From space to skates. From doctors in a remote New Mexico town to toddlers competing in a beauty contest in Brazil to Brooklyn teenagers trying to get into college and queer and trans athletes trying to get a chance to compete and politicians trying to fight the forces undermining democracy. There is no superhero blockbuster, no story of vampires in love, no comedy about college friends catching up 20 years later that can come close to the heartwarming, terrifying, passionately humane impact of a documentary. And every year, in Washington DC, the American Film Institute Docs festival brings together the best from the US and abroad, from established, award-winning filmmakers and first-timers making the most of micro-budgets.
Some are stories of the past. The best-known documentary of WWII was “Memphis Belle,” directed by Hollywood legend William Wyler. Using footage Wyler shot from the National Archives, director Erik Nelson has made a new film called “The Cold Blue,” featuring gripping narration from some of the last surviving B-17 pilots. Some are stories of the future. Rory Kennedy’s “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” shows us that the most important part of our voyages into space is not what we learn about other planets but what we learn about our own, as new missions give us critical data about the state of our environment. Some are intimate family stories, like “Witkin and Witkin,” about septuagenarian twin artists, and “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” about a boy and his grandmother who live just miles from the war in Ukraine. Others tell the stories of remarkable people like Father Theodore Hesburgh, Gilda Radner, Alexander McQueen, and Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Some are about unsung heroes, those working to protect children, rehabilitate prisoners, and open up opportunities for oppressed people.
Some documentary stories are on a global scale, or even beyond, into outer space. Some help us understand the very medium of film itself. “Hal” is the story of director Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Coming Home,” “Being There”).
Some take us places we would otherwise never get to see, like “Into the Okavango,” a stunning journey down an African river.
This year’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree is Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “The Interrupters,” “Life, Itself”), an extraordinary filmmaker who truly understands that the essence of documentary filmmaking is empathy. Documentaries can be tragic, provocative, infuriating, inspiring, heartwarming, informative, and hilarious, in any combination or all of the above. Just like life.
Discussion of difficult topics including assassinations, terrorism, prejudice, disability, loss
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
June 8, 2018
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is about Mr. Rogers, a kind, gentle star of PBS children’s programming who liked us us just the way we were and was the neighbor we would all love to have next door.
His story is told in a documentary that matches its subject. It is candid but respectful, utterly heartwarming, and a particularly timely reminder that we don’t have to be swept away in bombast and sensory overload. It is also a welcome reminder that children need us to help them understand themselves and the world around them, even when some aspects are painful and difficult. Indeed, Fred Rogers exemplified the idea that adults were here to protect children not by keeping information about tragedy and hardship away from them but by helping them learn how to respond. His advice to “look for the helpers” is always repeated when some terrible new story is in the news. And of course he was one of the greatest helpers of all. “One of my main jobs,” he said, “is through the mass media to help children through the difficult modulators of life.” These included world events and also family issues like divorce and emotions like anger. One of the film’s most remarkable archival scenes is Fred Rogers testifying before a skeptical Senator about the importance of funding PBS. Instead of reeling off statistics, Rogers recited the lyrics to a song about how to deal with angry feelings. When he was done, the senator, obviously not just moved but pretty much tamed, says quietly, “You just got $20 million.”
Fred Rogers was an aspiring Presbyterian minister when he realized that television had enormous influence on children and that most of children’s programming was loud, rude, and violent. He put his plans on hold to start a series for the new Public Broadcasting Service that would be quiet, low-key, and low-tech. As a producer of the show noted the theory of the series was, “You take all of the elements that make good television and don’t do any of them.” He says, “I never felt I had to wear a funny hat.” And he welcomes elements that are anathema to television, including silence. Mr. Rogers set a timer to show children how long a minute was and just sat there while it moved around the circle. There a lot of “slow space, but no wasted space.” He was patient. He listened.
The show’s first national broadcast was in 1968, a time when there were many difficult modulators to navigate. “What does assassination mean?” a frightened Daniel Tiger puppet asks? He gets an answer that is honest but presented in a way that helps him not just understand it but understand how to process it.
In each episode, Mr. Rogers would come into the house, change his shoes, put on his sweater (one is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History), and have a little chat or sing a song to the audience. He would talk to the mailman or another friend from the neighborhood, and maybe interview a guest or explain something, from how biscuits get made in a bakery to how a young Yo Yo Ma plays the cello. Rogers himself never appeared before the camera in the other part of the show, set in a magical land, because he wanted a clear demarcation between the “real” and fantasy parts of the show. But he voiced the puppets, as many as ten characters, and we see more than once that those puppets allowed him to express parts of himself he could not any other way.
Director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) had nearly 1000 hours of archival footage to choose from and, while he certainly could have made several movies based on Fred Rogers’ life, the clips and contemporary interviews are exceptionally well chosen and well matched. We learn that Rogers asked Francois Clemons, a black man, to play the policeman on the show in part to promote diversity. A scene from the show where the men soak their feet together to cool off on a hot day is juxtaposed with contemporary news footage of black swimmers being thrown out of a public pool. Clemons says he was reluctant to play a policeman because the experience of his own neighborhood with police was not good. But he took the job. And then we learn that Clemons is gay, and hear how Rogers’ response to that news changed over time.
