AFI Docs 2020: It’s Online So Everyone is Welcome!

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The annual AFI Docs festival is one of my favorites because these are true stories. They will break your heart, lift your spirits, and change your mind. This year, because of COVID-19, the festival is online, which means everyone can see these extraordinary films. Passes are available for as little as $50 which gives you access to 59 Films From 11 countries. This year, 61 percent of the films are directed by women, 25 percent By POC directors and 14 percent by LGBTQ directors.

The festival opens with “Boys State.”

Each year the American Legion hosts a “civics camp” for high school students (separated by gender) in states across the country. BOYS STATE closely follows a group of teenage boys as they attend one such program in Austin, Texas. The attendees are tasked with creating a mock government and spend the week campaigning for leadership and party platforms. Political ambitions are high and the gubernatorial race is hot. Are you curious what the next generation of our political system looks like?

Winner of the Sundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, “Boys State” explores politics through a coming-of-age lens. The result reveals American democracy and political division at its most hopeful and terrifying moments.

The closing film is another political story, with a new perspective on a politician people think they already know, “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President.”

If it hadn’t been for a bottle of scotch and a late-night visit from musician Greg Allman, Jimmy Carter might never have been elected the 39th President of the United States. This fascinating documentary charts the mostly forgotten story of how Carter, a lover of all types of music, forged a tight bond with musicians Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and others. Low on campaign funds and lacking in name recognition, Carter relied on support from these artists to give him a crucial boost in the Democratic primaries. Once Carter was elected, the musicians became frequent guests in the White House.
Director Mary Wharton assembles a star cast including Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Nelson, Dylan, Parton and Bono and fills the soundtrack with Southern rock, gospel, jazz, and classical.

Especially timely: “Women in BLue,” about the intersectionality of race, gender and violence in the Minneapolis police department.

One of Hollywood’s top directors, Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,” “Splash”) has a film in the festival, “Rebuilding Paradise.”

On November 8, 2018, tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the picturesque town of Paradise would be changed forever. The Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive fire in history, displaced over 50,000 residents, leaving the community in ashes.

In the aftermath of the haunting images of thick smoke and raging fires, Ron Howard’s documentary follows a group of residents as they struggle to rebuild their lives. While coping from the trauma and grieving their loved ones, they must wrestle with the logistics and bureaucracy of rebuilding their community. A sincere portrait of humanity, “Rebuilding Paradise” is a tribute of resilience in the face of uncertainty.

And Ron Howard appears in another festival film, “Dads,” directed by his daughter, actress Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Help”). I’ve seen the film, which is coming to AppleTV Plus later this month, and it is a wonderfully touching and inspiring look at fatherhood, with appearances by the director’s own family as well as celebrities like Will Smith and Jimmy Kimmel and a marvelous assortment of ordinary dads doing the extraordinary job of raising children.

Other films on the schedule include:

9TO5: THE STORY OF A MOVEMENT: DIRS Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. PRODS Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. USA.
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s film follows a group of secretaries in the 1970s fighting against lack of acknowledgment, demeaning tasks, low pay and all kinds of harassment in the workplace. From humble beginnings in a small office in a Boston YWCA to a nationwide movement so energized it inspired the iconic song and film, the organization’s rise was no easy undertaking. To achieve some justice, they employed clever tactics and took advantage of hidden talents wasted in the office. While gender parity has yet to be fully realized in the workplace, we would be nowhere as close without these women.

BLOOD ON THE WALL: DIRS Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested. PRODS Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested and Peter Goetz. USA.
Immigration under the current administration is indelibly marked by powerful media images of migrant caravans, thousands of Central American families walking hundreds of miles through Mexico desperate to attain asylum in the United States. Acclaimed filmmaker Sebastian Junger (Academy Award®-nominated RESTREPO and KORENGAL) reteams with Nick Quested (Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS) and National Geographic to chronicle the course of events that would transform Acapulco from tourist destination to murder capital in less than a decade.

BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN: DIR Ivy Meeropol. PRODS Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Ivy Meerpool. USA.
Before Donald Trump, there was Roy Cohn, the original New York bully. In fact, during the early days of Donald Trump, there was Roy Cohn, right by his side, introducing the brash young wannabe to the big time of Manhattan real estate. Trump was attracted to Cohn’s “take no prisoners” approach to the law and Cohn recognized a rising social climber when he saw one.
The Trump connection is but one fascinating thread in this multi-layered portrait of Cohn by filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, whose own grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed for spying for the Soviet Union as a result of Cohn’s ethically spurious legal maneuverings. Full of insightful interviews with the famous and the not-so-famous, the alchemical genius of BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN is to be, simultaneously, a searing indictment of Cohn and a poignant family history.

CODED BIAS: DIR Shalini Kantayya. PROD Shalini Kantayya. USA, UK, China.
While working on a project, MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers issues with facial recognition programs. Investigating deeper into algorithms and the data in artificial intelligence, she discovers the large gender and racial bias in software created by tech companies. But her findings are only the beginning to much more disturbing revelations. As many of these AI technologies creep into our everyday systems, everything from college application screenings to the type of medical treatment one receives is affected.
Researcher turned advocate, Joy leads a team of women to raise awareness and push for legislative protection. With personal stories of prejudice and those fighting against it, CODED BIAS sharply reveals the urgent threats to privacy, civil rights and democracy that are not in the daily headlines.

DILEMMA OF DESIRE: DIR Maria Finitzo. PRODS Maria Finitzo, Cynthia Kane and Diane Quon. USA.
Directed by two-time Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker Maria Finitzo, the film follows a motley crew of unstoppable women, comprised of artists, educators, scientists, strippers and sex toy designers, who have made it their mission to dismantle internalized sexism and begin to repair the dissociated relationships many women have to their own bodies. In a reframing of daily micro-aggressions, society’s erasure of the clitoris is exposed as a tool of patriarchal deception, a negation of women’s wants and needs. This exciting (and informative) campaign seeks to dispel the discomfort and shame surrounding female sexuality by empowering women to own their desire, connect with their bodies and familiarize themselves with the vast, internal structure of the clitoris. They will paint it, sculpt it, plaster its image on walls and design special toys for it until all of society knows the laws of “cliteracy.”

DOWN AND OUT IN AMERICA (1986): DIR Lee Grant. PRODS Milton Justice and Joseph Feury. USA.
Screening as part of the AFI DOCS Guggenheim Symposium
Years before the economic catastrophes of COVID-19 and the 2008 recession, the U.S. experienced the tumult and divisiveness of the 1980s, a period that saw the country rapidly splitting into the haves and have nots. Lee Grant’s devastating 1986 Academy Award®-winning documentary takes a compassionate, clear-eyed look at those left behind in Reagan’s America. From desperate family farmers in Minnesota to unemployed factory workers in the Midwest and homeless people forced to live in decrepit welfare hotels in Los Angeles and New York, a cruel picture emerges of a country unmoored from its basic principles and core values. But beneath the weight of such crushing hardship, Grant finds courageous people who, on the verge of losing everything, discover the power of community organizing to fight injustice and to preserve basic human dignity.

FIRST VOTE: DIR Yi Chen. PROD Yi Chen. USA.
Toward the end of Washington, DC-based filmmaker Yi Chen’s beguiling and refreshingly non-partisan FIRST VOTE, one of the film’s subjects posits, “The central question that I think all Asian Americans feel is, ‘Do we belong?’” Given that, as recently as 1952, federal law barred immigrants of Asian descent from becoming U.S. citizens and voting, it is a searing and inescapable reality faced by Asian Americans.
Taking her camera on the road during the 2018 midterm elections, Chen introduces us to a diverse cross section of politically engaged Chinese Americans: an avid Trump supporter in Ohio; a Democratic podcaster whose views have alienated his wife’s conservative friends; a gun-toting, Tea Party-favorite in North Carolina; and a progressive University of North Carolina professor. Speaking with distinct political voices, they share the common goal of seeing Asian Americans take their rightful place in American political life.

