AFI Docs, the annual nonfiction film festival in the D.C. region, returns on Tuesday as a hybrid of in-person events and virtual screenings, a format mandated by ongoing safety concerns over Covid-19.
While the ability to host at least some screenings at the AFI Silver Theater parallels the reopening of movie venues in general, this year’s festival reflects ongoing caution and a deference for health and safety. The selections themselves point more to “personal stories and personal reflections,” in the words of Sarah Harris, the director of programming for AFI Docs, at a time when people are just now rediscovering human connection.
“A lot of what the country needs is healing,” Harris said. “We are coming out of the pandemic, coming out of a lot of political trauma in D.C. We are looking to have that healing through this form of art.”
The event includes 77 films from 23 countries, in addition to a lineup that includes pre-recorded filmmaker Q&As, conversations and panels.
The festival will open with the world premiere on Tuesday of Naomi Osaka, about the tennis superstar navigating the pressures of fame, followed by a Q&A with director Garrett Bradley conducted by NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford. The screening was announced before Osaka withdrew from the French Open and made her statement, Harris said.
On Friday will be Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, presented on what would have been Bourdain’s birthday. Director/producer Morgan Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers will participate in a Q&A with The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Albright.
The closing night screening on Sunday will be Cusp, capturing the adolescent experiences through the eyes of three teenage girls in a small Texas town. Filmmakers Parker Kill and Isabel Bethencourt will then have a conversation with The Post’s Ann Hornaday.
The annual Charles Guggenheim Symposium will honor Dawn Porter, who will participate in a conversation on Wednesday with Variety’s Clayton Davis and include a screening of her most recent project, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer.
All told, 22 movies will feature in-person screenings at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD, including the Questlove concert film Summer of Soul; The Slow Hustle, about the Baltimore police corruption scandal; and The One and Only Dick Gregory, about the political activist and comedian.
My Name Is Pauli Murray focuses on the civil rights activist who has been largely overlooked in the historical record, as Murray led sit-ins in D.C. years before those in the deeper South. She later became the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Directors Julie West and Betsy Cohen and producer Talleah Bridges McMahon will do a Q&A moderated by festivals programmer Malin Kan.
There will be safety protocol in place for the in person screenings, with seating limits and masks required, along with reservations. The selections also will be available virtually.
Harris said that they were unclear in the early part of the year whether they could even do in-person events, as there was also the additional concern over security after the siege on the Capitol. Although those restrictions have eased somewhat, the festival moved forward with a hybrid event that, because of its virtual nature, also will be available to a wider audience not trekking to the DMV. Those who purchase tickets to a particular movie will have 48 hours to start watching and, once they begin, 48 hours to finish (with some of the special presentations having their own viewing requirements). The full lineup and ticket information is here.
Other highlights include the world premiere of Netflix’s and Higher Ground Productions’ We the People, with presents a mix of styles and songs to help people rethink civics lessons. The Washington Post’s Krissah Thompson will moderate the Thursday event.
Another event, on Saturday, is a panel called History is Out the the Closet: Excavating Queer Stories for the Screen, tied to Pride month. It will be moderated by Madeleine Lim, executive.artistic director of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project.
Other events will look into the making of Philly D.A., the Independent Lens series, and there will be panels on making investigative documentaries and making the production process accessible to all audiences, among other topics.
AFI Docs also is curating one-on-one meetings on Tuesday snd Thursday for filmmakers and industry pass holders, in an effort to replicate virtually some of the networking events that have been a festival highlight.
The festival also will feature a handful of series, including the first three episodes of 9/11: One Day in America, available starting on Thursday, in which survivors share their experience on that day as the 20th anniversary approaches. Producer Caroline Marsden, executive producer T.J. Martin and some of the subjects in the project will have a Q&A with The Washington Post’s Peter Finn.
Overall, Harris said, the slate reflects “just the human connection that we may have been missing in this quarantine, this kind of triumph of personal storytelling.”
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