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AFI Docs: Storytelling to Make a Difference

Vargas and Peter Perl of the Washington Post at AFI DocsThe transition from Silverdocs to AFI Docs, handled expertly by Sky Sitney, was full of promise for a doc fest that takes the most and best advantage of the Washington, D.C. location.  The fest took 52 filmmakers to the White House, brought Congressional reps and think tank leaders to the movies, and showcased well-crafted films with topical and relevant angles for an audience that was liberally laced with policy wonks of all kinds.

Two films in particular showed the possibilities to me.


Documented chronicles the life and career of the director, star journalist—and also gay, undocumented Filipino immigrant-- Jose Antonio Vargas. The film, compelling and moving without losing the complexity of the problems, expertly interlaces Vargas’ personal story with the larger policy story. 

Vargas has spent the last couple of years since he revealed his undocumented status working with immigrants’ rights organizations on the problems of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. (He almost qualified for a path to citizenship under the DREAM Act, which he worked hard for, but is over-age.)

As he introduced the film, Vargas told the audience, “This film isn’t finished, because we still don’t know the ending. Legislation is in Congress right now.” Immigrants rights groups attended, and expect to leverage the film’s attention to the issue.

The New Black.

Another film that triggered more-light-than-heat conversations was The New Black, Yoruba Richen’s portrayal of African-American LGBTAQ organizers’ work on the 2012 Maryland referendum on gay marriage.

Image for The New Black

The highly topical film opens up a long-muffled conversation on African-American perceptions of LGBTQ members of their own community.  Conservative organizers were counting on African-American support, and worked closely with Black churches. Pro-gay-marriage organizers in the African-American community faced familiar challenges while experimenting with messaging and developing coalitions.  The referendum passed, legalizing gay marriage in Maryland, with more than 52% of the vote.

After the screening, one of the leading figures in the film, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), spoke about her work. We had already met, in the film, her husband and her extended family, some of whom have deep reservations about her work. Her Christian faith guides her, she said. She believes that people working for LGBTQ  rights in the African-American community need to embrace and love the people who don’t yet understand,and connect with them. Her politics of conversation, understanding and unity infuse the film.

After the first screening, coalition members held a panel at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters nearby. The panel turned into an organizing session about how to best make use of the film for different constituencies, including white gay allies who African-American LGBTAQ members often feel need a better understanding of (and support for) their issues. The film was already being put to work.

And more.

It was easy to see the possibilities with other films I greatly enjoyed seeing at AFI Docs. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, by Bill Seigel, brings forward a part of the iconic boxer’s life that has been slighted in the public eye: his fight with the U.S. government over his right to religious freedom and conscientious objection against the draft. The film is elegantly told with deft use of archival footage. Grace Lee’s American Revolutionary is an unpretentious and engrossing biography of a woman, Grace Lee Boggs, who at 97 is as committed as she was in her 20s to a revolutionary vision of equality and justice for all Americans. Remote Area Medical, by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, follows providers of pop-up emergency medical services who serve rural U.S. people bereft of any medical or dental care because of geography and lack of medical insurance.

All three of these films also show the power of documentary to make connections between individual experience and larger social and political frameworks that enable, condition or cause those experiences. They all made sense in the Washington, D.C. context, and they were in different ways examples of storytelling craft about real people and real issues.

Public media.

The films I caught at AFI Docs this year, as well as a happy siting of Simon Kilmurry from the POV documentary series, also reminded me regularly of the importance of public media. Several films got funding from public TV, including the Independent TV Service (ITVS), the Center for Asian-American Media (CAAM), and the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC). 

And if you missed them at AFI Docs, you can watch at least seven of them on Independent Lens, the ITVS-curated weekly series on public TV: The Graduates, God Loves Uganda, The Kill Team, The New Black, Muscle Scholas, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali

By the way, just to ensure your tax dollars are at work and useful to you, check to see that your local public TV station is carrying the two series that showcase diverse, innovative documentary work--POV and Independent Lens--and also that your station is airing them at a time a person could actually watch them. If they are, a big thank you is in order. The kind of documentaries being showcased at AFI Docs and on public TV doc series are the kind of engaging storytelling that starts civil, informed, and productive conversations in a democracy.