ALSO: The Golden Age of doc­u­men­tary film needs more ‘eureka!’ mo­ments

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANN HOR­NA­DAY ann.hor­na­day@wash­post.com AFI Docs Wed­nes­day through June 21 at Land­mark’s E Street Cinema and other venues in Penn Quar­ter, as well as the AFI Sil­ver Theatre and Cul­tural Cen­ter in Sil­ver Spring. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.afi­docs

It’s a com­monly held be­lief that we’re experiencing a Golden Age of doc­u­men­tary film, and that as­sump­tion is solidly af­firmed by the pro­gram of this year’s edi­tion of AFI Docs.

The fes­ti­val, now in its 13th year, will kick off June 17 at the New­seum with a film ide­ally suited to its au­di­ence of Wash­ing­ton play­ers, me­dia in­sid­ers and non­fic­tion film buffs: “Best of Enemies,” a por­trait of the ven­omous in­tel­lec­tual ri­valry be­tween Wil­liam F. Buck­ley and Gore Vi­dal, di­rected by Robert Gor­don and Os­car-win­ning film­maker Mor­gan Neville (“20 Feet From Star­dom”).

Chock-full of rev­e­la­tory archival footage of Buck­ley and Vi­dal go­ing ham­mer and tongs on nightly tele­vi­sion dur­ing the 1968 pres­i­den­tial con­ven­tions, “Best of Enemies” re­volves around two bril­liant, en­gag­ing and feisty pro­tag­o­nists, pre­serv­ing an oth­er­wise lost chap­ter of Amer­i­can so­cial and cul­tural his­tory and invit­ing view­ers to re­flect on the state of our cur­rent me­dia cul­ture, po­lit­i­cal dis­course and public in­tel­lec­tu­als as a nearly ex­tinct species.

“Best of Enemies” ex­em­pli­fies the kind of movie that might as well be pre­ci­sion-en­gi­neered to suc­ceed at AFI Docs, which this year will in­clude films about a va­ri­ety of sub­jects, in­clud­ing post-9/11 for­eign pol­icy, ed­u­ca­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, the war on drugs and gun vi­o­lence. As in past years, the pro­gram will make room for ab­sorb­ing por­traits of gal­va­niz­ing cul­tural fig­ures, in­clud­ing Nina Si­mone, Larry Kramer and Noam Chom­sky — the closing night film, “Mavis!,” about Mavis Sta­ples, is a sure­fire crowd plea­sure. And there are plenty of pocket his­to­ries on such top­ics as the Na­tional Lam­poon and the Na­tion, Steve Jobs, the Black Pan­thers and Cold War-era es­pi­onage.

All wor­thy sub­jects, to be sure. But therein lies a prob­lem. Even from the priv­i­leged van­tage point of a Golden Age, it’s pos­si­ble to see a medium in need of fresh­en­ing up, as non­fic­tion film­mak­ers fall into the trap of re­ly­ing on their charis­matic, timely sub­jects to en­gage view­ers, rather than bold, dar­ing or art­ful film­mak­ing it­self.

The dilemma be­came clear to me in March, when I at­tended True/False, an in­ti­mate, shrewdly cu­rated fes­ti­val in Columbia, Mo. Not sur­pris­ingly, I left just about ev­ery screen­ing feel­ing en­ter­tained and en­light­ened. But by the end of an ad­mit­tedly de­light­ful week­end, I sensed a creep­ing feel­ing of in­er­tia, as I sat through yet one more movie tog­gling du­ti­fully be­tween archival footage and talk­ing heads, or an in­ti­mate un­nar­rated por­trait of a marginal­ized ec­cen­tric. In many cases, the most con­ven­tional way to tell the story hap­pened to be the best. But in oth­ers, a dead­en­ing feel­ing of fa­mil­iar­ity set in, as peo­ple, sto­ries and — God for­bid — “is­sues” seemed to slip ef­fort­lessly into eas­ily di­gestible tem­plates cam­era-ready for PBS, pre­mium ca­ble or an Os­car clip reel.

