AFI Docs fest has rolled back into the nation’s capital. Here are a few entrants to keep your eyes open for this weekend. More information can be found at AFI.com/afidocs.
“Abortion: Stories Women Tell”
Filmmaker Tracy Droz Trogs has made perhaps the best documentary in years, and one that, incredibly, manages to take the divisive issue of abortion and see it from all sides. The director interviews women who have undergone the procedure, as well as both prominent pro-choice and pro-life figures. There are almost no men in the film, which is the right choice for this material.
Truly compelling and amazingly evenhanded, Ms. Trogs has fashioned a doc that is as much about the riven nature of America as this ever-contentious issue.
Screens Friday at 1:30 at the Landmark 6.
Owen was a normal child until, as a toddler, his parents noticed that his speech became increasingly unintelligible. Then came word from the specialists who saw young Owen and quickly diagnosed the problem: autism. But how miraculous the day when Owen’s parents realized that the boy repeated words from Disney films.
In “Life, Animated” Owen Suskind, now a young man, is seen speaking more or less functionally, relating to his parents and others as best he can — but almost certainly better than had he not been exposed to Disney films, which taught him to speak and come at least partially out of his shell.
Director Roger Ross Williams, working from a book by Mr. Suskind’s father, Ron (who also appears in the film) follows the younger Mr. Suskind as he works with specialists, seeks part-time employment and even makes a stab at dating a fellow autistic. In the film’s most poignant interview, Ron Suskind speaks of how the Disney films that raised his boy deal with nothing of sex beyond that first — closed-mouth — kiss, and how will Owen be educated in mating with little else to guide him.
Owen is seen near the end of the film giving a speech in Paris to a roomful of autistic individuals and their advocates, gamely attempting a little French and otherwise being an inspiration to so many. His story is not just of a young man dealing with a disability, but of a family’s — and a community’s — ways of helping those in their midst who need perhaps less of a helping hand than might at first be expected.
Screening Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Newseum.
“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”
“People think that turning 90, maybe you change, but it’s everybody else who changes. Suddenly I’m ‘extremely wise’ and everybody’s asking me for advice. … I am sometimes applauded for just walking across the room.”
Now 94, and still smiling and laughing, television’s single greatest creator of shows looks back on his considerable career, from promising college student to World War II flyer to one of the founders of the sitcom — and certainly its ace progenitor. Through it all is his laugh, his smile — and his ever-present white hat.
“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” from documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, follows a familiar formula of having their subject front and center while photos and home movies from the subject’s life are shown. What is unique about Mr. Lear’s life, of course, was that most of it was spent writing for television, allowing the directors to intersperse his contemporary interviews with vintage footage and clips of his various shows that are as instructive as is his life.
Mr. Lear’s contributions to the medium cannot be overestimated. In the early days, when TV comedy was still finding its footing, Mr. Lear worked in tandem with such other pioneers as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks — the three now-white-haired men have a powwow of chuckles and memories during the film — to create the now-familiar formulas for both talk shows and situation comedies. Everything we see now was somehow influenced by his touch, whether we realize it or not.
What made Mr. Lear a legend, however, was taking the sitcom format of the 1950s and ‘60s away from safe fare and turning the lens inward on issues of contemporary America in the 1970s. How else to explain Archie Bunker, the irascible Queens patriarch who espoused every prejudice under the sun and yet still drew laughs on a weekly basis. At several points in my life I have met people who claimed to have had a father/uncle/grandparent who was just like Archie, and his entrenched enmities for, well, everyone who wasn’t precisely like him, when seen on TV, made them seem all the more ridiculous. That of course he would have a son-in-law who was a flaming liberal (Rob Reiner, son of Carl) was of course key to “All in the Family’s” genius, for Archie and Meathead never so much as talked “to” one another but rather just spoke louder and louder but never gained ground.
When seen through 21st century eyes, “All in the Family” is incredibly transcendent. Furthermore, the show would be nigh impossible in such a politically correct culture as that in which we find ourselves now, proving just how ahead of his time was Mr. Lear. As a kid, watching the show in my grandparents’ home in Toms River, New Jersey, all I saw was a funny old man who complained about everything. Catching it in reruns now, as a middle-aged person, is to see that while, yes, some progress has been made, the internet has again made prejudice fashionable. Sure, Archie was a complete and intolerable bigot, but at least he told you to your face how he felt. (Even trying to imagine Archie with a Twitter handle just takes away his magic.)
Mr. Lear’s output in the ‘70s was legendary. In addition to the Bunkers there was “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times.” Some of the doc’s greatest moments come when cast members of his black-oriented shows, notably Jon Amos, are seen saying that many of the scripts, written by Mr. Lear and mostly other white men, struck them as untrue and condescending. (Indeed, they bemoan that “Dy-no-mite!!!” became such a catchphrase.)