Two of the movie’s most powerful archival scenes are the interview Rogers said was his most memorable, with Jeff Erlanger a cheerful 10-year-old quadriplegic, and his time with Koko, who apparently indicated that he was her favorite visitor. Rogers’ palpable delight and boundless empathy have them end up in an embrace that is utterly endearing.
We hear from his family, friends, and colleagues, and from Ma (whose son is one of the film’s producers). But most of all, we hear from Rogers himself, who tells us, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he is accepted exactly as he is.” Other than Fox News, who we briefly hear blaming Rogers for the entitlement of the millennial generation, we all feel lucky that Mr. Rogers was exactly who he was, and this lovely film reminds us that we cal all be more like him.
Parents should know that this movie includes discussion of difficult issues and some archival footage of tragic news stories and a brief humorous shot of a bare bottom.
Family discussion: What parts of Mr. Rogers did we only see through the puppets? What are your favorite television shows for children?
If you like this, try: “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Street Gang” (about “Sesame Street”)
The World at War This classic is considered the definitive history and a landmark of television reporting. It was created long enough after the war ended to have perspective but close enough in time to have access to the participants, with eyewitness accounts by civilians, enlisted men, officers, and politicians as well as historians. The 30th anniversary DVD set issued in 2004 has three hours of new material and additional documentaries.
GI Jews Fifty thousand Jewish American fought in WWII, often struggling with anti-Semitism in the military. They look back on their experiences and how it affected their lives.
Korea, The Forgotten War It was the Cold War era, but a real war was being fought in Korea that embodied the geopolitical conflicts. This documentary covers that story, from Inchon to Pork Chop Hill.
Vietnam War: America’s Conflict Many documentaries cover the politics and the protests, and that is covered here, too, but this series focuses on the stories of the battles and the men who fought them.
Hidden Wars of Desert Storm Interviews with General Norman Schwarzkopf, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former UN Iraq Program Director Denis Halliday, former UNSCOM team-leader Scott Ritter and many others help tell the story of the American response to the invasion of Kuwait.
Restrepo This is the award-winning story of one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military, covering the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The remote 15-man outpost was named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.
The War Tapes Three National Guardsmen (“citizen soldiers”) document their time in Iraq.
Rated PG for thematic material including images of suffering
Images of tragic circumstances including illness and oppression
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
May 18, 2018
Wim Wenders’ unabashedly admiring documentary about Pope Francis is an intriguing and inspiring look at the man who is breaking a number of precedents in the Holy See. He is the first pope from South America after 265 predecessors, mostly from Italy. He is the first Jesuit, an order known for scholarship who “seek to find God in all things.” And he was the first to choose the name Francis, after the 16th century saint who was devoted to animals and nature.
He is unaffected, explaining that he wants to live very simply. He speaks to audiences and to us via the camera with candor and sincerity on topics ranging from the environment to interfaith understanding to the “three T’s” he says should be the foundations of our lives: in English, they are work (for dignity and contribution to the community — “to imitate God with your hands by creating”), land (to support sustainable resources), and roof (home, family).
Wenders interweaves a re-enactment of moments in the life of St. Francis to show parallels with his namesake. But the heart of the movie is seeing His Holiness interact with the crowds of people who are palpably moved by him. Visiting an American prison, he reminds the inmates that the very first man to become a saint was a prisoner like them. And then, in an act of infinite tenderness, he washes and kisses prisoners’ feet. A girl asks him why he has renounced wealth. He tells her that poverty around the world is a scandal, and “we must all become a little bit poorer…poverty is central to the gospel.” We can see the lugubrious faces of some of the Vatican priests and cardinals, looking as though this is not a welcome interpretation. Later, visiting his home country of Argentina, the crowd almost ecstatic with pride, he reminds them of a local expression: “You can always add water to the beans.”
One of the most striking scenes in the film has images of environmental damage projected onto the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. “The poorest of the poor is Mother Earth. We have plundered her.” And he reminds us that it is the poorest of the poor who suffer first and most from environmental degradation.
His Holiness appears before the United States Congress and goes to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis and imams. He sits alone in a cell at the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He speaks movingly to groups and to us about the importance of listening. He misses the connection of taking confession. He says smiles are “the flower of the heart” and speaks of the importance of of having a sense of humor. He tells us the prayer of St. Thomas More he says every morning that always makes him smile.
“An artist is an apostle of beauty,” he tells us. Wenders has taken that to heart and created a film that gives us a rare chance to hear directly from a man whose devotion and compassion will inspire anyone.
Parents should know that this film includes some footage of suffering, including illness, poverty, and abuse.
Family discussion: How do the “three T’s” appear in your life? Why is listening especially important to Pope Francis?
If you like this, try: “The Letters” and “Nuns on the Bus”