FREEDIA GOT A GUN: DIR Chris McKim. PRODS Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato and Chris McKim. USA.
Devastated after learning her brother Adam was murdered, New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia uses her platform to raise awareness about the complexities of gun violence, a nationwide epidemic that continues to disproportionally harm Black communities. As Freedia shares her personal journey from growing up gay in the projects through Hurricane Katrina and chasing her musical dreams, she delves deep into the first-hand experiences she and the community have had with gun violence, seeking to uncover the causes behind it. She is not alone in her quest to make the streets of New Orleans safer for the next generation: mothers, teachers, students and others personally affected reveal the collective trauma left in the wake of this violence. Her brother’s murder still unsolved, Freedia leads us through a courageous and necessary dialogue about the origins of this American epidemic.

THE LETTER: DIRS Maia Lekow and Christopher King. PRODS Maia Lekow and Christopher King. Kenya.
Karisa lives in Mombasa, one of the largest cities in Kenya. He gets a call and discovers he has a delicate family problem: his grandmother has been accused of being a witch. Fearing for her life, he returns to his family’s village to figure out who wrote the letter accusing her of witchcraft and why. Using Karisa’s family as the jumping off point, we visit other elders accused of being witches and uncover the violence inflicted on them. What starts as an almost absurd family situation gets exposed to be a complicated human rights issue. Exploring unique modern cultural and religious clashes, Maia Lekow and Christopher King’s film is still able to achieve an intimacy and charm, that is, in many ways, magical.

MIRACLE FISHING: DIR Miles Hargrove CODIR Christopher Birge. PRODS Miles Hargrove, Christopher Birge and Eric F. Martin. USA.
So, your dad has been kidnapped by a rebel group and you are forced to negotiate for his release… what do you do? Well, if you’re Miles Hargrove, you make a video diary. Twenty-five years later, with the gift of hindsight, he returned to these diaries to tell this incredible story. In 1994, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) kidnapped journalist Tom Hargrove from the family home in Cali, Columbia, leaving his wife and two sons to pay the ransom. With the help of their friends, including a hostage negotiator, FBI agent and their 18-year-old neighbor, the group navigated conditions for his expected release. Their story, impeccably captured by a then state-of-the-art Video8 camcorder, shows a family in crisis, yearning for normalcy and finding moments of hope and kindness amidst the horror.

ONE LIFE: DIR Josh Turnbow. PRODS Akshay M. Shah and Robert Dvoran. USA.
In October 2016, in response to the Myanmar government’s promised political reforms, President Obama ended decades of U.S. sanctions against the country. What Obama didn’t anticipate was that his actions would inadvertently open the door to the Myanmar military’s all-out assault on the country’s Rohingya people. With a population of nearly one million, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people were targeted, terrorized and killed. Within a matter of weeks, nearly 700,000 Rohingya were driven from the country.
Shedding light on the long term persecution of the Rohingya, tracing their forced migration to neighboring Bangladesh and illustrating their current conditions, Josh Turnbow’s moving — and infuriating — documentary screens at AFI DOCS on United Nation’s World Refugee Day. The U.N.’s World Food Programme has taken responsibility for feeding the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in a massive refugee camp in Bangladesh.

