Day 1 at AFI Docs

Welcome to the real world.

Documentaries take us into the world to show us lives and issues that we might otherwise not know about. AFI Docs is a festival filled with documentaries to challenge us to see the world around us from a new perspective.

In the current American political environment, it seems like no one wants to talk to people they disagree with. The First Step, from Brandon Kramer, follows CNN political commentator Van Jones as he works for prison reforms. This is a story of strange political bedfellows. Jones, who was angered by the election of Donald Trump, found an ally in the issue in Trump?s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father served time in federal prison. Together they worked for the passage of The First Step Act (which eventually was supported bipartisanly and signed by the President).

Much of the film is Jones trying to bring very opposite people together. For example, he creates a group made up of people from South L.A. and West Virginia around the common issue of how addiction has affected those communities. But there were many who were appalled that Jones would have anything to do with the Administration. Many in the Black community saw his work as a betrayal. They thought he gave validation to Trump and his people. The main point of the film is that such dialogue is essential to the working of a democracy. When we refuse to meet with those we may view as ?the enemy?, it only adds to the polarization and the effective paralyzation of the political process.

The US Women?s National Soccer Team (USWNT) has been wildly successful. They have one four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. The Men?s Team, not quite as successful?by any measure. But the Men get paid at a much higher rate than the women. Yeah, that?s not fair. But is it legal? LFG, from Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, is the story of the USWNT?s legal battle against the US Soccer Federation over equal pay. While the film offers some wonderful soccer action as the women continue to win, the main focus is the legal process as it plays out over more than a year. (The case still is ongoing at the appeals level.)

When we think of professional athletes, we think that those who have made it to the highest level probably get paid in ways that reflect that. That certainly doesn?t apply to women athletes. The lawsuit reflects the basic pay disparity between men and women in the US. The film is filled with the personal emotions of the women who are fighting this battle. It also shows the arguments on both sides of the issue, although it certainly favors the USWNT?s perspective. (It should be noted that the US Soccer Federation opted not to be part of the film.) LFG is available to stream on HBO Max.

Fathom, by director Drew Xanthopoulos, focuses on two women scientists who are separately working on the calls and songs of Humpback whales. Dr. Michelle Fournet and her colleagues are trying to communicate with whales off Alaska, testing an hypothesis that a certain sound (a ?whup?) is a greeting/introduction. Dr. Ellen Garland is trying to follow the pathway of how a song moves across the ocean to different groups.

Whales, especially humpbacks, are highly intelligent. The film notes that these animals had developed a culture before humans walked upright. Their sounds may not be what we would think of as language, but it seems to have a social and cultural aspect that connects the whales to each other.

Among today?s shorts were Audible, the story of the football team at the Maryland School of the Deaf, as they come with the end of a winning streak and the death of a friend; Bug Farm, about some people who work on a farm that raises crickets, mealworms, and roaches for sale to pet stores and zoos as feed; and Invisible Monsters and Tomato Soup, in which twenty people have shared some of their dreams from early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Audible will be available to stream on Netflix in July.

One of the industry forums that was held in conjunction with AFI Docs was ?Breaking the Silence: How Documentaries Can Shape Conversation on Racial Violence?. It focused on a study by that name done by the Center for Media and Social Impact, which used the documentary about lynching, Always in Season, as a focal point for conversation in several locations in different parts of the country. The key point is that such a documentary can be a helpful beginning to conversations, if done properly. The report and resource guide can be found at

Photos courtesy of AFI.

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