Like ev­ery artis­tic dis­ci­pline, doc­u­men­tary film has ex­pe­ri­enced its share of for­mal sea changes, es­pe­cially over the past half-cen­tury. In the 1960s, cinéma vérité, pi­o­neered by Robert Drew, Richard Lea­cock, D.A. Pen­nebaker and the late Al Maysles (whose fi­nal film, “In Tran­sit,” will play AFI Docs this year), stripped away nar­ra­tion and ex­plana­tory ti­tles that had hereto­fore char­ac­ter­ized so many di­dac­tic doc­u­men­taries, and used the bare-bones “fly on the wall” con­ceit to re­veal their sub­jects. In the 1980s, Ross McEl­wee and Michael Moore per­fected the art of the per­sonal es­say, in­ject­ing them­selves as char­ac­ters in their own pi­caresque tales of dis­cov­ery, and Er­rol Mor­ris rev­o­lu­tion­ized the in­dus­try by in­tro­duc­ing reen­act­ments and styl­ized cin­e­matic flour­ishes in the true-crime thriller “The Thin Blue Line.” (Ac­tu­ally, he rein­tro­duced reen­act­ment, if you con­sider the work of Robert Fla­herty in 1922’s “Nanook of the North.”)

Per­haps the most re­cent in­no­va­tion to be turned into a com­mon­place trope is the Par­tic­i­pant model — ex­em­pli­fied by “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” — wherein a so­cial prob­lem is elu­ci­dated with sharp sto­ry­telling and graph­ics and, just at the point when the au­di­ence is gal­va­nized for ac­tion, it’s given a 10-point list of let­ters they can write, pe­ti­tions they can sign and Web sites they can visit to stay in­volved.

In re­cent years, even the most time­worn tech­niques have been given new life by bright, en­ter­pris­ing film­mak­ers: Sarah Pol­ley and Josh Op­pen­heimer in­vig­o­rated the art of Mor­ris-es­que reen­act­ment in their re­spec­tive ground­break­ing films “Sto­ries We Tell” and “The Act of Killing.” The sub­con­scious and in­tu­itive roots of the per­sonal es­say film have been ex­plored to po­tent, densely lay­ered ef­fect by such artists as Bill Mor­ri­son, Jem Co­hen, Alan Ber­liner and Jay Rosen­blatt. With “The Wait­ing Room,” about an Oak­land emer­gency ward, the mes­mer­iz­ing Ukraine doc­u­men­tary “Maidan” and “Field Nig­gas,” about street life in Har­lem, film­mak­ers Peter Nicks, Sergei Loznitsa and Kha­lik Al­lah have brought fresh sen­si­tiv­ity and com­po­si­tional el­e­gance to bear on vérité’s rough-hewn, spon­ta­neous style.

And some di­rec­tors are blaz­ing new paths en­tirely. Brett Morgen made the bold choice to stage “Chicago 10,” about the po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists tried af­ter the 1968 Demo­cratic con­ven­tion, as an an­i­mated film set to tran­scripts read by ac­tors. He brought sim­i­lar in­ge­nu­ity to bear on “Mon­tage of Heck,” his re­cent bi­og­ra­phy of Kurt Cobain. The di­rec­tors Sam Green and Adam Curtis are fus­ing film­mak­ing and per­for­mance in live ap­pear­ances and screen­ings (both ap­peared at True/False this year, and Green re­cently brought “The Mea­sure of All Things,” his col­lab­o­ra­tion with mu­si­cian Bren­dan Canty, to Ar­ti­sphere.)

Part of AFI Docs’ core mission is to help de­velop fruit­ful part­ner­ships be­tween film­mak­ers and Wash­ing­ton-cen­tered pol­i­cy­mak­ers; it stands to rea­son that the fes­ti­val would fa­vor ex­plana­tory films that pivot around po­lit­i­cal his­tory and hot-but­ton cur­rent events. But even within the con­fines of that man­date, a hand­ful of this year’s films man­age to break the nar­ra­tive mold: “Re­quiem for the Dead,” about Amer­i­can cit­i­zens who died from gun vi­o­lence over a three-month pe­riod in 2014, is com­posed en­tirely of sounds and images from so­cial me­dia, news sto­ries and po­lice record­ings ( HBO will broad­cast the film June 22, a few days af­ter its AFI Docs screen­ing.) “Lis­ten to Me Mar­lon,” about Mar­lon Brando, is sim­i­larly cen­tered on record­ings the ac­tor made as a per­sonal au­dio di­ary. Ber­liner served as an ed­i­to­rial ad­viser for “The Rus­sian Wood­pecker,” a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of Soviet spy­craft that mashes up tra­di­tional ex­posé with dis­cur­sive mood and tone.

