AFI Docs' Audience Award For Best Feature Goes To "Storm Lake"
A scene from "Storm Lake," winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature at AFI Docs 2021 (photo courtesy of AFI Docs)
"Shelter" wins Audience Award for Best Short; "Red Taxi" takes Short Film Grand Jury Prize
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The American Film Institute’s AFI Docs 2021 has bestowed its Audience Award for Best Feature upon Storm Lake, directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. The Audience Award for Best Short went to Shelter, directed by Smriti Mundhra. 

Juried prizes in the short film competition were also unveiled. The Grand Jury Prize for Short Films went to Red Taxi, directed by an anonymous filmmaker. Additionally, the Special Jury Prize was awarded to two films: The Communion of My Cousin Andrea, directed by Brandán Cerviño Abeledo; and S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y), directed by Nora Štrbová.

The awards announcement today (6/28) concluded the six-day festival, with screenings presented online and in-person at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Storm Lake--the Audience Award winner for Best Feature--takes us to Storm Lake, Iowa, where Art Cullen, brother John, some Tom, wife Delores and sister-in-law Mary have been publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper for 30 years. Yet with newspapers everywhere going extinct, how can this important form of local journalism survive?

Last Wednesday at AFI Docs, after the screening of Storm Lake, a special conversation was held with directors Levison and Risius along with Cullen. The session was moderated by The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. The Storm Lake Times is a small-town, twice-weekly newspaper that covers critically important local issues and serves as the glue that holds the community together. But, against the backdrop of a collapsing journalism ecosystem and a crushing pandemic, how can the paper avoid the fate of so many other newspapers? In this charming yet cautionary documentary, we see the Cullens hard at work, occasionally sniping at each other, as they meet the moment, one deadline at a time. As Art says, “Without strong local journalism to tell a community’s story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.”

Meanwhile the Audience Award winner for Best Short, director Mundhra’s Shelter, is a verité documentary that follows three young children and their families as they grapple with housing insecurity in Los Angeles.

Juried honors
This year’s voting jury for the competitive Short Films slate was comprised of Mike Attie, award-winning filmmaker and professor of film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; Greta Hagen-Richardson, director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and lead features programmer at the New Orleans Film Festival; and Yvonne Ashley Kouadjo, associate producer for The New York Times’ award-winning short documentary series Op-Docs

Red Taxi, the Grand Jury Prize winner for Short Films, was anonymously filed by locals. In it we see that as protests in Hong Kong escalate, taxi drivers experience a city in upheaval driving the streets day and night. 

The jury said of Red Taxi: “For its creative and accessible approach to telling a story from the perspective of those living and working in a moment of political upheaval, we award the Shorts Grand Jury Prize to Red Taxi. The courage of the anonymous filmmaker struck us for their commitment to depicting the nuances of reality on the ground.”  The Shorts Grand Jury Prize at AFI Docs is a qualifying award for Academy Award® eligibility.

The jury also awarded the Special Jury Prize to two films: The Communiton of My Cousin Andrea; and S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y). The former, directed by Abeledo, takes us to Andrea’s First Communion ceremony, which lacks glamour. And for Andrea, things without sparkles are meaningless. The jury said of the film, “For its ability to tell a reflexive story with levity and tenderness, we award a Special Jury Prize to The Communion of My Cousin Andrea.

In S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y), director Štrbová presents a multi-textured animated exploration of memory as a container of identity. The short is based on the personal story of the filmmaker and her brother who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The jury statement read, “For its intelligent use of multi-dimensional media in telling a fraught, emotional story, we award a Special Jury Prize to S P A C E S (M E Z E R Y).”

Diverse slate
The 19th edition of AFI DOCS presented a diverse slate of 78 films from 23 countries, shedding light on overlooked stories from the past, honoring champions of change and giving us glimpses into the everyday lives of subjects close to home and around the world. This year, 52% of AFI Docs films were directed by women, 40% by BIPOC directors and 18% by LGBTQ directors.
Among the festival participants were filmmakers and notables including Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar; Academy Award® winners Morgan Neville, Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine and Mark Ronson; Academy Award®-nominated filmmakers Julie Cohen, Betsy West and Steve James; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen; award-winning filmmaker Dawn Porter; Emmy® Award winner Chris Nee; CNN political contributor and host Van Jones; author and The New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb; filmmaker and actor Sonja Sohn; musician and filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture curator Dwandalyn Reece; president of the African American Film Critics Association Gil Robertson; Georgetown University professor Dr. Janet Mann; rapper KYLE; and son of late comedian and activist Dick Gregory Christian Gregory.

The festival’s panels and discussions provided filmmakers, film subjects and audiences the opportunity to delve deeper into the films with conversations led by some of the nation’s top journalists, including: NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford; NBC News’ Meet the Press moderator and NBC News political director Chuck Todd; NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson; MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee; Variety’s film awards editor Clayton Davis; Axios justice and race reporter Russell Contreras; sr. segment producer of WGN Morning News and WGN’s entertainment producer Tyra Martin; entertainment journalist & TV producer KJ Matthews; CQ Roll Call deputy editor Jason Dick and health care editor Rebecca Adams; and The Washington Post’s managing editor for diversity and inclusion Krissah Thompson, chief film critic Ann Hornaday, global opinions writer Jason Rezaian, national security editor Peter Finn, religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, and host and editor of food video Mary Beth Albright.

This year’s inaugural DOCS Talks programming included the world premiere of Netflix’s and Higher Ground’s We The People, as well as History Is Out of the Closet: Excavating Queer Stories for the Screen, a live stream conversation celebrating LGBTQ+ pride. The AFI Docs Industry Forum explored building accessibility practices into all steps of the production process, demystifying investigative documentaries, the making of the hit series Philly D.A., how documentaries shape conversations on racial violence, a behind-the-scenes look at the Hindsight Project films and new collaborations between public media and indie filmmakers. This year’s Industry Forum programming also included closed captioning and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation. The AFI Docs Industry Forum is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

AFI Docs’ program of Special Presentations included the Opening Night world premiere of Naomi Osaka and Closing Night film Cusp, as well as the Centerpiece Screening of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

This year’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium featured a discussion with filmmaker Dawn Porter and a free screening of her new film Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer.


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