AFI Docs | Four documentary films worth noticing

Last Updated: June 21, 2020By Tags: , , ,

(This article closes out Eric Althoff’s coverage of this year’s AFI Docs festival)

“Blood on the Wall’

Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested trace the long, long path of Central American migrants “caravaning” to the United States through treacherous areas of Mexico run by the cartels and narcotraffickers.  This intriguing doc examines the issue from all sides, from the poverty endemic in much of the Americas all the way up to U.S. foreign policy.  Fortunately, the filmmakers give us a few subjects front and center, including a pregnant teenager from Honduras on her way north with her boyfriend.

There is no easy answer to the immigration “question,” and “Blood on the Wall” is a study in empathy but also of how complicated and interconnected the Western Hemisphere truly is.

FEATURED IMAGE: “Blood on the Wall”



One indigenous woman versus the world’s largest gold company.  Claudia Sparrow takes us deep into that David-vs.-Goliath territory in “Maxima,” a fine documentary that follows the lengthy—and lonely—crusade of a Peruvian woman, Máxima Acuña, who claims that a multibillion-dollar mining company’s destructive land policies have poisoned the community, even as the mining company seeks to take her land.  Many other locals need the land for their living, and the mining firm’s policies are upending their traditional ways of life.

But can Acuña take on a multinational corporation with bottomless pockets in court?  The answer appears to be “Yes, but…”  However, what this short woman lacks in fiscal and corporate muscle she more than makes up for in spirit and the will to fight—igniting a cause both in her native community and in the world as her legal battle takes her all the way to Washington, D.C., and even up against the World Bank.

It’s cliche, but sometimes one person really can make a difference.



We’re at a crucial moment in American life where the plights of black and brown people are being justly discussed.  However, it’s important to not lose sight of the problems that have existed for centuries for America’s Native peoples, who experienced first genocide at the hands of the white man and now, hundreds of years later, face what is euphemistically called “Indigenous food sovereignty.”  What that means is that, yes, while ostensibly the tribes have rights to continue to hunt and fish just as their ancestors did, in practice, their traditions often run smack into the United States’ claims to disputed lands and waterways.

“Gather,” from director Sanjay Rawal (“Food Chains”) follows the stories of several Native activists, from an Apache chief attempting to “reclaim” an ancient tribal ingredient to a Northern California tribe battling with the state over fishing rights in traditional rivers and to protect those waters—and their precious salmon—as global warming continues to alter their ancestral ways of life.

“Wake up: stories from the frontline of suicide prevention”

Mental illness is the silent scourge that refuses to go away, and only in the last few decades has it been brought out from the closet, where it was discussed—if ever—in hushed tones, to the front lines of the cultural conversation.  And justly so.  This documentary from Nate Townsend is timely given that the conditions of shutdown and quarantine are forcing many to go without the help they need—a frightening premise given that the victims of suicide profiled in this doc left this earth when medical care was far more possible.


“My Darling Vivian”

June Carter Cash was well known as Johnny Cash’s wife and stepmother to his daughters, but the new doc “My Darling Vivian,” from Nashville filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover, shines the light on Vivian, Cash’s long-suffering first wife. Riddlehoover points his camera at the Cash daughters—Roseanne among them—who recall their mother as a feisty and loving woman, who was nonetheless put upon first by Johnny’s drug use and later his abandonment of the family for June.  Vivian spent years on a personal memoir of her life with the Man in Black, which included many of the loving letters he wrote to her from the road.  Though she finished it before her death not long after Johnny and June, it never got the attention it merited.


Furthermore, the daughters Cash say in the doc that the fictionalized, Oscar-winning “I Walk the Line” was unfair to Vivian, portraying her only as a screaming shrew.  Left out was her devotion to her family and her devout Catholicism, which was put to the ultimate test after she divorced Cash and was subsequently excommunicated.  However, Cash himself wrote a letter to the archdiocese saying he was completely to blame for the divorce, and thus Vivian was again able to receive Communion.


It’s details like that that fill out a life, and Riddlehoover has done the Cash family—and the culture—a great service with “My Darling Vivian.”

CATCH Eric Althoff’s complete AFI Docs 2020 coverage