronto’s Hot Docs, but it reliably includes a top-rate cluster of documentaries that anger, fascinate and inspire in usually equal quantity. This year was no different, with 103 movies from 28 countries packed into five days.

By now, the festival has fully settled into the more District-centric configuration it took up after losing the Discovery Channel sponsorship that it had while headquartered around the Silver Spring AFI Silver Theatre under the name Silverdocs. Some movies are still shown out there, but it’s primarily embedded in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. While tourists throng to Ford’s Theatre and the Spy Museum near the gloomy hulk of the FBI headquarters outside, inside the E Street Landmark cheery volunteers—many of whom actually hold strong opinions about the festival’s offerings, unlike at some other less inspired gatherings—usher ticket holders to screenings and Q&As. It’s both a filmmakers’ festival, packed with audience members who chat of editing their latest piece and fundraising, and something of a District wonk-fest, with Q&As almost inevitably pivoting to the unspoken elephant of a president on everyone’s minds.

The start of the festival was heavy with gala events, from Bryan Fogel’s Sundance-buzzed Russian doping scandal expose Icarus on opening night to Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s sly media satire The Reagan Show and Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s ten-years-on Al Gore climate-change update An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. But the real heart of the festival was to be found at the daytime screenings of the mostly smaller movies, many still without distribution deals.

Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts (opening theatrically on July 7) is a blistering dispatch about the brave men—they have woman in their number but none are onscreen for their safety—of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These are mostly middle-class guys, including a math teacher and a film buff, who started documenting what was happening to “our forgotten Syrian city on the Euphrates that has become a city of ghosts.” They recount the all-too-familiar brief flare of hope that started in 2012 with the Arab Spring and the burst of anti-Assad protest and the long spiral of chaos that followed. Since ISIS set up camp in Raqqa in 2014, RBSS has been chronicling the brutality and depravity of their occupation by publishing the text and video reports sent out by their heroic citizen journalists on the ground. Heineman, whose ability to embed himself into a dangerous world was vividly shown in his Cartel Land, follows RBSS as they move from one safe house to the next, battling loneliness, PTSD and fear—they discover that being outside Syria is no safe guarantee, after their mentor is assassinated in broad daylight in Turkey—as they continue their mission. Two of the movie’s most resonant figures, Hamoud and Aziz, raced through District traffic to make it to the post-movie Q&A with Heineman. Hamoud’s summation was crystal-clear: “I wish more people cared.”

Empathy is in great supply in Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine’s For Ahkeem, a story in which an entire squadron of stouthearted people rally to prevent at-risk teenagers from becoming just more depressing statistics. The culmination of two years of filming on the north side of St. Louis, the movie is a fly-on-the-wall study of a crucial time in the life of 17-year-old Daje Shelton. She’s high-spirited, bright and spiky; by the time we meet her, Daje is already being given her last chance in a school full of other at-risk kids. Everything that follows is a tightrope walk with many ways for her to fail but no guarantee of success. Loose and improvisational, the movie just beams with energy, from Daje’s hundred-watt smile and the stirring heroism of all her mentors and teachers to the lushly saturated cinematography that brings out the hidden beauty in her grindingly poor neighborhood of rundown brick homes and arson-emptied lots. It also rattles with tension, first with her lashing out at school and banging around with her marked-for-trouble boyfriend, and then later once the Michael Brown killing up the road in Ferguson cast the poverty, racism and roadblocks in Daje’s way into sharper relief. The filmmakers, who talked about trying to illustrate America’s “school-to-prison pipeline,” don’t try to tie things up too neatly, which is for the best, since the issues raised here don’t disappear no matter what happens to Daje.

Another documentary about seemingly intractable problems is Khusboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man. Eschewing much context for the layperson, the filmmakers drop viewers into the scrum of Indian politics, dominated for decades by massive parties like Congress and the BJP. Disrupting their hold on power is Arving Kejriwal, a small but forceful man with an accountant’s face and a wrestler’s stubbornness. Kejriwal started out as a single-issue reformer pushing an anti-corruption bill. Realizing that the entrenched powers getting wealthy on privatization contracts that were inflating prices for electricity and water were never going to budge, Kejriwal started his own party, the AAP, to reform the system from within. Ranka and Shukla’s movie is part dramatic account of the AAP’s scrappy insurgency and part essay on the difficulties of, as Kejriwal’s lieutenant Yogendra Yadiv puts it, “navigating between idealism and brutal reality.” Ultimately, An Insignificant Man also shows that despite the flaws in India’s current political system, what with the near-constant hurling of flower petals and fantastic songs, elections in India are just way more fun than similar contests in the U.S.

One of the festival’s other great stories about popular uprisings against entrenched interests was Hollie Fifer’s The Opposition. The broad outlines of her story are familiar from other documentaries of this sort, but the particulars sting with heroism and indignation. On a beautiful peninsula outside Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, several thousand indigenous people living in the Paga Hill community were threatened with eviction so that a developer with close government ties could build a luxury resort. The stunning blatancy of the eviction’s illegality (including thuggish police leading demolition crews and firing live rounds at civilians) is set against the non-violent resistance led by Paga Hill leaders like Joe Moses and the Parliament’s sole female member, Dame Carol Kidu. Crisply filmed and ominously scored, Fifer’s movie is studded with dramatic moments, including a shocking betrayal by a resistance ally, and underwritten with a terse sense of outrage that so many issue documentaries attempt but rarely achieve with such devastating effect.