Breaking the mold at AFI Docs Film Festival

Sam Berns is just 13 but suffers from progeria, a rare disease that accelerates aging, in “Life According to Sam.” (Image courtesy of AFI Docs Film Festival)

Sam Berns is just 13 but suffers from progeria, a rare disease that accelerates aging, in “Life According to Sam.” (Image courtesy of AFI Docs Film Festival)

If you watch enough documentaries, certain templates start to look familiar. There’s the character study and the eco-conscious cautionary tale, the rock-doc and the politically minded call to action. Some of the films selected for AFI Docs, the annual documentary film festival formerly known as Silverdocs, look like they follow conventional patterns but instead transcend their paragraph-long synopses. From a character study that transforms into a medical mystery to a concert chronicle that’s more about filmmaking than music, here’s a look at some of the must-see movies that under-promise and over-deliver during the festival.

Films screen Wednesday through June 23 at locations in Silver Spring and Washington. For ticketing information and times, visit www.afi.com/afidocs .

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“Life According to Sam”

What it looks like: A character study about Sam Berns, a 13-year-old boy with progeria, a rare disease that accelerates the aging process.

What it is: The film, directed by local Academy Award-winners Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (“Inocente”), is much more than the chronicle of a spunky kid’s day-to-day obstacles. The movie, by turns triumphant and heartbreaking, is as much about Sam’s irrepressible parents, two doctors working to find a cure for the disease. They manage to pinpoint the gene responsible for progeria — gaining insights into aging in general — and get funding for the first clinical trial, enlisting afflicted children from around the world to test the potential treatment. But will the drug therapy work? Time is of the essence to find out, given that Sam has reached the average life expectancy for kids with the disease.

June 22 at 11 a.m. at Goethe-Institut; June 23 at 1:15 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre.

“The Kill Team”

What it looks like: A war film about atrocities in Afghanistan in 2010 and the five U.S. soldiers who were charged with killing civilians.

What it is: The powerful film by Oscar-nominated director Dan Krauss took home the best documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival for what turns out to be an exposéof a broken system. Krauss got access to three of the defendants and focuses mainly on Adam Winfield, a soldier on trial for murder even though he had attempted to notify authorities of the crimes. But Winfield’s options were limited (and his life threatened), because the ringleader was his commanding officer. The masterfully edited doc cobbles together interviews, interrogation footage, video from Afghanistan and some difficult-to-watch documentation of the victims for a jaw-dropping account of overseas deployment.

Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery; June 21 at 6:30 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre.

“Anita”

What it looks like: An account of what became of Anita Hill, the woman at the center of the 1991 sexual harassment controversy following Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

What it is: Director Freida Lee Mock, who won an Academy Award for “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” opens her film with the bizarre voicemail Ginni Thomas left Hill in 2010, demanding an apology for accusations against her husband. That gives some indication of the circus to come during the movie, which reminisces about the partisan rage kicked up by the scandal, as well as the general confusion over the very meaning of sexual harassment. It’s a time capsule of sorts, with clips from Hill’s sensational interrogation, old news footage and Clarence Thomas’s forceful rebuttal. But the film also looks at the immediate aftermath of her testimony, portraying a woman at a crossroads who might have slunk from the spotlight but instead became an advocate for workplace equality.

June 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Mistaken for Strangers”

What it looks like: An indie rock doc featuring the National on tour.

What it is: The sweetly comical documentary was shot by Tom Berninger, younger brother of the band’s lead singer and a first-time filmmaker (if you don’t count homemade horror movies about a barbarian with an identity crisis). After the slightly hapless and unemployed Berninger is hired by the National to be a roadie, he instead takes to capturing footage of the band members and consequently slacks off on his assigned duties. The finished product ends up being more about the filmmaker, looking at life in the shadow of a more successful sibling. But thanks to Berninger’s nutty personality and ridiculous interview questions (“How famous do you think you are?”), the movie offers a lot of laughs to lighten more bittersweet undercurrents.

June 21 at 10 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre; June 23 at noon at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Expedition to the end of the world”

What it looks like: An environmental wake-up call recording the melting ice caps of Northeast Greenland.

What it is: The Danish documentary from Daniel Dencik follows a boat full of scientists and artists who travel to a remote location only accessible because of climate change; melting ice has left a path through which the ship can now travel. But no one is proselytizing; the film is as much about capturing arresting landscapes, roaming polar bears and amusing existential conversations as it is about mankind’s toll on the environment. Dencik does indeed chronicle masses of ice crumbling into the sea, but he also hears from one eccentric passenger who believes our ability to embrace change will be our biggest asset as the planet continues to shift; we’ll just have to move Hamburg to Mongolia and invade Switzerland, he says. “So what?”

Thursday at 7:45 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre; June 21 at 11:45 a.m. at Goethe-Institut.

“Remote Area Medical”

What it looks like: A deep dive into the desperate needs of uninsured Americans when a free traveling clinic makes a stop in Tennessee.

What it is: Nearby residents start lining up days before Remote Area Medical takes over the Bristol Motor Speedway, so the urgency for basic tests and procedures is certainly vivid. But so are the personalities in Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s documentary, which follows the volunteer caregivers and their patients. One of the film’s biggest surprises is the widespread need for dental care, as one of the film’s subjects becomes so desperate to have his rotting teeth pulled he tries to do it himself. It’s a bleak picture, but it’s also a lasting one that could give an insured American pause before dismissing a trip to the dentist as a biannual annoyance.

June 21 at 4:30 p.m. at Goethe-Institut; June 22 at 3 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre.

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