One year ago, AFI Docs Director Michael Lumpkin was asking himself a question: What did we miss? A longtime fixture in the documentary filmmaking and festival community, Lumpkin had been leading AFI Docs for three years, during which time the issue-oriented films the festival has become known for found sympathetic purchase with Obama-era policymakers and presidential advisers.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016, Lumpkin realized, manifested a deep divide not only within the country but also between the artistic community and the audience it purported to reach. “It took people by surprise, and my reaction, as somebody who runs a film festival, was ‘Whose voices are we missing?’ And so many people and entities I reached out to were asking the same question,” Lumpkin recalls. “There weren’t a lot of tangible results of asking that question last June, but I think we’re seeing the tangible results this year.”
The tenor of this year’s edition of AFI Docs, which got underway on Wednesday with the world premiere of “Personal Statement,” about a group of New York teenagers fighting to apply and get into college, feels distinctly of its time, in many ways surprisingly so. While some observers might have expected the documentary filmmaking community — often accused of being insular, self-confirming and left-leaning — to go into torches-and-pitchforks mode with hard-hitting investigations or polemical tracts, a constant thread in this year’s program has to do with transcendence, mutual understanding and breaking down partisan divisions.
One of the festival’s most stirring films, “Hesburgh,” celebrates longtime University of Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh as a leader who bridged all manner of divides within American politics and the Catholic Church. “Yours in Sisterhood,” a beautifully crafted film composed of unpublished letters to Ms. magazine in the 1970s and early 1980s, makes sure to include the voices of women who advocate for gun rights and against abortion. “Minding the Gap” brings sensitivity and firsthand authority to its portrait of boys trying to become men in a depressed Midwestern city. Erik Nelson’s “The Cold Blue” and “Above and Beyond” pay tribute to the World War II bomber Memphis Belle and the NASA space program, respectively. “The Gospel of Eureka” chronicles a small town in Arkansas where participants in an annual reenactment of the Passion play and a thriving gay community manage to coexist, mostly happily.
Arguably, the AFI Docs program — which this year will include panels on filmmaking in rural communities and filmmakers’ roles in “seeking middle ground” — reflects a larger trend in documentaries that finds audiences craving transcendent figures, an impulse reflected by the astonishing success of “RBG,” which extols Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s bipartisan friendship with Antonin Scalia as much as her groundbreaking legal work, as well as promising prospects for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” about children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, and “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.”
While hyperpartisan F-bombs and point-scoring food fights dominate television and social media, and streaming algorithms exploit and reinforce our ideological silos, nonfiction filmmakers — so often cast as the Debbie Downers, muckrakers and self-righteous rabble-rousers of the movie world — are becoming improbable healers of our collective impasse.
Which isn’t to say that investigative films have gone entirely by the wayside. But even those feel more expansive, less reflexively us-vs.-them. One of the most galvanizing films at AFI Docs this year is “Dark Money,” which follows civic leaders and citizens in Montana as they fight to preserve that state’s rigorous campaign finance laws. With the exception of a few cameos from Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the film concerns itself almost entirely with Republicans who find themselves at odds with anonymous super PACs seeking to buy influence in state elections.
Kimberly Reed, who directed “Dark Money,” began filming in 2012 — long before Trump’s arrival — but says she wouldn’t have done the project “unless I could keep it from falling into this partisan bickering, which so many of these issues fall into,” she says. Noting that most Americans disagree with the Citizens United decision that sanctioned unlimited corporate donations to campaigns, she added that her aim was to find “that Venn diagram with that huge overlap between right and left about money in politics.” When she began editing the film shortly after Trump was elected, Reed recalls, the shock and sense of division informed the process. “I think what it made us do in the storytelling was just to double down on the principles of the film, which is to find consensus and reconciliation.”
For Lumpkin, the fact that those values animate so many of the films at AFI Docs largely answers the existential questions he confronted immediately after the election, including whether documentaries could find new relevancy. “It’s taken a year for films to get made in this new context we’re living in,” he says. “So I think now you’re seeing the response.”
AFI Docs continues through June 17 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, AFI Silver and venues throughout the city. Visit afi.com/afidocs.