One of the most revealing things about this year’s edition of AFI Docs — the nonfiction film festival formerly known as Silverdocs — had nothing to do with the 81 movies being shown over the weekend in Silver Spring and Penn Quarter. It was how filmgoers queued up for the films, with ticket holders on one side of the stanchions, news media and industry representatives on the other. Unlike most festivals, the “civilians” — folks who paid good money for their tickets — were seated at the outset, with the professionals being allowed in later.
The message, quite literally, was that at AFI Docs, the audience comes first. And that sentiment was borne out consistently over the course of an exceptionally strong program of films that, to an uncanny degree, echoed and harmonized with events playing out in real life, providing opportunities for enlightenment, education and — once in a while — soothing escape. (“What Happened, Miss Simone?,” Liz Garbus’s film about the singer Nina Simone, won the audience award for best feature; “A Conversation With My Black Son,” Blair Foster and Geeta Gandbhir’s film about parenting, race and law enforcement, won for best short.)
Since expanding from AFI’s Silver Theatre to venues in downtown Washington in 2013, AFI Docs has halved its running time and tightened its mission: Now spanning just over four days, the showcase is geared heavily toward films that focus on current events and topical issues, with organizers providing opportunities to connect filmmakers with D.C. policymakers, nonprofits, think tanks and like-minded allies to leverage the local political culture to make the films more influential and visible. With only four world premieres in this year’s program and with several films that will be available soon in theaters or on TV, AFI Docs sees its mission as providing a platform for one last marketing and awareness push and as starting word-of-mouth among doc-friendly D.C. viewers.
As in years past, this year’s crop of directors and producers were taken to the White House for speed-dating sessions to explain their films’ subjects to administration staffers. Seven AFI Docs filmmakers — whose films tackled issues ranging from gun policy, race and drone warfare to refugees and education — were chosen to participate in Impact Labs, wherein they received strategic training in forming grass-roots marketing plans and social-action campaigns. At the Filmmaker Conference at the Hotel Monaco on Thursday and Friday, speeches and roundtable discussions addressed issues of special interest to documentarians, including managing risk on investigative projects and producing work for the Web.
But the vibe of any festival can’t be truly felt in hotel ballrooms or even in the West Wing. Rather, it’s in the theater, where audiences watch films and discuss, argue about and ponder what they’ve just seen. This year, AFI Docs moved the bulk of screenings to two small auditoriums in Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the nearby Naval Heritage Center. Although building an intimate sense of community on par with Silverdocs remains a challenge, newly minted AFI Docs Director Michael Lumpkin sees the move to E Street as helpful in fostering a campuslike spirit.
“You have that concentrated activity of seeing different movies and coming out and talking to each other about the movie you just saw,” Lumpkin said Monday, noting that the possibility of adding more E Street screens next year is “definitely something we’ll be considering.”
Starting on June 17, opening night, the AFI Docs program eerily resonated with the events of the day. Just two hours before the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., AFI Docs opened with “Best of Enemies,” about the Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley Jr. debates during the 1968 presidential nominating conventions, most of which revolved around race, history, social change and their ideological schism. Over the next few days, the films touched powerfully on those same issues, including “Requiem for the American Dream,” featuring Noam Chomsky; “The Armor of Light,” about an evangelistic Christian’s evolving views on gun rights; “31/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” about the shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis (whose mother appears in “The Armor of Light”); and “Welcome to Leith,” about the attempted takeover of a tiny North Dakota town by white supremacists.
Even the selection of this year’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree dovetailed seamlessly with those cardinal themes: veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson, best known for such history lessons as “The Murder of Emmett Till,” “Freedom Riders” and “Freedom Summer,” as well as the richly textured and wrenching memoir “A Place of Our Own.”
As often as not, the most issue-oriented movies were also deeply affecting portraits of lingering trauma in the wake of violence and appalling abuse of power: Nominally, it might be a stretch to connect “Of Men and War,” about U.S. veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder; “Radical Grace,” about a group of nuns fighting the Catholic hierarchy; “Requiem for the Dead,” about the victims of gun violence; “Drone,” about post-9/11 remote warfare; and “Prophet’s Prey,” about the imprisoned polygamous leader Warren Jeffs. But over the course of a few days, these and other films began to echo, reinforce and talk to each other, giving viewers the privilege of bearing witness to unspeakable suffering and clear-eyed moral courage.
It felt altogether fitting that the closing-night film of AFI Docs was “Mavis!,” Jessica Edwards’s expansive and inspiring portrait of singer and civil rights pioneer Mavis Staples. “I needed her tonight,” Edwards told the audience after the screening Sunday night, referring to the searing events in Charleston the week before. As a postscript to a program notable for its stinging relevance and steadfast humanism, “Mavis!” aptly summed up a timely and cathartic weekend, sending its audience on to the muggy D.C. streets on mighty clouds of pure joy.