By Sean Boelman
AFI DOCS was one of the first film festivals to go entirely virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year’s edition features a virtual program with an in-person component in Washington, D.C. happening simultaneously. With a lineup including multiple exciting high-profile premieres and some screenings of intriguing films from unique voices, this is a festival not to miss for lovers of non-fiction cinema.
At disappointment media, we are proud to be covering the 2021 edition of AFI DOCS. As films screen at the festival, we will be updating this article with capsule reviews of select titles. Be sure to check out this page for the length of the festival to see our thoughts on what we’re watching!
There was a time in which print journalism was one of the most important institutions in the country, and now there are documentaries about how print is dying. Perhaps the most depressing documentary of the festival, even if it isn’t as hard-hitting as some of the others, Storm Lake documents how a community can fall into total disarray as it loses the newspaper that is the glue that holds it together. Yet like the subjects of the film, Beth Levison and Jerry Risus maintain a sense of optimism that this small town paper will succeed in its fight to survive, and the result is generally moving.
The Neutral Ground
CJ Hunt’s documentary The Neutral Ground is ultimately about a lot of things. In exploring New Orleans history, white supremacy, and Confederate monuments, Hunt presents a deeper commentary on Black identity than a lot of documentaries have been able to achieve. Often harrowing and sometimes funny, Hunt gets right into the front lines, interviewing activists from both sides in an attempt to bridge the gap between them and debunk the myth of a neutral ground that exists between them. It’s a really compelling and informative documentary that challenges what we think we know about our past.
The Story Won't Die
David Henry Gerson’s The Story Won’t Die is a film that should be applauded for its attempt at handling a difficult issue in a way that is sensitive and unique, even if its ambitious goals never really pay off. Following a group of musicians who create music despite brutal and oppressive conditions in Syria, this had the potential to be a harsh commentary on the reality of one of the world’s most war-torn countries, but is disappointingly slight. As a whole, the film is somewhat… uplifting? And that feels like the wrong approach when dealing with a story that involves war crimes.
The One and Only Dick Gregory
Viewers may be familiar with the name of Dick Gregory for one of a few reasons: as a comedian, as an activist, or as an entrepreneur. Andre Gaines’s documentary The One and Only Dick Gregory does an exceptional job of capturing the talents and impacts of this multihyphenate, serving both as a wonderful tribute and a reminder of why his work is so necessary. Interviews with numerous well-known comedians from today attest to the impact that Gregory had on the comedy world, and while it doesn’t feature enough in the way of hearing from Gregory himself, it’s still a funny and touching documentary.
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics is definitely very conventional in terms of how it is presented, but this deep dive into the history of LGBTQ+ artists is so fascinating that it makes for an interesting documentary nevertheless. Some viewers may be familiar with the stories of some of the more well-known people profiled in the film, such as Allison Bechdel, but the portions of the film that tell the story of the more underground artists in the movement are much more effective.
Executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, the documentary Pray Away is absolutely one of the most heartbreaking films to come out in quite a while. Following some of the former leaders of the “Pray Away the Gay” movement, it’s hard to watch the level of self-loathing that is demonstrated in the film. However, the horrors that are being discussed are very much real and need to be talked about so that society doesn’t make the mistake of repeating history. The fact that this is director Kristine Stolakis’s feature debut is absolutely astounding.
Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s documentary Cusp is a very uncomfortable film to watch because of some of the content and issues which it addresses, but the way in which the filmmakers were able to put their finger on the pulse of today’s youth is extremely impressive. Following a group of teenage girls over the course of a Texas summer, this is very reminiscent of the classics of the fly-on-the-wall documentary genre, with a presentation that is typical but a level of empathy that is anything but. It’s a film that finds power in the seemingly mundane moments.
The Presidential election in Zimbabwe might not sound like the most compelling story for a documentary, but filmmaker Camilla Neilsson’s film President is surprisingly fascinating. Although this is about an African country, this exploration of a democracy in decline is shocking and riveting. Much of the first half of the film plays out like a race-against-the-clock thriller as the subject struggles to fight back against the corrupt status quo of the Zimbabwean government, and while the second half is much more conventional as a political documentary, it’s still quite interesting.
Pacho Velez’s documentary Searchers is definitely very messy, but there is a unique charm to it. Featuring a set of New Yorkers who reflect on their experiences of online dating, this is a topic that is going to be quite relatable to many and is presented in a way that is unorthodox and fascinating. The first half of the film quite literally just observes the subjects as they scroll through potential matches on various dating platforms, and it’s quite entertaining. The remainder of the film is less abstract, and perhaps less effective, but still surprisingly insightful.
The First Step
Following CNN political contributor Van Jones, the documentary The First Step is just as well-intentioned as its subject, but similarly, it is also likely to receive a good deal of controversy. In an era of so much division, the idea of centrism might sound nice on paper, but it’s very difficult to recommend that as a genuine solution. Ultimately, as a whole, the documentary feels like Jones complaining about getting so much heat from both sides, acknowledging but not really accepting why he earned that heat in a very whiny way.
Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder! should absolutely be required viewing for anyone who is in the process of applying for colleges. As someone who is less detached from this process than a majority of critics, this portrait of a group of high school students striving to get admission into their dream colleges would have proven an invaluable resource when going through the same thing. It would have been nice to see Lum go into more depth with the students on a personal level beyond their academic ambitions, but the film is successful in communicating how these students’ broken mindset continues to present them with challenges.
The Lost Leonardo
A documentary about one of the most mysterious paintings in the world sounds like it should be very entertaining on paper, but in execution, filmmaker Andreas Koefoed overestimates the amount that the average viewer cares about the art scene. The Lost Leonardo wastes an absolutely insane story and a solid sense of style with talking-head interviews that will easily lose the viewer’s interest. It may be a bit of a stereotype, but the experts who are telling the story are either overzealous and obnoxious or monotonous and boring to listen to, and as a result, this “real-life art thriller” can feel like watching paint dry at times.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Filmmaker Morgan Neville’s last documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, tapped into the audience’s nostalgia to deliver a moving and heartbreaking portrait of its subject. With his newest film, Neville again sets out to document the life of a beloved television personality, this time the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. However, those who expect this to be another sweet crowd-pleaser will be caught off-guard by the surprisingly dark tone this film takes. Much like Bourdain himself, the film is interested in exploring the unknown in a way that is unexpectedly insightful and poignant. It’s an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary man, and it works brilliantly.
A three-part docuseries from director Garrett Bradley (last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Time), Naomi Osaka tells the story of the eponymous world-class championship tennis player. However, those who are familiar with Bradley’s work will know that this isn’t an average sports biography, as Bradley’s approach is exceptionally tender and nuanced. It’s really unexpected to see a portrait of an athlete be so humanistic and empathetic, which will allow it to connect with audiences more than many films like it. Only the first episode screened for festival-goers, but if it is representative of the quality of the series as a whole, this will be an absolute must-see when it drops on Netflix next month.
The 2021 AFI DOCS festival runs from June 22-27, 2021.
The Snake Hole
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