AFI Docs turns in an exceptionally strong year, often at the expense of the U.S. government

Last year, when the decade-old, much beloved Silverdocs Documentary Festival became AFI Docs, moved most of its operations from Silver Spring, Md., to downtown Washington and did away with many of the filmmaker programs that had made the festival a valued destination for nonfiction filmmakers, many observers — and not a few charter Silverdocs-goers — were apprehensive.

This year, the nervousness was compounded when longtime Silverdocs/AFI Docs director Sky Sitney abruptly resigned in February, and when it became clear that the festival was heading into June without a presenting sponsor.

But by the time AFI Docs got underway on Wednesday, the anxieties were virtually banished. In a confidence-building move, filmmaker Christine O’Malley (“Wordplay,” “If You Build It”) had signed on as interim director. The festival had secured AT&T as presenting sponsor, which seemed a good fit in terms of money (it has some) and mission (communication). In response to local filmgoers’ pleas for more presence in Silver Spring, AFI Docs beefed up the programming there this year, utilizing all three auditoriums at the Silver Theatre. The out-of-the-way Warner Bros. Theater at the National Museum of American History was replaced as a venue by the more convenient Naval Heritage Center. And the festival commandeered the downtown pub Penn Social as a hub for filmmakers and attendees to find information, charge phones, hang out and bump into each other.

What’s more, and most important, the AFI Docs program was exceptionally strong, with this year’s films revolving to an exceptional degree around films concerned with the systemic abuse of power, especially at the hands of the U.S. government. When American Film Institute president and chief executive Bob Gazzale announced the festival’s move, he said part of that was in recognition of the institute’s D.C. roots (the AFI was created in 1964, in the White House Rose Garden), and also of film’s potential to shape and inform conversations about politics, public issues and national policy. If this year’s program was any indication, AFI Docs isn’t afraid to make those conversations as pointed and contentious arguments.

The festival’s opening night film, “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” about Hal Holbrook’s decades-long career playing the author Mark Twain, was an early, if surprising, example. Viewers expecting a bland, folksy portrait of two beloved American icons fusing in Holbrook’s one-man performance instead were treated to several of Twain’s stinging, occasionally cynical, barbs directed at mendacious and hypocritical politicians. The next four days rewarded viewers with a breathtaking succession of films about governmental malpractice: James Spione’s “Silenced” focused on the crackdown on government whistleblowers in post-9/11 America; Joe Berlinger’s “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” lucidly limned the ways in which the titular Boston crime chief came under the protection of corrupt federal and local authorities; “The Internet’s Own Boy,” about Web activist Aaron Swartz, chronicled how Swartz came to take his own life after facing federal charges for attempting to replicate proprietary databases.

In an uncanny instance of past-is-prologue juxtaposition, no sooner had the riveting “1971” revisited the fascinating case of antiwar activists who plundered a Pennsylvania FBI office, ultimately leading to the exposure of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of domestic spying than the equally absorbing “The Newburgh Sting,” about a group of men entrapped by a self-serving anti-terrorism scheme concocted by the bureau, suggested that COINTELPRO’s tactics are still very much in force. (The FBI had a rocky ride at AFI Docs this year, given added ironic punch by the fact that screenings were held just blocks away from the bureau’s headquarters.)

Bottom line: If you didn’t leave an AFI Docs screening infuriated, you weren’t paying attention. (Fittingly enough, the honoree at the festival’s annual Charles Guggenheim Symposium was Alex Gibney, who has made an art of exploring political malfeasance, bad faith and institutional rot from Jack Abramoff and Eliot Spitzer to Lance Armstrong and the Catholic Church.)

“It was totally organic,” said AFI Docs programmer Andrea Passafiume about the thematic through-line. “We were programming films that were able to stand completely on their own — films like ‘Silenced’ and ‘The Newburgh Sting’ and ‘1971’ — and about halfway through the process we noticed that theme going on. But we didn’t look for it. I think it taps into something that’s going on in many people’s lives, because we had a great response to [those films].”

Luckily, Passafiume and her team balanced outrage with some welcome doses of hope: “Soft Vengeance,” by Abby Ginzberg, introduced viewers to South African anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs; “E-Team,” about a young Paris-based couple who travel the globe as rapid-response interviewers for Human Rights Watch, injected a note of dash and glamour into a story that could easily be mired in dry self-righteousness or sanctimony. “The Hand That Feeds” presented an inspiring story of indomitable fast-food workers in New York who successfully organize for better wages and working conditions. This year’s audience award winner, “An Honest Liar,” featured the magician James “The Amazing” Randi, who was a hugely popular in-person guest during Q&A sessions after the film. Other notables on hand for AFI Docs this year were Barbara Boxer, whose daughter Nicole directed “How I Got Over,” another audience favorite; Olympic diver Greg Louganis; and puppeteer Caroll Spinney, star of “I Am Big Bird,” about Spinney’s career playing the world’s most beloved Muppet.

On Sunday, no sooner had surprise guest (and Spinney creation) Oscar the Grouch made a triumphant appearance in Silver Spring than it was back to the grim business of hubris, overreach and misconduct, by way of three of the festival’s best: In “The Overnighters,” filmmaker Jesse Moss examines North Dakota’s oil boom through the lens of a Lutheran minister trying to address the community’s attendant housing issues while grappling with ambiguous motivations; Todd Miller’s “Dinosaur 13” revisits the painful legal battles surrounding the discovery of the country’s largest intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton; and in “Happy Valley,” director Amir Bar-Lev turns the agonizing case of Jerry Sandusky and sexual abuse at Penn State into a nuanced, masterfully crafted meditation on myth, memory and the creation of shared meaning.

In quite a different context, but in an equally brilliantly constructed film, all three of those themes were on hand in “112 Weddings,” Doug Block’s compelling, compulsively watchable group portrait in which he interviews subjects he has met and filmed over the years as a part-time wedding videographer. Watching couples tell their own stories — and grapple with realities that starkly contrasted with the happily-ever-afters they seemed destined for on their wedding day — turned out to be an improbably pensive and provocative exercise, throwing viewers back on their own relationships and expectations about love and lifelong commitment.

Block’s film also reinforced the message of “Life Itself,” Steve James’s biographical film about the late critic Roger Ebert that served as the festival’s closing-night film over the weekend. Throughout his career, Ebert championed films that opened not just people’s eyes but their hearts, regarding cinema as an art form uniquely suited to creating empathy, compassion and mutual comprehension. At AFI Docs this year, those values were continually celebrated in a festival navigating sometimes difficult growth with assurance, clear focus and seriousness of purpose.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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