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Social-Issue Docs Shine at AFI Docs

At AFI Docs, now in its second year, powerful, well-crafted social issue movies struggled to make connections with audiences committed to their issues.

The festival that grew out of Silverdocs weathered a second year, although still in search of budgetary stability after losing one presenting sponsor (Audi) and picking up another (ATT). Now positioned as a “best of fests” documentary festival, and notably U.S.-centric, it claims to “connect audiences and documentary filmmakers to policy leaders in the seat of our nation's government.”

It has always been a challenge for the AFI, with roots in the west coast entertainment industry, to find its sweet spot in the world’s most self-important city. (I recall as an editor of the then-AFI publication American Film having to call legislators’ offices to ask aides what the legislator’s favorite film was. The answer usually was, “Sen./Cong. X is too busy to go to the movies.”) And this year, many screenings were not filled and opportunities to connect with activists and policymakers often needed to be crafted by filmmakers.

But connections were being made. Johanna Hamilton, maker of the absorbing documentary 1971 about civil disobedience that revealed illegal government surveillance, was able to meet privacy and whistleblowing policy folks at a reception at the noted Washington, D.C. locale for combining social justice and libations, Busboys and Poets, after her film’s screening. After How I Got Over, Nicole Boxer’s moving film about a theatrical production of life stories of women in recovery, homeless advocates and advocates for government funding of the arts got a showcase.

Storytelling by Experiencing

The films themselves, mostly proven winners with previous fest debuts and often with distribution, provided a chance to look at approaches to the higher-end social-issue documentary today.

The films I hadn’t seen in other fests and that I personally found most effective and moving were examples of cinéma vérité storytelling. They brought viewers through an experience where something was at stake, and in which viewers came to empathize with people they might never have even thought much about before. That journey gave everyone who left the theater a new way to care about the issues that affect the people they met, and to think about how those issues connect with their own lives.

It’s a process, investing in a problem, situation, cultural position that you never really imagined at a human level before. That process activates the best in the democratic process—an ability to imagine across the lines of one’s own experience, one’s own clan, one’s own region, one’s own worldview.  It’s what makes people actually listen to each other when they disagree. It’s what makes people decide that something besides their narrow and immediate self-interest is worth moving over for.

You Are There

Some examples—and I dare you to watch any of them without a handkerchief or two:

  • The Homestretch, by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, introduces us to three distinctive, feisty, and engaging Chicago teenagers. Each of them is homeless, for different reasons; each is determined to finish high school at all costs, knowing it’s the only way out of the daily horror show they live now; each has extraordinary support from social service workers and from teachers who care, all of whom are appalled and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of homeless, underage, abandoned young people who are desperately struggling to manage. You’ll leave wanting to get updates on all of them.

    A film about that dreaded cliché, the triumph of the human spirit? I don’t think so. Their triumph, which we cherish with them, is nestled in the film’s framing of the problem as in need of a solution far beyond bootstraps, inspiration and good will alone. When you leave the theater, you leave knowing people who can succeed and have succeeded because of their enormous talent, skill, and the support of caregivers. And you know that many more kids could succeed, and probably won’t, because they didn’t get these breaks--through no fault of their own, but for lack of a social safety net.

    Homestretch was one of two Kartemquin Films productions to show at AFI Docs. The fest’s closer was Life Itself, Steve James’ moving chronicle of Roger Ebert’s later years, featuring his extraordinary wife Chaz and the story of Roger’s fearless acceptance of his cancer, his deformity, and ultimately his death. Like other Steve James works, Life Itself features extraordinary moments of intimacy, self-revelation and insight into the enormous complexity of human relationships. And it makes us all miss Roger even more. 

  • How I Got Over, by Nicole Boxer (Washington, D.C. royalty, as daughter of Sen. Barbara Boxer and ex-sister in law of Hillary and Bill), is that staple of documentary films, the making-of-a-theatrical-work-by-disadvantaged-amateurs. It shows, like many films before it (think about O.T.: Our Town, and Children Will Listen, and Born into Brothels), that an opportunity to create art has both an enormous therapeutic effect on the makers and a profound empathetic effect on viewers. We meet homeless women suffering from addiction and alcoholism who, in telling the extraordinary stories both of abuse and of the courage to change, offer reasons to care. We see the power of art to make a connection to an alien reality (as we’re wiping away our own tears).  When funders and government social services or arts agencies want to know whether it pays to invest in culture, this movie should be worth a thousand analytics reports. 

  • The Hand that Feeds, by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, is that very rare bird, a journey through the lived process of labor organizing. Workers at a Manhattan deli dare to organize, thread their way through extraordinary challenges, accept the support of sometimes-wacky, sometimes-helpful Occupy Wall Street folks, and (spoiler alert) actually win. You will never look at your deli server the same way again. It must have helped that co-director Rachel Lears is a trained anthropologist. We meet immigrant working people in their homes as they face real threats to their lives, as they decide that dignity has to be job #1. Wow.

  • The Agreement, an hour-long 2013 doc by Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, was the rare international entrant to AFIDocs, and a welcome one. I can’t imagine what it took to get the access she got to negotiations between former enemies Kosovo and Serbia, hosted by the EU, to establish border reciprocity (a condition of acceptance to the EU). But the access is truly extraordinary. We watch, close up, the designated representatives of the two countries spar over seemingly insignificant words, phrases or places on a map. We come to invest in the meaning of those terms. The most compelling character is the negotiator, a man whose extraordinary patience, combined with his grasp of history, allows him a zen-like acceptance of human folly. 

  • Happy Valley, Amir Bar-Lev’s examination of the Jerry Sandusky scandal (slightly but effectively tweaked since Sundance), takes viewers through the experience of the fans’ intense and conflicted reactions to the shocking news that Penn State’s football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted young boys. It depends for its structure on powerfully-elicited interviews with charismatic characters, but I include it here because it also evokes, with calculated use of third-party footage, the experience of fans. And it dares to raise, without the “finger-pointing” that Bar-Lev eschewed in a Q&A, the question that spectacle distracts us from the larger questions we need to ask about the terms of our own society.

I also learned from and was grateful for documentaries that were less immersive, but that introduced me to subjects and issues. For instance: Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, by Abby Ginzberg; The Fix, by Laura Naylor; and The Supreme Price, by Joanna Lipper.

Essay and Argument

In contrast, essay films faced the enormous challenge of finding engagement without the central narrative of story. Two films struggled with this challenge at AFI Docs. Ivory Tower, by Andrew Rossi, attempted to tackle the multiple challenges of higher education. But despite attractive helicopter shots of football stadiums, ominous ostinato soundtrack effects, swooshingly directive soundtrack, and alarming narration, the film never makes an argument about where the very real troubles in American higher education (still the highly-sought-after gold standard for most of the rest of the world) come from or finds their resolution. As an interested party, I think a clearer focus on the implications of failing to fund higher education as a social goal (the “social contract”) and the real promise (forget MOOCs) of digital affordances for a student-centric education are where to zone in. But I left Ivory Tower sad, realizing that the 2005 PBS documentary by John Merrow, Declining by Degrees, was more authoritative and told better stories about more representative institutions. 

I felt similarly unsettled, but for different reasons, about Jessica Yu’s Miconception, which tackles a hugely important topic—let’s get over the notion that population growth is a problem—with three stories that are well told in Yu’s intimate style but so highly specific and disconnected from each other that someone who didn’t read the press release is challenged to connect any of them to Yu’s important thesis.

If AFI Docs survives, we can continue to explore the evolution of social-issue formats in the nation’s capital, and with luck we’ll be able to see much more integration of storytelling with action.