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