THE REASON I JUMP: DIR Jerry Rothwell. PRODS Al Morrow, Stevie Lee and Jeremy Dear. UK.
Opening a window into the sensory universe of five nonspeaking autistic people from around the world, THE REASON I JUMP takes the audience on a uniquely cinematic journey that is both revelatory and inspiring. Based on the remarkable best-selling book by 13-year-old Naoki Higashida, the film brilliantly blends its portraits with Higashida’s own insights into autism.
Acutely observed moments in the lives of each of the five people are connected by passages from Higashida’s writing, which comes to life in scenes featuring a young Japanese boy. As the boy travels through an epic landscape, he gradually discovers what his autism means to him and why he acts the way he does: the reason he jumps. Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Audience Award.

SAUDI RUNAWAY: DIR Susanne Regina Meures. PROD Christian Frei. Switzerland.
Muna, a young woman living under the oppressive state of Saudi Arabia, prepares for her imminent arranged marriage…and her risky escape to Europe. Using cell phones to secretly document her life, Muna exposes the strict patriarchy affecting her family and controlling her free will. Her only chance to flee is during her honeymoon. Muna is fearless, but will she succeed with her plan?
SAUDI RUNAWAY shares an intimate and thrilling story of human rights and the voice of those silenced by their government. Filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures collaborates with Muna, constructing the secret footage into a raw and insightful profile of a culture caught between tradition and modernity and a young woman willing to risk everything for a better life.

SING ME A SONG: DIR Thomas Balmès. PROD Thomas Balmès. France, Germany, Switzerland.
Returning ten years later to the remote mountainside village where he once encountered precocious but dedicated eight-year-old Tibetan monk Peyangki, documentarian Thomas Balmès (BABIES, HAPPINESS) discovers that much has changed. The roads leading into Laya are now paved and, beyond the television Peyangki once longed for, the young monks now scroll mindlessly through their phones while chanting their prayers. Now 18 years old, our subject texts his girlfriend, a bar singer who lives in the city, his devotion to her having supplanted that of his religious studies. Without falling prey to a simple binary of good/bad, Balmès’ beautiful observational portrait is a remarkable opportunity to explore both the positive and negative repercussions that modernization and technological access has on a community.

STOCKTON ON MY MIND: DIR Marc Levin. PRODS Cassius Michael Kim and Mike Marangu. USA.
Upon his election as mayor of Stockton, CA, in 2016, Michael Tubbs inherited one of the poorest, most violent and least literate cities in the country. Tubbs was also 26 years old, the youngest and first African American mayor of the city. This intimate portrait follows Tubbs during his term as he and others work on projects to address homelessness, universal basic income and education for at-risk youth.
A native of Stockton, Tubbs knows how street violence affects families — his father is serving a life sentence in prison. His determination to change his community started in childhood. Capturing this unique moment in history, STOCKTON ON MY MIND reveals the creative ideas and collaborative spirit Tubbs brings to government, as well as the multitude of strong reactions that his leadership elicits from citizens. A hopeful story of community, leadership and love, Tubbs is an undeniable leader to have on your radar.

A THOUSAND CUTS: DIR Ramona S. Diaz. PRODS Ramona S. Diaz, Leah Marino, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn. USA.
Upon taking power in 2016, the newly elected populist president Rodrigo Duterte promised a relentless war on drugs. Brushing aside the rule of law and due process, his campaign resulted in thousands of deaths. Another constitutional casualty of Duterte’s rule has been freedom of the press.
Co-founded by journalist Maria Ressa in 2012, the online site Rappler is one of the Philippine’s most popular news outlets and a thorn in Duterte’s side. The stakes are raised when Rappler is cited as a fake news outlet and targeted for possible closure, followed by Ressa’s arrest on specious charges.
Set against the backdrop of the country’s 2019 midterm elections, this stirring documentary shows what happens when a strongman president threatens democratic norms. But Ressa, part of a group honored as Time’s Person of the Year 2018, is not backing down: “We, at Rappler, we will not duck. We will not hide. We will hold the line.”

