Critic’s Notebook: AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs) is off to a promising start

Will they come?

That was the animating question over the weekend as AFI Docs — formerly Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival — got underway in its brand-new stamping ground of downtown Washington.

Over Silverdocs’ 10-year history, the weeklong program of nonfiction films secured a cherished place in Silver Spring, where filmmakers, audiences and industry types created a mini-
community that made itself at home in the corridor between the Silver Spring Civic Building and the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater and Cultural Center.

The question this year was whether the newly minted AFI Docs Presented by Audi could survive an expansion into venues in Penn Quarter and on the Mall, while keeping loyal viewers happy and inviting new ones to take a chance on films they’d never heard of in places they’d never been.

Although attendance figures were still being tallied Sunday, the outlook — on a purely anecdotal basis — seems promising for the festival, which had screenings throughout the weekend that were low-key, crowded and well received.

During the opening-night festivities Wednesday, AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale described AFI Docs’s mission: “to bring together our nation’s leaders with our nation’s leading artists.” AFI Docs festival director Sky Sitney and her staff more than made good on that pledge, arranging for 52 filmmakers to attend a two-hour meeting Friday at the White House, where advisers and artists traded issues and ideas. The next morning, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. introduced a screening of “Gideon’s Army,” about public defenders.

An informal, two-day core sample of AFI Docs revealed a program very much in keeping with the festival’s aim to leverage the area’s indigenous communities of political wonks and nonfiction filmmakers. Although such movies as “Rent a Family Inc.” or “Dragon Girls” — about a surrogate-family business in Japan and a group of kung fu students in China, respectively — had no policy agenda to speak of, many if not most of the films on hand had something to do with Washington, if only obliquely.

Some films, like the opening-night premiere “Letters to Jackie,” Thursday’s “Herblock: The Black and the White” and Saturday’s closing-night film, “Caucus,” celebrated Washington icons and political culture at its most piquant (in these cases, the Kennedy administration, the late Washington Post political cartoonist, and Rick Santorum and the Iowa Republican caucus).

Some confronted and challenged those same institutions — as in the case of “Documented,” about the Dream Act generation of immigrants here illegally; “Lost for Life,” a revelatory portrait of juvenile offenders facing life in prison; and “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” about the boxer’s conversion to Islam and claim of conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War.

And at least one — “Our Nixon,” an extraordinary montage composed almost entirely of Super 8 home movies shot by White House aides John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin — managed to do a little bit of both.

Along the way, there were, as AFI Docs press manager Jody Arlington put it, “no fires to put out, but little flames we could blow out”: The power failed at the Goethe-Institut on Saturday afternoon, cutting short a screening of “After Tiller,” about late-term abortion providers. And attendance in Silver Spring — where the festival’s complete program screened throughout the weekend — was surely curtailed by the temporary closing of that Red Line Metro stop.

Downtown, it was difficult to engage in the kind of spontaneous, let’s-grab-a-drink fellowship that contributes to making a festival a genuine community rather than just a series of smartly curated films. Screening facilities at the National Archives, the Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery and the Goethe-Institut were cool, commodious and comfortable, but outside those venues, there was no obvious gathering spot (unless you count the lobby of the Hotel Monaco). The potential seems ripe for some enterprising watering hole along the Seventh Street corridor to throw open its doors next year to provide AFI Doc-
goers (Dockers?) with an easy place to hang out, caffeinate and compare schedules.

Then again, the absence of distractions made for a gratifyingly pure cinematic experience, the better to appreciate films that were often astonishing both in their subject matter and aesthetic sensibility. There’s poetic symmetry to the fact that Errol Morris — this year’s honoree at AFI Docs’ Guggenheim Symposium — is executive producer of “The Act of Killing,” which was shown Saturday and Sunday. The film, by Joshua Oppenheimer, features members of death squads who committed scores of brutal murders in Indonesia in the 1960s — squads that Oppenheimer later coaxes to reenact their crimes in Hollywood-style tableaux.

“The Act of Killing” brilliantly elaborates Morris’s own use of reenactments and other dramatic conceits. It also symbolizes a bracing pass of the torch from one generation of gifted storytellers to the next. That both Morris and Oppenheimer provided high points at the first edition of AFI Docs sounded a gratifyingly optimistic note during a surprisingly smooth and encouraging transitional year.

AFI Docs closes Monday with a “Best of the Fest” program at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md. Visit afi.com/afidocs or call 301-495-6720.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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