June 14, 2019 at 12:42 pm EDT | by Brian T. Carney
AFI Docs returns with wide range of topics, heavy LGBT content
AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Gay Chorus Deep South’ (Photo courtesy the 2050 Group)

From June 19-23, AFI DOCS returns to Washington to celebrate the power of documentary films. The 17th edition of the festival will showcase 72 films from 17 countries; as always, the festival includes plenty of provocative LGBT content.

AFI DOCS is under the direction of Michael Lumpkin, the out film curator who previously helmed the acclaimed Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. He says this year’s slate “demonstrates the power of documentary film to connect and inspire across a diverse range of subjects.”

He is also delighted to note a major milestone for the festival. “We are pleased to announce that 48 percent of this year’s slate is directed by women, with 68 percent produced by women.” 

While Lumpkin emphasizes “there are a lot of great films at AFI DOCS this year,” he does offer a few specific recommendations for Blade readers.

To see the festival’s diversity in action, Lumpkin suggests the Charles Guggenheim Symposium. This year, the honoree is filmmaker Freida Lee Mock who won the Academy Award for her 1994 documentary, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.” Lumpkin says he got to know Mock when he screened her 2006 documentary about gay playwright Tony Kushner at Frameline; this year he’s looking forward to giving audiences a sneak preview of Mock’s latest work “Ruth — Justice Ginsburg in her Own Words.”

Lumpkin also mentions “We Believe In Dinosaurs,” a thoughtful documentary about the construction of a life-size replica on Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, and “Maiden,” which tells the inspirational story of the first all-female crew to participate in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race.

In addition, the long-time film curator also says he was surprised by his reaction to “Gay Chorus Deep South.”

“It made me cry,” he says. “After all these years of watching movies, that’s not an easy task. I don’t do that often.”

The film is about the Lavender Pen Tour; in the divisive wake of the 2016 election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir decided to bring their music to five states in the Deep South in the hopes of fostering dialogue and finding unity. 

When he heard about the tour, writer/director Charles David Rodrigues says he knew their story had to be told. 

“I immediately saw a rare chance of telling an emotional story in irrational times,” Rodrigues says. “I saw a group of people with beautiful music and a history of activism ready to sing against all odds.”

“Gay Chorus Deep South” is one of five films selected for the prestigious AFI DOCS Impact Lab. For two days before the festival, the chosen filmmakers will train with “impact strategists” and meet with policy makers. Lumpkin explains that “the Lab gives filmmakers the tools, the knowledge, the connections and the insights to have a successful impact campaign.”

Rodrigues, a straight ally, says that he and his producer Bud Johnston were thrilled to be chosen to participate in both AFI DOCS and the Impact Lab. 

“AFI DOCS is not just a festival,” he says. “It’s a community. It connects the films, the filmmakers and the audiences in a shared space with shared values and it creates movement where real change can happen.”

Finally, Lumpkin also recommends a new section in this year’s lineup called “Cinema’s Legacy” which “looks back on documentary films from the past.” He says, “this year’s focus is on the incredible impact of public media like PBS and CPB.” 

The inaugural legacy offerings include “An American Family: Anniversary Edition,” a look back at the groundbreaking 1973 cinema verité television documentary that ultimately led to today’s reality TV. The show captured the turbulent life of the Loud family; the breakout star was son Lance who came out on national TV and became one of the first openly gay celebrities.

He is also proud that the legacy section includes Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied” (1989), the revolutionary film about the lives of black gay men. Lumpkin calls it “a landmark film, a very innovative, personal documentary that everyone in the LGBT community should see at the festival, even if they’ve seen it already.”

Some of the other fascinating LGBT-themed films at AFI DOCS include the full-length feature “Searching Eva” and several films in the “Short Films Selections.” “Searching Eva” is a searing portrait of Eva Collé, a German artist, model and Internet sensation.

The queer shorts include “Mack Wrestles” about a transgender championship high school wrestler in Texas; “Sweetheart Dancers” about a two-spirit couple fighting discrimination in Native American culture; and, “Take Me To Prom,” a multi-generational look at queer people and their experiences at prom.

AFI DOCS opens with “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” which profiles the intrepid founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.,, and closes with “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Ivins, who died of cancer in 2007, was a maverick political commentator and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author. She was also an early and outspoken ally in the fight for gay and lesbian rights.

Some of the other amazing people whose lives are celebrated this year at AFI DOCS include Toni Morrison, the Amazing Jonathan, Mike Wallace, David Crosby, Linda Ronstadt, Miles Davis and the brave cheerleaders who fought back against the sexist and predatory practices of the National Football League.

The AFI DOCS website afi.com/afidocs) has a full schedule and ticket information for the festival.

‘Tongues United’ (Photo courtesy Frameline)

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