June 17, 2016 at 12:30 pm EDT | by Brian T. Carney
What’s up, doc? AFI Docs 2016
Athena, AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade

Lady Gaga impersonator Athena is profiled in ‘Haveababy,’ one of the documentaries screening at the AFI Docs festival. (Photo by Amanda Micheli; courtesy AFI)

To create the slate for the 2016 AFI Docs festival, Director Michael Lumpkin and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers screened more than 2,000 films.

After a while, Lumpkin notes, “things start rising to the top” and the final selections highlight the amazing talents of diverse international filmmakers. The festival runs from June 22-26. Screenings will be held at the Newseum, the Landmark E Street Cinema and the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring

AFI Docs opens Wednesday with the North American premiere of “Zero Days” by Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. It closes on Sunday evening with “Norman Lear: Just Another Vision of You,” a look back at the long career of the television producer and political activist.

Lumpkin, who is openly gay, is proud that AFI Docs includes cutting-edge LGBT documentaries from around the world. For example, the Spotlight Screening on Saturday, June 25 turns its gaze on the Check It, a street gang formed by LGBT youth in the Trinidad neighborhood in northeast Washington. In “Check It,” local filmmaker Dana Flor and New York-based co-director Toby Oppenheimer profile the five founding members of the gang, who initially banded together to protect each other, and who are now trying to market their own clothing line as a pathway out of poverty.

“Southwest of Salem: the Story of the San Antonio Four” tells the horrific story of four Latino lesbians who were falsely convicted in 1994 of child abuse. While they have finally been released from prison, they have still not been acquitted. Lumpkin, who grew up in Texas, says the story struck close to home.

“The story of these courageous women,” he says, ”reminds us that being queer in this world is still dangerous. The work is certainly not done.”

In her first full-length documentary, lesbian “Southwest” director Deborah S. Esquenazi says that in addition to spreading the word about an important gay rights case, she “wanted to play with the expectations of the true crime genre and to expose some of the great myths that permeate the American criminal justice system.” Building on the scholarship of Deb Nathan (“Satan’s Silence” and “Sybil Exposed”), Esquenazi reveals how prosecutors and reporters have demonized LGBT people as evil predators and notes that similar hate speech runs from the Salem Witch Trials through today’s debates about bathroom bills.

“Haveababy” profiles the contestants in a controversial video contest. Every year, a Las Vegas fertility clinic hosts a Youtube video challenge for aspiring parents. The winner, selected by online viewers and a panel of medical professionals, receives a free round of fertility treatments. Given the high cost of fertility treatments and the frequent lack of insurance coverage, the competition is fierce.

Director Amanda Micheli came across the contest when she was researching her own treatment options. Sharing her personal experience with infertility helped her build a strong bond of trust with her subjects, including Athena, a single Manhattan lesbian. An actress/performer who frequently works as a Lady Gaga impersonator, Athena was shocked to find that it was easier to come out to her family as a lesbian than it was to come out as being infertile.

Openly gay New Zealand journalist David Farrier got much more than he expected when he began to investigate a mysterious American website for tickling fetishists. In the entertaining documentary “Tickled,” Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve try to connect the clues during a bizarre trip across the United States.

“Who’s Gonna Love Me Now” is a moving portrait of Saar Maoz, an HIV-positive man who moved to London when he was kicked out of his family’s Orthodox kibbutz. The film captures his emotional reunion with his family in Israel; the soundtrack features performances by Maoz and his friends in the London Gay Men’s Chorus. And “Chicken People” covers the Ohio National Poultry Show where 10,000 meticulously manicured purebred chickens compete for top prize.

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