From space to skates. From doctors in a remote New Mexico town to toddlers competing in a beauty contest in Brazil to Brooklyn teenagers trying to get into college and queer and trans athletes trying to get a chance to compete and politicians trying to fight the forces undermining democracy. There is no superhero blockbuster, no story of vampires in love, no comedy about college friends catching up 20 years later that can come close to the heartwarming, terrifying, passionately humane impact of a documentary. And every year, in Washington DC, the American Film Institute Docs festival brings together the best from the US and abroad, from established, award-winning filmmakers and first-timers making the most of micro-budgets.
Some are stories of the past. The best-known documentary of WWII was “Memphis Belle,” directed by Hollywood legend William Wyler. Using footage Wyler shot from the National Archives, director Erik Nelson has made a new film called “The Cold Blue,” featuring gripping narration from some of the last surviving B-17 pilots. Some are stories of the future. Rory Kennedy’s “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” shows us that the most important part of our voyages into space is not what we learn about other planets but what we learn about our own, as new missions give us critical data about the state of our environment. Some are intimate family stories, like “Witkin and Witkin,” about septuagenarian twin artists, and “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” about a boy and his grandmother who live just miles from the war in Ukraine. Others tell the stories of remarkable people like Father Theodore Hesburgh, Gilda Radner, Alexander McQueen, and Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Some are about unsung heroes, those working to protect children, rehabilitate prisoners, and open up opportunities for oppressed people.
Some documentary stories are on a global scale, or even beyond, into outer space. Some help us understand the very medium of film itself. “Hal” is the story of director Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Coming Home,” “Being There”).
Some take us places we would otherwise never get to see, like “Into the Okavango,” a stunning journey down an African river.
This year’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree is Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “The Interrupters,” “Life, Itself”), an extraordinary filmmaker who truly understands that the essence of documentary filmmaking is empathy. Documentaries can be tragic, provocative, infuriating, inspiring, heartwarming, informative, and hilarious, in any combination or all of the above. Just like life.
AFI Docs: June 13–17, 2018, Washington D.C.