While this transitionary edition was slimmer than in past years, screening just over 50 films compared with the more than 100 that made up last year's line-up, AFI Docs was still able to debut a number of new docs that are likely to appear on several other festival slates throughout the rest of the year, and, hopefully for some, also into theatrical release. Indiewire offers up five of these here:
"American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs"
Grace Lee (no relation) first met her subject while making a previous film about her namesakes, "The Grace Lee Project," but knew immediately that the Chinese American activist could sustain her own feature. Developed over the course of twelve years, Lee's engaging portrait of the 97-year-old Detroit-based visionary reveals a rich life devoted to social justice, from civil rights and the Black Power movement, to labor and environmental concerns and beyond. Boggs' story, and the beliefs that have driven her, offer an inspirational and practical approach to affecting change. AFI Docs marks only the film's second stop on the circuit, having debuted just a week earlier at the Los Angeles Film Festival (picking up an audience award) - with many more fests surely in its future.
Making its world premiere at AFI Docs as the festival's Centerpiece Gala is this personal story about the experiences of an undocumented immigrant. Directing the emotionally-affecting project (with co-director Ann Lupo), Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, reveals how he risked potential deportation and his successful career by coming out publicly in the New York Times Magazine about his undocumented status and becoming a very visible activist for immigration reform. There's real power in Vargas' story - a true American success story, just missing the papers - making him an ideal subject who provides a much-needed and sympathetic human face behind the staggering statistics and rhetoric around this pressing issue.
"I Learn America"
Another title debuting here also addressing immigration is Gitte Peng and Jean-Michel Dissard's appealing look at Brooklyn's International High School at Lafayette, which provides a safe and nurturing space for new immigrants. Focusing on five teenagers hailing from Poland, Pakistan, Guatemala, Myanmar, and the Dominican Republic who contend with learning new languages, traditional parental expectations, and immigration status, the film shows the importance of programs like this in shaping the next generation of Americans. Perhaps most significantly, Peng and Dissard demonstrate commonalities across cultural differences, as their subjects face familiar high school rituals like prom and graduation, or schoolwork-affecting distractions in the form of sports and girls.
Joshua Rofé's compelling world premiere also deals with young subjects - the difference is that they are facing life imprisonment for horrific crimes, without hope for parole. Rofé presents multiple perspectives, speaking to perpetrators - some now barely adults, others already behind bars for over a decade - as well as their families, and survivors of victims of juvenile offenders. The complexity of the issue often leads viewers to shift their own stance, scene-by-scene, on the vital question presented at the doc's heart: Is there any hope for rehabilitation and redemption through our penal system if these young men are never afforded even the possibility of future release, or are their crimes so heinous as to merit no second chances, no matter the circumstances?
"The New Black"
Finally, Yoruba Richen's new film is a candid, and often eye-opening, look at the complex truth behind the idea that "Gay is the New Black" when it comes to equal rights. The doc uses the 2012 marriage equality fight in Maryland to explore the contributing influence of religion on homophobia in the African-American community, at the same time examining the rhetorical linking of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with the struggle for LGBT equality. Richen and her team have had a busy few weeks, debuting the doc at LAFF, bringing it home to NYC for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and on to AFI Docs, close to the film's Maryland setting. With the winds shifting on same-sex marriage, this topical film will be making the fest rounds for the next several months.
Disclosure: "Lost for Life" is produced and distributed by SnagFilms, the parent company of Indiewire.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, Senior Programmer for DOC NYC, and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).