Running June 22-27, the AFI Docs festival will bring a smorgasbord of nonfiction offerings to the greater Washington, D.C., area, screening 77 features in both the nation’s capital and nearby Silver Spring, Md. As with almost every festival making a provisional return to in-person events this summer, AFI Docs is approaching its 19th edition as a hybrid fest, with online components making up for the limitations on physical capacity.
But as AFI Festivals director of programming Sarah Harris points out, the American Film Institute, which puts on the event, finds itself in the unusual position of organizing its third virtual festival since the start of the pandemic. AFI Docs was one of the first to go fully virtual last summer, and then the organization also put on its flagship namesake festival online in the fall, so “we knew we could build on that experience and make this one great, and then the in-person elements were just icing on the cake,” she says.
“We’re still not quite at full-capacity, but we have 77 films in the festival, and we really wanted to make it as full and immersive and engaging as a real event. We’re striving to get back to that place, but we’re in a transitional time in exhibition, and we’re all trying to figure it out as we go. So with this festival, we really wanted to make a curatorial mark.”
With emphasis on the word “curatorial,” AFI Docs will present a multidisciplinary selection of documentaries that have played earlier festivals — most notably centerpiece screening “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a closing night screening of Sundance hit “Cusp,” and films including Angelo Madsen Minax’s “North by Current” and Mary Wharton’s “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” — in addition to a few notable world premieres.
Arguably the most newsworthy of the premieres is opening night film “Naomi Osaka,” director Garrett Bradley’s follow-up to her Oscar-nominated 2020 mainstream breakthrough, “Time.” Here her subject is the titular tennis phenom, who recently made headlines when she opted to withdraw from the French Open in order to prioritize her mental health, sparking a wide range of discussions.
Also making bows at the festival are Sonja Sohn’s “The Slow Hustle,” about a corruption case in the Baltimore police department; Greg Barker’s Big Pharma expose “White Coat Rebels”; and a pair of projects related to former President Barack Obama: two episodes of Peter Kunhardt’s “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” will be screened, as will three episodes of the upcoming Netflix series “We the People,” produced by Obama’s Higher Ground shingle.
The D.C. connection has always been an important one to AFI Docs, and Harris notes that it became especially so after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol: “Things in D.C. are different,” she says, “and so what it feels like to hold a joyful event changes.”
Harris notes that while the festival lineup has plenty of politically engaged films, the primary focus has tended to be “stories of individuals, not movements.”
Pointing to Andre Gaines’ “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” and Dawn Porter’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” she says: “That’s just something that’s happening with documentary films right now, and I’m not sure how much of that is a straight trend, but I do think it’s an effect of quarantine and shut-down, and the social justice and racial justice movements over the last several years. I think people are looking to be connected, and they really are looking to the leaders who have been lost in these greater movements; they want to find out more about who’s a part of these things, and they want to be connected to each other.”