“It’s a commonly held belief that we’re experiencing a Golden Age of documentary film, and that assumption is solidly affirmed by the program of this year’s edition of AFI Docs,” writes the Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday in a widely cited piece that begins with praise for this year’s opener, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies, “a portrait of the venomous intellectual rivalry between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal” (which I, too, can recommend), before sounding a note of caution: “Even from the privileged vantage point of a Golden Age, it’s possible to see a medium in need of freshening up, as nonfiction filmmakers fall into the trap of relying on their charismatic, timely subjects to engage viewers, rather than bold, daring or artful filmmaking itself.”
Hornaday sketches a brief history of the American documentary, from the cinéma vérité of the 60s (Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles) through the personal essays of the 80s (Ross McElwee and Michael Moore) to the day “Errol Morris revolutionized the industry by introducing reenactments and stylized cinematic flourishes in the true-crime thriller The Thin Blue Line. (Actually, he reintroduced reenactment, if you consider the work of Robert Flaherty in 1922’s Nanook of the North.)”
For all her shoutouts to many of the “bright, enterprising filmmakers” working today, such as Sarah Polley and Joshua Oppenheimer, there’s “a deadening feeling of familiarity” in the structure of many documentaries today. “[F]unding structures have a utilitarian agenda, with social change, public education, audience activism and other ‘deliverables’ taking precedence over more intangible values and formal daring.” Ted Hope, she notes, explains the problem well. But there’s small-H hope, too. Michael Lumpkin, the new director of AFI Docs, suggests that “‘there’s momentum for it to be swinging back, [so] that aesthetics and the art and craft of making documentary film will be more prominent once again.'”
Back to this year’s edition, the 13th, opening today and running through Sunday. Matt Fagerholm will be covering it for RogerEbert.com and notes that “Stanley Nelson, one of cinema’s great chroniclers of civil rights history (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till), will be one of the festival’s most cherished guests. Nelson will be onstage discussing his career during the Guggenheim Symposium, while his latest picture (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) is guaranteed to be among the hottest tickets at AFI Docs.”
Scanning the list of features, I see that I can point you to a few collections of reviews that’ve appeared either here or at James Kang’s Critics Round Up:
- Mohammed Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi’s Among the Believers (CRU, 83/100).
- Best of Enemies (Susan Gerhard, CRU, 50).
- Matthew Heimeman’s Cartel Land (CRU, 64).
- Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor (CRU, 90).
- Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold (CRU, 67).
- Albert Maysles, Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Benjamin Wu, David Usui’s In Transit (CRU, 92).
- Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon (Susan Gerhard, CRU, 94).
- Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (Daily, CRU, 88).
- Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War (CRU, 85).
- Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Daily).
- Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith (CRU, 58).
- Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? (Daily, CRU, 75).
- Crystal Mozelle’s The Wolfpack (CRU, 73).
Update, 6/18: Matt Fagerholm talks with Neville and Gordon about Best of Enemies; and the AFI interviews Sacha Jenkins, director of Fresh Dressed, “a fun and colorful history lesson in hip-hop fashion through the decades. The fashion trends which were initially born out of a mix of ingenuity, creativity and swagger soon found their way onto high-fashion runways and into suburban closets in middle America. The film traces the genesis of some of hip-hop’s most influential ideas and how they crossed over into mainstream culture.”
Updates, 6/19: Matt Fagerholm reviews Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter about the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi: “To Udwin’s great credit, she humanizes the plights of the rapists and their impoverished families, suggesting how normal people could be driven to commit unthinkable acts when under the influence of socially enforced discrimination…. If India’s Daughter stands as a howl of outrage against gender inequality, then Requiem for the American Dream could very well be embraced as the final word on economic inequality in the United States…. It’s ironic to walk past governmental shrines honoring the service of Navy veterans before sitting down in a theater to hear Noam Chomsky expound on how America is neglecting the majority of its own people—including veterans.” And finally for the day, “the world premiere of Natalie Avital’s The Three Hikers. Though the film recounts a tense tale of excruciatingly prolonged detainment, it has moments of disarming humor and a tear-jerking finale.”
Update, 6/20: For Matt Fagerholm, the Stanley Nelson symposium was “one of this year’s liveliest festival highlights, as the filmmaker shared priceless stories with great charm and humor.”
The symposium starts at 13’38”
Also, Amy Berg’s “latest crime documentary, Prophet’s Prey, proved to be no less disturbing or vital than her other nonfiction work. Authors Jon Krakauer and Sam Brower detail their investigation into the polygamist cult of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, presided over by its ‘Prophet,’ Warren Jeffs. Preaching the sacred importance of ‘giving up your will and obeying,; Jeffs would rape countless boys and girls, while marrying and impregnating various underage women.”
And: “Easily the most purely enjoyable film I’ve seen thus far at AFI Docs 2015, two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s latest crowd-pleasing masterwork, Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation, profiles the staggering history of the titular, left-leaning weekly magazine.”
Update, 6/22: In his latest dispatch, Matt Fagerholm reviews Rebecca Parrish’s Radical Grace, “an exhilarating portrait of the ‘Nuns on the Bus’ that easily ranks among the year’s best films”; Abigail Disney’s The Armor of Light, “a brilliant exploration of the appeal that firearms have for many white religious conservatives in America, and how that appeal is, in many ways, in direct conflict with their supposed beliefs” (more from Ted Johnson in Variety); and Jean Carlomusto’s Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, “a provocative study of the persona that the controversial writer and activist utilized in order to give AIDS victims the attention and care they deserved.”
Updates, 6/26: The Audience Awards have been announced. Best Feature: Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? Best Short: Blair Foster and Geeta Gandbhir’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.
Back at RogerEbert.com, Matt Fagerholm reviews In Transit: “In a span of 76 minutes, this picture weaves together an extraordinary array of vignettes.” Plus, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War and Jessica Edwards’s festival closer, Mavis!, a doc on Mavis Staples and “a breath of rejuvenating air after a series of movies loaded with difficult subject matter.”