We’ve been binge-watching TV for a while. Now we’re binge-watching documentaries.
ESPN’s series “O.J.: Made in America” has recently captured the popular imagination, and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” turned middle-aged defense lawyers into media darlings, not to mention HBO’s “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial.”
But before the form was hip, there was AFI Docs, the nation’s leading documentary film festival, which has been working for 14 years trying to ensure it remains relevant. From Wednesday to Sunday, this year’s slate offers not only a dizzying variety of subjects but a unique perspective on Washington, showing how it can be both inspiring and infuriating at once.
Festival director Michael Lumpkin seemed less concerned with being trendy and more attuned to the festival’s responsibility to portray a variety of voices. “Twenty-five percent of the films have never been seen in the United States,” he said. “Forty-three percent of the filmmakers are women, which we’re proud of, although that needs to be better. The percentage of filmmakers of color is just way too low. Something has to be done.” (He declined to mention that percentage.) To that end, Lumpkin is proud of the festival’s Filmmaker Forum, which gives directors and TV and film executives an opportunity to discuss inclusion.
In recent years, the opening-night film has been buzzy and political — a conversation starter. Last year’s entry, “Best of Enemies,” was about how the bizarre rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley shaped modern punditry. This year’s opening film, “Zero Days,” is not as lighthearted, but is nonetheless entertaining, exhaustive and suspenseful. The latest film from Alex Gibney — director of the Scientology documentary “Going Clear” and the Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side” — is his best yet, a globetrotting cyber-detective story about Stuxnet, a virus that infected computers worldwide in 2012. Gibney delves into the hack, realizing it was part of an American-Israeli operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Part of Gibney’s frustration in “Zero Days” is the government’s lack of openness. In the film’s voice-over, Gibney observes, “Washington is a city of secrets and leaks.” When asked by phone to elaborate, he said, “I don’t like the city of Washington, D.C., at all, because it is a city of self-regarding experts. Some of the people here are so in-the-know that they feel a kind of contempt for everyone else.” The film opens with interviewees showing this contempt to him: Stuxnet is part of the public record, and yet they refused to discuss it on camera, at least until Gibney had done his research. Gibney was quick to point out that there is a difference between Washington as a seat of power and Washington as a thriving community. But when the incendiary “Zero Days” is over, audiences will share his anger over a bureaucracy that values secrecy for its own sake.
Another festival highlight is the Guggenheim Symposium, an event honoring a documentary filmmaker’s entire career. This year’s recipient is Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker whose idiosyncratic style pushes documentary toward the limits of nonfiction. He has no problem feeding lines to his interview subjects, for instance, as he did in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” because his poetic license achieves more truth than accuracy. “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” which will screen at Friday’s symposium at the Newseum, is his latest film and, like “Zero Days,” it explores the dangers and possibilities of the Internet. Topics include the Internet’s infancy, artificial intelligence and how a solar flare could destroy the Internet along with civilization as we know it. “Lo and Behold” is a strange, graceful philosophical inquiry from a filmmaker who does not shy away from thorny topics.
Parts of “Command and Control” also contemplate just how close we are to an irrevocable cataclysm. Director Robert Kenner focuses on an accident in a Titan II nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas in 1980. The accident’s cause is mundane — a technician dropped a wrench — and yet it led to an emergency in which experts thought a nuclear explosion was imminent.
“Command and Control” benefits from unique access to a decommissioned hydrogen missile silo at the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, where it shot a reenactment. “It was amazing to use [camera-mounted] drones and smoke to re-create the accident,” Kenner explained. “Parts of it look like a Hollywood thriller.”
Lumpkin also highlighted two films in particular: “Newtown,” a moving look at the aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and “Audrie & Daisy ,” an account of how social media factors into the lives of two young sexual assault victims. “These two [documentaries] deal with hard issues, and what comes out are these incredible, transformative moviegoing experiences,” Lumpkin said.
While many of these films sound dour — on Sunday’s “Veep,” one character dubbed documentaries “movies for people who like to be sad” — others at the festival are more optimistic. One of those is “Check It,” and it features a Washington that could not be more different from Gibney’s idea of it. Directed by Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor, “Check It” is about a Washington-based LGBTQ street gang in which many of the members come from broken homes and sell their bodies on K Street — as they come into their own as fashion designers.
Oppenheimer explained that the film “shows what can happen for kids who are the marginalized of the marginalized. [Flor and I] have become so invested in their lives that we want to convey what can happen when they’re given opportunities and mentors who are willing to kick them in the ass.”
Many Check It members hang out in the Penn Quarter neighborhood — near where the premiere at the Newseum is taking place — and on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, one of the festival’s other screening spaces. “You have no idea how psyched they are,” he said. “They’re going to show all their friends and all their cousins the kind of responsibility they’re taking by sharing their story.”
AFI Docs tries to bridge the divide between two Washingtons and envision one large community — at least until that pesky solar flare wipes us out.
AFI Docs, screening documentaries at venues in the District and Silver Spring, runs Wednesday through Sunday. For more information and to buy tickets and passes, visit afidocs.org.