AFI Docs 2013 in Brief, Part Two

letters to jackieLast week, I posted a pointer to my Indiewire articles on AFI Docs, which covered the event as a whole, as well as five titles in the fest’s initial Washington DC lineup. This post wraps up my coverage with brief views on eight additional films.

The festival’s opening night film revisits a similar formula as the director’s previous film, DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM: Bill Couturié constructs a portrait of both a nation in mourning and a beloved presidency through selections from the nearly 800,000 letters of condolence sent to the White House after JFK’s assassination (pictured above). Like LOVE, MARILYN, the film uses the conceit of actors reciting the excerpts, but unlike the latter, they never appear on camera. Instead, Couturié tracks down archival representations of the actual letter writers, grounding the exchange between ordinary citizens – housewives, postmen, even witnesses to the assassination – and the First Lady. This joins a staggering amount of exceptional archival footage of JFK’s presidency, both familiar and lesser-seen, inspired by references made in the letters of his impact on the writers’ lives – from movement forward on civil rights to the patriotic promise of the space race. While the film skews toward hagiography – and could tone down the heart-tugging musical cues – this is appropriate, given its context of a citizenry expressing its sorrow. As such, it resonates on an unexpectedly emotional, even cathartic, level nearly fifty years after JFK’s passing.

Michael Stevens’ ode to the influential Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block also screened as a Gala at AFI Docs, fittingly in DC’s news and journalism museum, the Newseum. With a career spanning six decades, there’s much to say about the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, and Stevens assembles a who’s who of newsmen and women, political satirists, and former colleagues to celebrate the man and his thought-provoking work, which regularly summarized in one panel what took editors multiple columns of print to convey. The film is at its best when it shares these masterful cartoons and reveals the context within which he created them, as well as the knowledge that they got under the skin of the politicians he skewered. It’s at its worst when indulging in sappy and absolutely unnecessary re-enactments of Herblock as a child and in the tiresome recurring use of a horribly over-scripted “interview” between an offscreen biographer and an actor hamming it up as the cartoonist in his later years.

Like Stevens’ film, Dan Krauss’ debuted at Tribeca, where it claimed the Best Documentary Feature award, and it’s easy to see why. Krauss has crafted a gripping exploration of the boundaries of ethics and morality during wartime based on a deeply disturbing incident that saw a group of US soldiers kill Afghan civilians for sport. Built on interviews with several of the participants, most of whom were convicted for their crimes, the film largely focuses on the story of Private Adam Winfield and early on poses the question how the idealistic young soldier went from would-be whistleblower to apparently willing participant in the murders. Having learned of his superior officer’s plans to kill innocents – under the jaded belief that no Afghan is actually innocent – and cover up the murders by planting weapons on their corpses, Winfield confided in his parents, who tried to report his concerns, only to face bureaucratic red tape instead of solutions. Krauss slowly and smartly reveals what happened next, as young men are broken down by their experiences, and succumb to the dark side of war.

brave miss world newBRAVE MISS WORLD
Cecilia Peck’s inspiring new film also deals with the violence perpetrated by men, through the lens of her protagonist, former Miss World Linor Abargil. Just weeks before she was crowned, the young Israeli was abducted and raped by a man who was supposed to be offering her assistance. While she shared her pain with family and close friends, Abargil kept the incident a secret. A decade later, she began to open up publicly, using her fame as a platform to initiate dialogue about violence against women and encourage others to speak out about their own difficult experiences. Peck follows her as she travels around the world, weaving the stories of other survivors throughout her journeys, while also demonstrating the ways Abargil’s own life has changed – she begins to study law and, intriguingly, to become increasingly religious, moving from provocative ads for underwear to wearing modest garments that cover her head-to-toe as she prepares for her wedding.

Also serving up measured inspiration is Patrick Creadon’s look at a unique design class aiming to affect change in a downtrodden rural town in North Carolina. Working with a forward thinking new school superintendent, product designers Emily and Matthew propose a year-long curriculum that will teach practical problem solving and design skills to high school students, culminating in a massive student-led semester-ending project that will benefit the entire community: the construction of a large new structure that will house a farmers’ market, providing new employment opportunities as well as community fellowship. The heart of the film rests with the instructors – while Creadon profiles some of the students, their sheer number makes it hard to convey a fully rounded sense of their personalities. This is more than made up by Emily and Matthew, however. Partners in both life and in their Project H design company, they are outsiders to Bertie County NC and face institutional hurdles that have their impact on the curriculum – generally a lack of support and funding that sees them volunteer their time rather than draw a salary for their efforts. However, the likeable pair have learned enough from past efforts, especially Matthew’s heartbreaking story of a well-intentioned Detroit housing project that fell into ruins, to persevere and to serve as important role models for their students, making this winning doc especially beneficial viewing for other educators.

still_bestkeptBEST KEPT SECRET
Samantha Buck’s engaging film is also focused on an educator, Janet Mino, who teaches at John F Kennedy High School, an institution promoted as Newark NJ’s “best kept secret.” Her students have special needs, and, for the first time in two decades of working with autistic children, her entire class is graduating. They’re aging out of the system, and, tellingly, transitioning from “students” to “consumers” of services – and Mino is fearful what that will mean for her kids, who can suffer catastrophic setbacks if they miss only a handful of learning sessions, and come from lower class economic backgrounds which greatly limit their families’ financial capabilities to seek the kind of support that can best serve them. She sets out to find out what options do exist, to help set her charges on the right path, and it’s a testament to her dedication that she initially finds some solutions, but the ultimate fates of the graduates are more complex and honest, speaking to needs society should be addressing that remain unmet.

On both a philosophical and real-world level, Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson’s affecting look at green burial also explores the efforts of a small but growing movement to meet a fundamental human need. The consecration and mourning of the dead combines with the desire to correct centuries of pollution and exploitation of the environment through the creation of non-toxic, natural burials that also conserves wilderness. Serving as the sympathetic point of identification here is Clark Wang, a sensitive spirit with terminal lymphoma who manages to gather a small army of supporters to realize his desire to be buried green, including motivating a local cemetery to change expansion plans to instead preserve their natural woodland. The filmmakers follow Wang and his loved ones as he makes peace with his impending mortality and sees to his funeral arrangements, and, touchingly, allow viewers to bear witness to their process of honoring him after he passes.

Finally, Korean graphic novelist Jung joins with Laurent Boileau to create an overly sentimental autobiographical memoir of his background, adopted at five by a Belgian family. Largely told through an attractive animation style, the film explores the challenges Jung faced growing up Asian in a largely Caucasian European setting. While these sequences are far more interesting than the padded present-day sections, following Jung back to Korea, they essentially become fictional re-enactments, making them so far removed from a sense of “documentary” that they cause some viewers, myself included, to question whether this can rightly be assigned to the genre. While some hybrids work, this feels like something completely different, and ends up being a miss for me.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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