WASHINGTON — It’s the most exciting week of the year for documentary lovers.
The 14th annual AFI Docs Film Festival returns to the nation’s capital with another impressive slate of documentaries screening at the festival’s original Silverdocs location at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as the Newseum and Landmark E Street Cinema in Downtown D.C.
“We looked at probably a couple thousand films this year,” Festival Director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “It’s a very diverse program, probably the most diverse [yet] in terms of countries that we’re screening from. I think it’s near 30, or maybe over 30, a lot of different countries. We cast a very wide net this year and it was great to see what came in and what was in that huge net that we cast.”
The festival kicks off Wednesday with the North American premiere of Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days.”
“The moment we saw it, we felt it was the perfect film for AFI Docs,” Lumpkin said. “It’s Alex Gibney at his best as an investigative journalist using documentary. It’s about a cyber incident that involved the United State, Israel and the developing nuclear program in Iran. It’s full of twists and turns.”
After the screening, there will be a special Q&A with Gibney and several of the film’s subjects.
The next big event is Friday night’s annual Guggenheim Symposium held at the Newseum. Past honorees include legends like Erroll Morris, Barbara Kopple, Frederick Wiseman and Albert Maysles.
“It’s our way of honoring a master documentary filmmaker,” Lumpkin said. “[By] doing that with a conversation with the filmmaker, showing clips from their work, it’s a way to have that in-depth time with a filmmaker. It’s for certainly our audiences and documentary lovers, but also all the filmmakers that attend the festival, to be able to go in person to be able to hear from one of the masters.”
This year’s recipient is Werner Herzog, famous for docs like “Lessons of Darkness” (1992) and “Grizzly Man” (2005) and fiction films like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).
“One of the great things about him, he does both fiction and nonfiction, and his work in both formats kind of reflects the other format,” Lumpkin said. “Elements of his fiction films are very much documentary and vice versa. That’s one of the things that makes him such a unique filmmaker is that he’s playing in his own way with the format. … He blurs [lines], he crosses them, he ignores them.”
In addition to the Herzog Q&A, the festival will also screen his latest documentary “Lo and Behold.”
“It’s about technology and how technology has changed our culture and our lives,” Lumpkin said. “He has his own way of approaching documentaries and this is another great film from Werner Herzog.”
The festival closes Sunday with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” chronicling a TV titan who created such classic sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” Lear, who recently spoke with WTOP, will be in attendance.
“It’s a great documentary about a great filmmaker, creator, writer, producer,” Lumpkin said. “I was growing up [and] aware of his shows as they were happening, but I just didn’t [fully appreciate it]. It’s kind of like you’re just experiencing it as they’re coming out and being on TV. But when you put it all together in the documentary, it really hits you just how much influence he had on television.”
If the opening, closing and symposium events are the three major tentpoles of AFI Docs, there are also plenty of other great documentaries sprinkled in between tackling a range of subjects.
“It’s a diverse program that has every kind of documentary,” Lumpkin said. “If you’re into issues and changing the world and the impact of documentaries on policy and on the world … a large part of our program is that. [Or] if you want to laugh, we have a lot of documentaries that are pretty funny.”
One of these funny films is, wait for it, “Chicken People” by Nicole Lucas Haimes.
Think “Best in Show” but with chickens.
“I had no idea until I saw this film that there is this whole culture of people that raise show chickens,” Lumpkin said. “Everybody knows about dogs, the dog shows, and people compete for prizes for their dogs, but there’s this whole subculture of chicken people. … It’s all real. It’s jaw-dropping, amazing stuff. … Some of these things with features, they’re actually chickens, but they look like … poof balls.”
If you’re more into biographies, we also get Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones,” chronicling the life of the soul singer from the Grammy nominated R&B band “Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.”
“It’s a great film and Sharon Jones will be at the festival as well,” Lumpkin said.
On a more serious side, there’s Kim Snyder’s powerful Sandy Hook documentary “Newtown.”
“It is unfortunately a more important film with what’s happened recently in Orlando,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a film that looks at the community and the impact of that incident on the people that live in Newtown. … It’s an unusual but very simple approach about the families. … You’re getting to know them. It’s very intimate. … You’re talking with parents who lost a child or neighbors next-door.”
While it’s undoubtedly a depressing subject, watching the film can prove therapeutic.
“With something like Newtown it takes a little bit of work to go watch it,” Lumpkin said. “It’s powerful. But at the end of the film, the film just transforms you. At the end of the film, you’re like, ‘I’m so glad I saw this film’ because first and foremost it’s great filmmaking.”
From Kopple to Snyder, female filmmakers are well represented at this year’s AFI Docs.
“Forty-three percent of our films are directed by women,” Lumpkin said. “That’s a bit of data that we’re proud of. It’s significantly higher than last year and previous festivals, so we’re proud of that.”
Truly, there’s no better place to screen a doc than the nation’s capital and center of the free world.
“I think we’re the best festival in the world because the film audiences here are some of the best in the world,” Lumpkin said. “Very smart audiences and very dedicated filmgoers. … Also, the part of our festival that speaks to policy. … If you’re going to change the world as a documentary filmmaker, you’re gonna have to go through D.C. at some point. … This is where things get decided ultimately.”
Click here for ticket info. Listen to the full interview with AFI Docs Festival Director Michael Lumpkin below:
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