As Michael Lumpkin watched the election results roll in last November, he recalls asking himself: “Is it over? Does it still make sense?”
“It,” in this case, is AFI Docs, the nonfiction film festival that Lumpkin has been overseeing for the past three years. Founded by the American Film Institute in 2003 as Silverdocs, the festival underwent a dramatic transformation in 2013 when the Discovery Channel pulled out as the chief corporate sponsor. AFI decided to change the name to AFI Docs, uproot its hub from Silver Spring to Penn Quarter and shift the festival’s focus to issue-oriented films that could benefit from proximity to lawmakers, think-tankers and garden-variety Washington wonks.
The screen-to-social-policy pipeline was, if not seamless, at least smoothed when AFI Docs initiated a program called Impact Lab, designed to “create broader social and political change through the power of film.” Over the past three years, Impact Labs have connected filmmakers with politicians, diplomats and nongovernmental officials poised to help bring such issues as international refugee policy, rural poverty and economic development, and veterans’ mental health to wider public attention. Every year, filmmakers would visit Capitol Hill and the White House for high-level meet-and-greets.
Under the Trump presidency and with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, the landscape has shifted. When Barack Obama was in office, Lumpkin recalled recently, “the issues that are in the films we’re showing had advocates. They had a home in that administration. The process of reaching into and working with government had kind of a stopping place . . . sometimes the Supreme Court, sometimes Congress, and sometimes the administration. Now that’s changed quite a bit.”
Despite Lumpkin’s existential doubts last November, he eventually concluded that AFI Docs — and nonfiction filmmaking in general — is more crucial than ever. The Impact Lab will continue apace this year, with 10 films — about subjects ranging from urban policing and the depletion of coral reefs, to the backlog of police department rape kits and life at its most desperate in Islamic State-era Iraq — participating in special screenings and outreach training sessions. As for a visit to the White House, Lumpkin says, “We haven’t heard back.”
That’s particularly ironic, given the fact that documentary filmmakers have played such a visible role in the Trump administration: His chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, was the producer behind the Sarah Palin film “The Undefeated” and 2016’s “Clinton Cash,” as well as films about Ronald Reagan, Occupy Wall Street and Washington corruption. It was recently revealed that even Michael Flynn, Trump’s embattled former national security adviser, once tried to produce a documentary supportive of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Lumpkin was shocked to discover that a film he’d never heard of — “Hillary’s America,” an anti-Clinton film by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza — earned $13 million at the box office last year and can be purchased on DVD from the mainstream distributor Lionsgate. “Did that film have impact on the result of the election?” Lumpkin wondered. “If it did to any extent, the documentary community should not be ignoring that.”
To help unpack those questions, this year Lumpkin invited Michael Pack, president of the conservative think tank the Claremont Institute, to discuss the conservative film world at a talk titled “Look to the Right” (full disclosure: moderated by yours truly). In March, Pack — a filmmaker who has served on the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — wrote an article for the Federalist bemoaning liberal bias within the academic, funding, production, distribution and exhibition entities that generate and market documentary films: “[T]he institutions that foster documentaries have largely locked out anyone who is right of center,” he wrote, adding later, “For filmmakers on the left, it is a closed loop.”
With the advent of Bannon and D’Souza, as well as such conservative funders and distributors as the Mercer family, Citizens United and Pure Flix, conservatives might be developing their own tight circles of influence. The most crucial question for Lumpkin is whether the resulting work merits a showcase at AFI Docs, and whether the films he’s considering come from a wide range of experiences, assumptions and perspectives. He notes that a string of films this year, including “ACORN and the Firestorm” (about the demise of the grass-roots political group), “The Reagan Show” (about Ronald Reagan’s mastery of the media), “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” (about Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker), “A Gray State” (about an Iraq War veteran who becomes a hero within online anti-government groups), “No Man’s Land” (about the occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) and the opening-night film “Icarus” (about a sports doping scandal and the Sochi Olympics) anticipated the current state of American political culture, despite being in the pipeline long before 2016. “They show you that no, this wasn’t just out of the blue,” Lumpkin says. “Things have been moving in this direction for a while.”
Aware that for every audience member hungry for politically oriented content there will be an equal number seeking refuge, Lumpkin has gone out of his way to program films providing escape from the worries of the day: This year’s lineup includes more films about music, dance, fashion, food and even mixed martial arts than usual. “If you want to dive into current events, we have that, and if you want to get away from it, we have that.”
But for now, AFI Docs’ focus on issues is here to stay. The lens on those issues, however, may shift. Along with millions of American citizens who asked what they had missed in the run-up to Trump’s victory, Lumpkin says, “for me, it came down to: What films are we missing?” The 2016 election may have polarized much of the country, he adds, “but it’s changed the way that I look at films.”
AFI Docs Through Sunday at the Newseum Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. For more information visit afidocs.com.