AFI DOCS: some parting words

Last Updated: July 13, 2021By Tags:

This year’s iteration of AFI DOCS showed once again that truth is more important than ever. Documentaries are enjoying a golden age, with not only major filmmakers but up-and-comers getting into the form to show us what is really real in our world. Many looked into the past, whether it was examining some truly courageous nuns or popping open the vault of a departed rock star. Some examined ongoing issues, such as gender pay gaps in sports, and how one small newspaper is fighting not only to survive, but to continue an important public service.

May these filmmakers continue to thrive, and tell us the unvarnished truth.

Director: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team had among them a rallying cry: “Let’s fucking go,” politely abbreviated LFG. It’s that monster, indomitable spirit that also lends its name to the new documentary “LFG,” which follows the team’s—and their attorneys, supporters, advocates and others—in their fight to be paid as much as their male counterparts. But it’s not just sexist pundits poo-poohing the notion; the soccer federation itself trots out malarkey about how women’s “musculoskeletal structure” makes them somehow inferior, and therefore deserving of lesser pay.

It’s infuriating as a viewer to behold, so imagine the rage of the players, who face the directors’ cameras and tell of their brave (and, sadly, ongoing) crusade to be paid what they rightly deserve. Among the featured is of course Megan Rapinoe—who infamously said she would not meet President Trump at the White House, thus earning the tweeter-in-chief’s ire—who smiles wryly at the notions that female players are somehow “biologically inferior,” almost as if she is begging for a rebuke.

Among the other famous figures interviewed is Brandi Chastain, the player of the 1999 championship team who famously tore off her shirt in ecstasy at scoring the winning goal. We are not surprised to learn the pay disparity has been around since Chastain’s day, nor that the sexist and misogynistic nonsense leveled her way hasn’t much changed.

CNN produced the film, directed by Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, and the cable broadcaster’s documentary department is a thankful bastion of truth at a time when certain parts of the media continue to parrot lies I shall give no quarter here. CNN continues to put out quality docs, and this is only one of its many solid efforts.

“Rebel hearts”

Director: Pedro Kos

The nuns who taught at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood are among the most unusual heroes you have likely never heard of. In the middle of the last century, the notion of a stern nun wrapping the knuckles of the obstinate—or merely those who gave the wrong answer—had more truth than we might like to believe, but these sisters bucked the trends in more ways than one. Case in point, they were out there marching for social justice in the sixties, joining in the calls for civil rights, voting rights and calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

One of the doc’s most affecting moments has one of the nuns recalling feeling fearful when she was taunted during marches in Selma in 1963, but she reminded herself that such fear was a fact of daily life for so many Black people in the South—as well as White allies who dared join them.

The nuns’ unorthodox ways and means earned the stern glances of Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, who would rather not see the church move toward a more socially conscious mindset—though doubtless his resistance to change was as much practical as doctrinaire given that the church was losing people (and money) to secular life.

Upon being told to cease and desist, the sisters rebelled, claiming that the dictates of their Catholic faith demanded they fight for justice and the downtrodden. Many left the order and became secular instructors. The college closed in 1981 due to a lack of funds, and we are horrified to learn that the former nuns, who had heretofore taken a vow of poverty, were given up for the streets without any money. Through the generosity of their sisterhood—as well as lay Catholics of similar mental acuity—they have continued their mission essentially as a splinter group. Some even celebrate Mass and hand out Communion, and thus face excommunication from a monolithic organization so stubbornly opposed to change—and by change, I mean, the ordination and acceptance of women at the altar.

It’s an interesting and little discussed slice of history, of Los Angeles and of the Church and its many missteps, but it’s also a reminder and a celebration of those who choose to live by Christ’s example, even if their actions perhaps alienate them from the multinational, phallocentric organization set up in his name.

Director: Mary Wharton

Tom Petty died in 2017, depriving us of any new music but for what was left behind in the vault. Thankfully, therein layeth hidden treasure, including the fabled “second half” of the album “Wildflowers,” Petty’s solo masterwork from 1994. The second disc was released last fall to coincide with Petty’s 70th birthday, and at last the opus is complete.

Filmmaker Mary Wharton has dug through never-been-seen footage of the recording process of “Wildflowers,” which she skillfully arranges into a wallflower’s view of the making of the record. We see Petty at his creative best, composing amazing songs like “Crawling Back to You,” “You Wreck Me” and, of course, “Wildflowers,” nearly all of which he asked for help from his backing band the Heartbreakers despite this being a “solo” record.

Petty’s voice is heard describing the genesis of each song, including “To Find a Friend,” in which the middle-aged main character leaves his wife for what he hopes are greener pastures. This we learn was a reflection of Petty’s own life as his marriage was imploding. Petty’s daughters Adria and Kimberly discuss in modern-day footage the sadness of watching their parents’ marriage dissolve in real time—for the rest of us, it provided grist for an ingenious composition, but for them, little could mask their pain.

Other contemporary footage by Wharton includes interviews with Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, who famously moved with Petty from Florida to California to run down the dream. They are joined by “Wildflowers” producer Rick Rubin, still sporting that epic beard that is now grey.

Wharton’s fly-on-the-wall approach to the 27-year-old footage is intriguing, but may likely appeal little beyond Petty’s acolytes (of which I am one) other than watching the creative process at work. The most difficult decision, it seems, was a dispute between Petty and the record company about chopping “Wildflowers” in half. In the end, he acceded—and it would take until 2020 for the rest of us to hear those extra tracks.

