Six things to look forward to during AFI Docs

It’s a transition year for AFI Docs, given that the documentary film festival’s director, Sky Sitney, left in February after eight years running the annual event. But festival programmer Andrea Passafiume prefaced the highlight reel during today's press lunch with the assurance that Sitney’s departure hasn’t affected the quality of the lineup.


Hal Holbrook in "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey." (Courtesy AFI Docs)

The festival takes place June 18-22 -- “four weeks from today,” interim festival director Christine O’Malley said multiple times in a faux ominous way -- and the 12th installment features 84 movies, including four world premieres. As in 2013, the films will screen both in Silver Spring and at theaters in Washington, including the Goethe-Institut, National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center. Here are six things to watch for.

Movies that capture the zeitgeist

Themes emerge every year, and, no surprise, in 2014 there were numerous submissions about governmental overreaching. One of those movies is “1971,” which looks at the group of people who broke into a Pennsylvania FBI office and uncovered a shady surveillance program, the details of which they leaked to the press. For her directorial debut, Johanna Hamilton managed to get access to the burglars, who only recently revealed themselves.

Another dominant theme is Alzheimer’s disease, and one of the films covering the topic is “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me.” When the country music legend was diagnosed with the disease in 2011, he went public with the news -- something celebrities tend not to do -- then embarked on one final tour, which director James Keach chronicled.

Conversation starters

Among the festival’s new events is the Catalyst Screenings, with four provocative and timely films followed by extended panel discussions. One of those movies, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” looks at the life and suicide of Aaron Swartz, the computer prodigy who helped found Reddit and was charged with stealing academic journal articles.

The great outdoors

Alongside this year's new events, there will also be some old favorites. The annual outdoor screening will take place on Friday, June 20, in the Silver Spring Plaza. The movie will be “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the great 2012 LCD Soundsystem concert film.

Lighthearted fare

While the festival has a wealth of issue-based movies, there are some less political alternatives. One is “112 Weddings.” Documentarian Doug Block bankrolled his vocation by being a wedding videographer, and for this movie he tracked down some of the couples he filmed to see how the reality of their marriages aligned with their wedding day expectations. The results will no doubt be a mix of hilarious and heartbreaking.

Big personalities

There are also some promising personality profiles, including the opening and closing night movies. On June 18, Hal Holbrook and director Scott Teems will be in town for “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” which looks at the actor’s multi-decade stint in his one-man stage show, “Mark Twain Tonight.” The closing night screening will be Steve James’s “Life Itself,” based on Roger Ebert’s memoir.

An Oscar winner talking shop

Each year, AFI Docs celebrates a different documentarian during the Guggenheim Symposium, and this year’s honoree is Oscar winner Alex Gibney, the prolific director behind “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.” Gibney will take the stage at the National Archives to discuss his career following clips from his films.

Tickets for the films go on sale June 2. In the meantime, you can see the full schedule on the AFI Docs web site.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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