Last week I was able to view a handful of the 81 films from 25 countries, at the five-day long AFI Docs festival that attracted filmmakers, national policy and opinion leaders, journalists and a large crowd of viewers to the 13th annual running of the event in the Washington DC area that ran from June 17-21.
This isn't a top tier festival for filmmakers hoping to find distribution or rub shoulders with a bevy of celebrities but it is the place to see important, engaging and entertaining (these are not mutually exclusive categories) films that provoke discussions and can help to shape national policy.
I highly recommend the following films.
"Best of Enemies"
This is a fascinating new doc about the dust-up between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic Convention during a series of televised debates aired by ABC.
As the anti-Vietnam protesters battled the police in the streets of Chicago these two squared off in a makeshift studio set up at the stockyards where the convention was being held. Like two bulls squaring off, they veered away from analyzing the convention proceedings and locked horns and got personal. Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi."
Which prompted Buckley to respond, "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
This oratorical blood sport sent ratings soaring and some say it triggered a seismic shift in television news and talk shows. It opened the floodgates for the shout fests we have today. What the film doesn't touch on is how ABC producer George Merlis had to shepherd Vidal and actor Paul Newman out of the studio before Buckley made good on his threat.
As Iraq morphs into the endless war and Afghanistan limps toward some unknown resolution while Israel and the Palestinians show no signs or finding a way out of pyrrhic trap we're reminded by this timely doc of a time when the US could actually broker a peace.
This film, about Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, traces his remarkable career bookended by the foreign policy tragedies of Vietnam and Afghanistan. In between these monumental U.S. failures is a victory for diplomacy engineered by Holbrooke whose make it up as you go tenacity brokered the Bosnian peace accords. Directed by his son David, it explores the personal and public life of a remarkable figure who proved that peace was possible if diplomacy was given the chance to succeed. It will air on HBO later this year.
Another wonderful film at AFI Docs fest takes us into the world of the New Yorker cartoons and the people who create these snapshots of our time. Ten years in the making, it delivers the stories of the characters behind the characters and their original takes on life.
"Code: Debugging the Gender Gap"
Computer code is the language of the present and the future yet in many schools learning this tool isn't encouraged or rewarded or even taught. This is especially true for girls and women. This new documentary makes the case for changing the Barbie paradigm and breaking down gender barricades in computer science.
"Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"
This really hit home for me. Befuddled by the IBM PC I turned to a Mac and was writing and printing within half an hour. General Motors, my employer at the time, let me bring it to work and it gave me access to the computer world. Not only was it easy - intuitive to use - it was the David up against the Goliath of the tech world. How could I resist?
But this outlier has become - actually surpassed - the popularity of its former foes and in many ways become everything it once despised.
I wanted to see the new documentary by the prolific Alex Gibney at the AFI Docs fest to better understand how what I'd once thought was the champion of the little guy was transformed into a corporate behemoth. Apple is an attractive siren luring millions to its shores while parking billions in Irish shell companies, harassing journalists, squeezing $300 in profit from each iPhone while paying its Chinese assemblers $12 a day and discharging tons of carcinogenic heavy metals into the streams flowing past its factories.
Gibney, like he did with Scientology in his other recent film, "Going Clear," peels back the complex layers surrounding the man who was driven to "Think Different" and felt he had the license to defy moral gravity. I'm writing this on my Mac Book Pro and, like the iPhone owning Gibney, I'm conflicted and hobbled by the idea of transferring all my data and programs to a new platform. Plus, I like the way it looks. This is a film worth seeing and talking about.
"Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon."
One of the pleasures of the AFI Docs fest is seeing films in interesting locations like the Naval Heritage Museum that hosted a screening of what seemed to be an unlikely film for this venue. The turbulent story of the National Lampoon was a story I knew nothing about. I'd always thought the original cast of Saturday Night Live came from Second City, but Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray were all alums from National Lampoon's various enterprises. The film is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic look at the price of being funny.
"What Happened, Miss Simone?"
This film earned the Fest's Audience Award for Best Feature. Director Liz Garbus uses a mountain of archive films, recordings and a few recreations to trace the tumultuous story of singer/Civil Rights activist, Nina Simone.
Once dubbed the "High Priestess of Soul" we discover Simone started her ascent as a classical pianist in North Carolina. Walking to her piano lessons from what was literally the wrong side of the tracks brought home the ever-present racism that surrounded her. Instead of being crushed by hate she became determined to lend her voice and spirit to the drive for equality. Caught up in the center of the Civil Rights movement she became friends with Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Malcolm X and his family and nearly anyone else who was dedicated to making a difference. Her devotion to the struggle, aversion to compartmentalizing her beliefs so as not to interfere with her commercial success, and what was later diagnosed as manic depression sent her career into a tailspin. Fortunately, she's eventually rescued by friends who help to lift her out of despair and regain her footing.
This is a film that speaks to us on many levels and in this era of our reawakening discussions about race it's a story that should trigger conversations about our responsibilities and the cost for speaking out.
Another of the side benefits to the AFI Docs fest is taking in a little tourism in between nonstop doc screenings.
After the close encounter with Steve Jobs my colleagues and I took a stroll to grab a look at the White House. The old access road was still bracketed by post 9/11 concrete barriers and an ugly chain link fence. This didn't deter an endless stream of people from lining up along the sidewalk to snap a photo of their friends and family or take a selfie posed in front of this magnificent symbol that's still a beacon of hope to people from around the world. With all the bad news coming from Charleston and elsewhere it felt good to see the country hadn't lost its appeal. The line up at AFI Docs laid out a number of ways we can enlarge the conversation about who we are and what we need to do in order to shoulder the responsibility we have to live up to the ideals that attract millions of people to come and stand before the White House every year.