Now his masterwork is complete, and those of us missing Petty’s presence can at last bask in his art.

Director: Andrew Gaines

Kevin Hart produced this fascinating look back at Dick Gregory, the stand-up comedian whose political rants presaged Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle—the latter of whom shows up in Andrew Gaines’ documentary. There is a great deal to learn about Gregory, from how nervous he was being on “The Tonight Show” for the first time, when Black entertainers had to walk a fine line between entertaining a predominantly White audience that may not have been ready for them. But Gregory’s comedy was rapturously accepted, and in less than a year he went from the edge of poverty to millionaire as his bookings increased.

His star was on the rise just as the sixties came into full swing, and Gregory struggled with being solely an entertainer or utilizing his immense platform to speak out against institutionalized racism, the war in Vietnam and societal injustice. He elected for bravery, even though his family feared for their lives as Gregory’s fellow warriors Medger Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. were cut down. (In the film’s most devastating moment, we learn that Gregory left Evers’ side only because his infant son, Richard Jr., had died, with Evers murdered days later.)

In addition to speaking out, Gregory famously became a health food advocate, jogging between Chicago and Washington, D.C., to draw attention to his cause, which many saw as quixotic. In his elder years, Gregory was broke, but even had a third act as an elder statesman of comedy, with the new generation calling for his appearances. By then he was paranoid and ranting, which was good for showmanship but harmed his personal relationships.

Gregory’s stamp upon celebrity activism cannot be overestimated, and he did it in the age before Twitter, when Taylor Swift can instantly alienate a portion of her fanhood by casting her lot with a Democrat running for the Senate in Tennessee—but with her life and livelihood hardly in danger. She and any modern celebrity have the benefit of standing upon Gregory’s shoulders, and his bravery at a time when the country was all but riven in two cannot be overestimated.

Director: Brooke Pepion Swaney

This affecting hour documentary traces a Native American woman named Kendy Mylenchuk Potter, who was adopted by White parents in her youth and now seeks to connect with her birth mother, April. We aren’t surprised to learn that April herself was adopted, and that her life has been haunted by sexual assault and other traumas (she says she can’t recall much before the age of 9 given how horrific was her childhood).

For even centuries after the Native Americans were forced onto reservations, they remained subject to policies of “kill the Indian, save the child.” The trauma started before her birth as April relates that her mother, who was White and impregnated by a Native man, was told by her family she had been “ruined.”

Watching Kendy reconnect not only with her mother but with extended family is heartwarming, though she can’t help but feel torn as those same relatives would rather she stay on the reservation than return to her outside life, where she has a husband and child. It’s the same awful choice faced by countless Native Americans dealing with endemic poverty on the reservations but seeking a better life in the larger American society.

This is one of the best short documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time.

“The Story Won’t Die
”; Director: David Henry Gerson

Syria has been under the scourge of war for far too long. We learn in “The Story Won’t Die” that millions of Syrians are refugees, though where can they go? Some, like the subjects of this painful doc, escape to the West, where they somehow thrive and make art in their adopted homelands. But how can they ever feel “settled” in new lands when their families remain behind in war-torn Syria?

One way is by making art in exile.

This is fascinating work from David Henry Gerson, and the end credits include a song from one of their participants, living in Germany, called “Ich bin hier,” translating as “I am here.” It’s a fitting sendoff.

“Storm Lake”
Director: Jerry Risius and Beth Levison

A crucial element of a democracy, the Founding Fathers believes, was a strong and independent free press. They could never have foreseen the digital age, which has eviscerated the local news business, with so many precious local papers going under, leaving behind far too many “news deserts.” The new documentary “Storm Lake” takes us inside one of the few remaining local papers, Iowa’s “Storm Lake Times.” The paper is run by a quirky man named Art Cullen, who along with his family has kept the paper going for decades. We join Cullen and his staff–which includes his son, Tom–in 2019, as their rural Iowa community prepares for the invasion of presidential wannabes, each of whom makes his or her case to the local farming community (it’s a ritual that, because of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, is both inevitable yet tiresome).

That’s the big fish. But so much more must be covered in western Iowa, be it agricultural interests, a local singer who has made it onto a Spanish-language talent show or the all-important business of the city council. In this way, we are reminded that news is a solemn duty for some, even as its bottom line is unforgiving. (Cullen says at frequent times that the paper often loses many, and some of his family do not take a salary.)

The film is at its best when showing that rural Iowa, thanks to its industrial-size slaughterhouses, is changing from all-White to a mix of White and workers from Latin America. Then-presidential hopeful Julian Castro comments on the number of Mexican restaurants in town, and that influx has turned Storm Lake blue even as its surroudning farmlands bleed Republican red.

The day-in-the-life stuff is intriguing, but we can’t help but feel our stomachs drop when the pandemic shows up, amking an already tenuous business model even worse. Advertising dries up, and like so many oher small business, Cullen–whose work has even earned him a Pulitzer–ponders how the Times will make it.

Things aren’t all bad, as thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, the “Storm Lake Times” was not only able to stay in business but actually increased circulation by the end of 2020. They’ve since joined with a syndicate of other Western Iowa newspapers to stay afloat. May they never run out of ink.

“Storm Lake” had its world premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival June 2.

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