THROUGH THE NIGHT: DIR Loira Limbal. PRODS Jameka Autry and Loira Limbal. USA.
Any working parent can tell you how vital childcare providers are to their lives. As America’s economy requires more parents working multiple jobs or the nightshift, the need for 24-hour childcare is critical. THROUGH THE NIGHT shares an intimate portrait of the struggle and bond between two working mothers and their childcare provider.
For over twenty years, “Nunu” and her husband “Pop Pop” have dedicated their lives to their business — creating a safe space for children to learn, eat, sleep and be loved. It is hard work and Nunu is relentless in providing care to her families. Through beautiful verité storytelling, filmmaker Loira Limbal demonstrates the personal toll of rising economic inequality — an issue even more relevant now as our country struggles with the effects of a health pandemic.

TRANSHOOD: DIR Sharon Liese. PRODS Sasha Alpert and Sharon Liese. USA.
We all remember the trials and tribulations of being a kid: fitting in at school, getting along with siblings, finishing homework. These alone are enough to handle. Now, add in discovering who you are and growing up as a trans youth in Kansas City. TRANSHOOD is director Sharon Liese’s in-depth five-year journey following the lives of four kids (ages beginning at 4, 9, 12, and 15) discovering their specific trans experiences alongside their families. Each of the kids and their parents navigate the day-to-day challenges of their home lives and their lives out in the world. Finding normalcy isn’t easy while tackling issues of body dysphoria, transphobia and bullying, and many other big topics that their cis-gender classmates can’t understand. What truly ties these stories together is the unbelievable empathy and humanity exemplified by each family, not just with the heavy moments, but often also during those typical of any childhood.

UNLADYLIKE2020: DIRS Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley. PRODS Charlotte Mangin and Sandra Rattley. USA.
An exciting sampling of the ambitious PBS American Masters multi-platform series that profiles over 200 women, UNLADYLIKE2020 calls into question American history as we know it, reaching back to the dawn of the twentieth century to recognize unsung female leaders and trailblazers. Upending expectations and challenging the definition of womanhood, these “first women” found themselves at the forefront of progressive movements, organizing campaigns and leading paths to cultural change. Female historians share the names and stories of five of these pioneers: Martha Hughes Cannon, Jovita Idár, Jeannette Rankin, Mary Church Terrell and Zitkála-Šá. Their profound and extraordinary achievements in government, suffrage and civil rights, largely taken for granted by history, underscore the importance of continuously revisiting and revising the historical record to include the contributions of women and women of color. The inspiring battles that they waged in the name of equality continue to be fought by women today.

WHITE NOISE: DIR Daniel Lombroso. PROD Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. USA.
WHITE NOISE is the definitive — and disturbing — inside story of the alt-right. With unprecedented, exclusive access, first-time filmmaker Daniel Lombroso tracks the rise of far-right nationalism by focusing on the lives of three of its main proponents: Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist and sex blogger turned media entrepreneur; Richard Spencer, a white-power ideologue; and Lauren Southern, an anti-feminist, anti-immigration YouTube star.
Lombroso’s intrepid camera takes the viewer into the terrifying heart of the alt-right movement: explosive protests, riotous parties and the private spaces where populist and racist ideologies are refined and weaponized. Easy to dismiss as extremists and provocateurs, the alt-right’s leaders adroitly wield the tools of social media to great effect, demonstrating that this dangerous movement is to be ignored at our democracy’s peril.

WOMEN IN BLUE: DIR Deirdre Fishel. PRODS Beth Levison. USA.
Janée Harteau became Minneapolis’s first female police chief in 2012. She quickly began the hard work to reform the MPD by increasing diversity through recruiting and leadership promotions. After a high-profile police shooting occurs in the city a few years later, Chief Harteau is forced to resign and the three female officers under her wing must continue the mission under an all-male leadership unit while rebuilding the community’s trust in the police.
WOMEN IN BLUE examines the relationship between gender, race and violence in an American institution that has long been male dominated. This compelling portrait demands we ask our society: by fighting for gender equality in policing, can we reduce police violence against citizens?

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Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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