Best of Seattle and AFI Docs Film Festivals

June is an ideal temporal destination for cineastes, as the largest US fest, the Seattle International Film Festival, concludes from its May start, and a sterling collection of documentaries can be found as well at the AFI Docs Festival, in Washington, DC and environs.

Seattle, exhibiting more than 400 films from 80 counties in 25 days, had its own showcase docs, including The Force. Peter Nicks won Best Director at Sundance for this penetrating study of the struggles of the Oakland Police Department. On camera, they weather the storm of a sex scandal between 14 officers and a female minor, all while the Black Lives Matter movment demands more accountability. The great strength of the film is its fly-on-the-wall perspective of the Oakland mayor and a number of police chiefs trying to change an entrenched and long-corrupt system.

Irish director John Butler finds a fresh approach to the topic of homophobia with the artful drama, Handsome Devil. A rugby obsessed boys’ school in the Emerald Isle immediately alienates gay, dyed-hair, outspoken student Ned (Fionn O’Shea). He is forced to room with newly arrived rugby sensation Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). But Conor is torn between being popular or revealing his own sexual identity. Butler adds to the tension an English class professor whose own proclivities make advising the boys even tougher. A touching charmer of a film.

The Landing is most definitely not of this world and one is hard pressed to even define it. It’s a faux documentary about an actual NASA mission but it changes the details. After surviving a crash landing, off course, in a Chinese desert, two astronauts mysteriously die and there is a possibility they might have been murdered by the survivor, out of a personal jealousy. Written and directed by David and Mark Dodson, The Landing makes a thrilling procedural with balanced arguments on either side, regarding whether the deaths were homicidal or accidental The cast plays along perfectly in this mind-bender.

The documentaries unspooled by the American Film Institute included the South by Southwest Grand Jury Prize winner, The Work. Co-directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, it is likely the most emotionally powerful film ever shot inside prison walls. A group of lifers in Folsom State Prison in Northern California have assembled a group therapy process. But stone-cold killers, in the process of becoming vulnerable, also let loose screaming rages so intense, they have the quality of exorcisms. The change in their demeanor induces tears and the results are unassailable. No Folsom prisoner who has gone through “the Work” and gotten out has ever returned to prison. More good news: The Orchard and First Look Media’s new studio Topic releases this amazing work in the Fall.

Apparently, it is a banner year for documentaries, because AFI Docs also presented the hugely timely and disturbing What Lies Upstream. Director Cullen Hoback insinuates himself into the story, beginning with a crusade to make a West Virginia company responsible for their despoilment of water and increased cancer rates in the state. Before it is over, Hoback has become both friend and enemy to major players in the story and proves with shocking immediacy that the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Environment Protection Agency are guilty of corruption and in league with industrial polluters. Rarely has a documentary feature been more essential viewing. Thanks to Hoback’s expertise, it is also utterly engrossing. If nothing else, one can learn from the film where the most polluted and dangerous water supplies are in the United States.

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