Michael Lump­kin, the new direc­tor of AFI Docs, noted re­cently that the search for ground­break­ing work can be a chal­lenge. “I think the ex­cit­ing part of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing is when the edges get blurred and pushed, and there’s ex­per­i­men­ta­tion,” Lump­kin said. “But that’s re­ally hard to do. It’s hard enough just to make a doc­u­men­tary, in terms of fund­ing.” When we talk about film­mak­ers tak­ing artis­tic risks, he added, what they're risk­ing is money from the non­profit groups, broad­cast out­lets and foun­da­tions that tra­di­tion­ally fund non­fic­tion work.

Of­ten those fund­ing struc­tures have a util­i­tar­ian agenda, with so­cial change, public ed­u­ca­tion, au­di­ence ac­tivism and other “de­liv­er­ables” tak­ing prece­dence over more in­tan­gi­ble val­ues and for­mal dar­ing. On his Web site Truly Free Film, in a col­umn called “How Eco­nomics In­flu­ences Indie Film Aes­thetics,” the pro­ducer Ted Hope re­cently ob­served that non­fic­tion films tend to be “the­sis-based” — rather than ex­per­i­men­tal, ex­pres­sion­is­tic or open-ended — in or­der to sat­isfy their fi­nanciers, rather than the artis­tic am­bi­tions of their mak­ers.

“Doc­u­men­tary film fi­nanciers fa­vor sub­jects for au­di­ences that have al­ready been ag­gre­gated by affin­ity groups (so that they are eas­ier to reach and mar­ket to),” he wrote.

But those as­sump­tions may be shift­ing. Last fall, Tabitha Jack­son, who leads the Sun­dance In­sti­tute’s Doc­u­men­tary Film Project — an in­flu­en­tial player in the non­fic­tion fund­ing world — de­liv­ered a key­note ad­dress at the Doc NYC film fes­ti­val in which she called on film­mak­ers to pay just as much at­ten­tion to form as they do to con­tent. “The lin­gua franca of non­fic­tion film­mak­ing should be the lan­guage of cinema and not the lan­guage of grant ap­pli­ca­tions,” she said. “We must sup­port and pro­mote the in­trin­sic value of doc­u­men­tary as much as its in­stru­men­tal value.” Jack­son then an­nounced a Sun­dance doc­u­men­tary ini­tia­tive “to iden­tify, nur­ture and sup­port a co­hort of voices we feel are truly dis­tinc­tive.”

With more in­no­va­tive work po­ten­tially on its way through the pipe­line, Lump­kin said that AFI Docs may be show­ing more ex­per­i­men­tal work in years to come. “It’s a pen­du­lum,” he added. “And I think that there’s mo­men­tum for it to be swing­ing back, [so] that aes­thetics and the art and craft of mak­ing doc­u­men­tary film will be more prom­i­nent once again.” Doc­u­men­taries may be non­fic­tion, but they can and should be much more than just the facts.

MAG­NO­LIA PIC­TURES

ABOVE: AFI Docs kicks off Wed­nes­day with “The Best of Enemies,” in which two eru­dite, acer­bic ide­o­logues, Wil­liam F. Buck­ley, left, and Gore Vi­dal, attack each other on a va­ri­ety of is­sues, both po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal. It’s a re­alWash­ing­ton kind of movie.

STEPHEN SHAMES

RIGHT: Black Pan­thers line up at a 1968 rally seek­ing the re­lease of the group’s co­founder Huey New­ton in a scene from the AFI Docs of­fer­ing “The Black Pan­thers: Vanguard of Revo­lu­tion,” a movie by Stan­ley Nel­son.

SHOW­TIME

BE­LOW: “Lis­ten toMe Mar­lon” has a method all its own: Ste­van Ri­ley cre­ated the movie from au­dio and video of Mar­lon Brando record­ing his rem­i­nis­cences.

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