Programming staff, front-line screeners and members of a screening committee spent the better part of this year winnowing down documentary films to include in the American Film Institute’s 15th annual AFI DOCS Festival, which took place at the AFI Silver in downtown Silver Spring, as well as Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a very long process,” said Michael Lumpkin, director of the festival. “Over 2000 films were submitted this year, of which we chose 103.”
“The films come from 28 countries. All have not yet been released and not yet been shown in movie theaters, online, or on television,” Lumpkin said.
Sometimes boundaries cross. The opening film of the festival, called “Icarus,” directed by Bryan Fogel, is about an American cyclist who decides to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs and becomes entangled with a Moscow lab director and with the highest levels of the Russian government.
The festival included such diverse films as “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide,” “Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer,” and “Bill Nye: Science Guy.”
The festival showed the HBO documentary “I Am Evidence,” an in-depth look at the issue of untested rape kits and how sexual assault cases are handled by police departments across the United States. The film was produced by “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” star Mariska Hargitay and directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir,.
The festival also featured “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” the follow-up film to the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” written by and starring Al Gore.
While many of the films had political resonance, others simply told “a lot of great stories,” said Lumpkin, “which take you to different places and different worlds.”
Films that fell into this category were “Brimstone and Glory,” a Spanish-language documentary by Viktor Jakovleski about an annual Mexican fireworks festival, which Lumpkin described as “incredibly beautiful, jaw-dropping cinematography.”
“Mama Colonel,” directed by Dieudo Hamadi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the story of senior Congolese policewoman Honorine Munyole on a mission to protect women and children from harm.
Other documentaries paid tribute to iconic figures like the late pop singer Whitney Houston, as well as activist Dolores Huerta who championed labor and civil rights alongside Cesar Chavez.
One film even took viewers beyond the boundaries of Earth. “The Farthest” chronicles the Voyager Space Program. “It’s a gorgeous film,” Lumpkin said.
Then there were films about films. In “Saving Brinton,” a small-town historian and collector discovers a collection of turn-of-the-century newsreels, home movies and lost films from one of America's first motion picture impresarios and is determined to restore and premiere them at a local opera house.
Since the political environment can be “overwhelming,” the story-oriented documentaries this year “should bring some release, even escape,” Lumpkin added.
In addition to the full-length documentaries, there were also short films – a number of which focused on themes such as Youth Culture, Great Loves, and World Views.
Usually, in the past, said Lumpkin, the festival avoided having too many films on the same subject. More recently, though, “we flipped that,” to see what would happen. “Last year, for example, there were several films around gun control and gun violence.”
It is to be expected that so much attention would be lavished on the selections. AFI DOCS is the “major documentary festival in the United States,” Lumpkin said. “Our criteria, first and foremost, is to feature the best documentaries of the year.”