AFI Fest Session Chronicles A Growing Appetite For Documentaries
AFI Fest's Doc Roundtable held this past weekend at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (photo by Randall Michelson/courtesy of AFI)
Filmmakers behind "American Factory," "The Apollo," "Bikram," "The Cave," "Citizen K," "For Sama," "The Kingmaker," "One Child Nation" share insights
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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The audience appetite for documentaries has grown significantly, fueled by the times according to Steven Bognar who teamed with Julia Reichert to direct American Factory (Netflix, Participant Media, Higher Ground Productions), which chronicles the culture clash that ensues when a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, is taken over by a giant Chinese company. “People are aware that documentaries are vital cinema,” affirmed Bognar, adding that viewers are clamoring for the truth during an era when there are assorted pockets of bogus news. 

Documentaries are filling a void, continued Bognar, citing Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K (Amazon) as providing a history of Russia, an introduction to oligarch turned Soviet dissident Mikhail Khodarkovsky, and a deeper understanding of Vladimir Putin that would otherwise be hard to come by, particularly in the space of less than a couple of hours. Bognar also pointed to Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo (HBO) as far more than a look at the history of Harlem’s venerable Apollo Theater. It also tells the story of entertainers and luminaries who’ve used their art and visibility to become “freedom fighters” on social justice issues.

Bognar’s observations came during a Doc Roundtable session at the AFI Summit this past weekend, part of the overall weeklong AFI Fest proceedings which conclude today (11/21). Bognar’s panelist colleagues included fellow documentarians Gibney, Williams, Waad al-Kateab (whose latest lauded documentary is For Sama, U.K. Channel 4/PBS), Feras Fayyad (The Cave, National Geographic), Lauren Greenfield (The Kingmaker, Showtime), Eva Orner (Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, Netflix) and Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation, Amazon). The discussion was moderated by reporter Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times.

Williams noted that major studios are “knocking at our door,” exhibiting a heightened interest in documentaries.

Gibney said documentaries have become more appreciated and invaluable for their ability “to present a complex reality” as skilled filmmakers reckon “with real life that can’t be controlled.” Complex reality, he contended, can be better understood through images, shedding light on problems for which there are no easy black-and-white solutions. By contrast, propaganda often simplifies at the expense of true insight and accuracy. Documentaries can thus promote understanding, prove to be compelling, intellectually stimulating, even help to change policy and conditions--or at the very least get people to think about a subject or people they wouldn’t likely have given much time to before.

Greenfield--whose The Kingmaker is a definitive biography of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos and an exposé on the Marcos family’s stunning political comeback--observed that the increased appeal of documentaries stems in large part from their brand of “slow journalism” in a world where short soundbites and the quest to be first with the news dominate. “Slow journalism,” she said, yields an expansive view of issues, cultures and people.

Fayyad noted that documentaries can “save lives” as the presence of a camera can help people in jeopardy, revealing their plights, providing a window to the world which can prove powerful. Fayyad’s The Cave shows us an aspiring pediatrician dedicated to literally saving lives by running a makeshift underground hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Ghouta. This tale of heroism again showcases courage and decency amidst and in response to inhumane acts.

Wang meanwhile teamed with Jialing Zhang to direct One Child Nation, which too exposes audiences to another form of trauma and tragedy. After becoming a first-time mother, filmmaker Wang reflects on her childhood in China and investigates the country’s policy from 1979 to 2015 whereby the government enforced one-child households, favoring male babies and waging a “population war.” The documentary contains graphic imagery but, she stressed, it represents evidence of China’s history. “If I censored it,” Wang related, then she would be like the Chinese government which has tried to suppress the truth.

Also offering her own intensely personal story is al-Kateab who in For Sama shares her life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria, as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to her daughter, Sama. Capturing the harsh existence inside Aleppo, how difficult it is to live, even survive, imbues the film--directed by al-Kateab and Edward Watts--with a profound sense of purpose, driven by the quest, she said, to “show the truth.”

Gibney said he’s in awe of the heroism displayed by al-Kateab and Fayyad as they strive to tell stories in Syria, putting themselves in harm’s way.

Bognar noted that these vital documentaries are finding an audience--which at times can extend beyond TV, theaters and conventional streaming. He explained that sometimes overlooked are programs that help films gain grass-roots exposure in local communities. That was one of the factors that drew him to Netflix for American Factory in that the streaming service is amenable to facilitating community screenings and access to documentary fare for educational purposes--as long as admission to one-time screenings is offered free of charge to community residents or to students as part of a school curriculum.

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