Then, at his nadir, Mr. Lear simply stepped away from television. The reason, he says in the film, was due to an imploding marriage to a manic-depressive spouse, but we suspect more. “I never lost my childlike view of the world,” he says at another point, and perhaps such a Peter Pan complex lent itself to creativity but took away from an ability to foster real-world relationships.
All such guesswork aside, Mr. Lear’s friends, family members, co-workers as well as admirers — Jon Stewart, George Clooney and others — wax on his legacy and his contributions to modern comedy. Much of it is hero worship without much in the way of critique. A more fascinating film might have been fashioned if, say, it focused more on the disconnect between Mr. Lear’s admirable desire to put black all-American families on television with he and his writers’ inability to voice them in their scripts.
Other tidbits fill in the margins, such as Mr. Lear’s time during World War II. If you were in college, he says, you were excused from the draft, but “I wanted to be known as a Jew who served.”
And in the background, always, is Mr. Lear’s absent father, a criminal who was barely around. The case could be made that, from such pain, came the pathos to find his comedic voice.
“You have to find the satisfaction yourself,” Mr. Lear observes near the end, thereby again reinforcing that happiness comes from within, not from without. Sure, the millions of dollars and recognition by audiences and his colleagues of his genius surely have helped, but his statement is far from banal. Rather, this is a showbiz veteran waxing that he has been more than lucky; he had the bravery to foster his gifts into art that challenged America’s perception of itself, and for that, we should all be grateful.
Screening Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Newseum.
“Farewell Ferris Wheel”
It’s an interesting tale, to be sure. A carnival owner named Jim imports Mexican workers under the H2-B seasonal work visa to man his fantasy operation, with his workers either proclaiming him as a saint or a devil. Some say he is flexible with allowing them to return home to tend to sick family members, while other say the patron is, basically, stealing from them by making them work over 80 hours per week without overtime — and sometimes not paying for weeks on end.
It’s another salvo in the ongoing immigration debate, in which the cheap price of labor clashes with its costs in human capital. Jim, the carnival owner, maintains that he is “helping” his workers to live a better life, even though many of his employees say otherwise. He seems to believe that, because he is providing them a better life than at home, he is therefore free of obligation to be fair and pay his workers well this side of the border.
Powerful and enlightening, directors Miguel ‘M.i.G.’ Martinez and Jamie Sisley shine a light on a corner of an ongoing, raging debate. Much of the film was filmed in the Maryland suburbs of D.C.
Plays Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Landmark 1 and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Silver 2.
Bring tissues — and lots of em.
Director Clay Tweel follows the improbable, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story of former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason, a football hero who made one astonishing block when the Saints first returned to the Superdome post-Katrina and then retired before too many injuries could sap his quality of life.
But then fate deals him a horrid hand when Gleason, in 2011, gets a diagnosis of ALS, whose typical lifespan is a paltry two to five years. In an even crueler twist of fate, Gleason’s wife, Michel, discovers not long after that she is pregnant with their first child.
We follow Gleason, who knows he will lose first his ability to speak and then any chance of walking, as he begins a video diary for his son, Rivers. He checks off bucket list items such as climbing a glacier in Alaska, at first determined to fight the disease. But with each passing month, his condition worsens, his speech becoming at first slurred and then all-but-indecipherable, and this once promising, husky athlete degenerates into a lumbering mess who can no longer function on his own.
This is but two years into his diagnosis, and the pain continues for Gleason, Michel, his family (one awful scene has his father dragging him to a faith healer, which Michel resents as hocus-pocus malarky) and friends as the man they once knew is taken as his body weakens.
But Gleason, who understandably suffers episodes of severe depression and existential angst, refuses to give up, even when he can no longer speak, move or communicate but for a computerized interface similar to that utilized by Stephen Hawking. He founds a charity that brings in millions for ALS research, with the former NFL player ever-cognizant that he is shades luckier than those without his resources.
It’s a heartwarming testament to tenacity and determination in the face of being dealt a rather cruddy hand. But even as Gleason battles for his own health and to further the research, Mr. Tweel never shies away from the taxing day-to-day life of his subject. Gleason all but weeps the first time he soils himself, his dignity in ruins. Mr. Tweel’s camera is even permitted in the shower, where Gleason’s nurses and helpers assist in him washing his body, a task well beyond his abilities now.
Mr. Tweel told me today that he was concerned that “The Theory of Everything,” the Oscar-winning film about Mr. Hawking, jumped from the Hawkings having dinner to them being in bed. He wanted, he said, to show “the in-between.” Thus, the marathon of activities required to get Gleason both up in the morning and ready for bed — as well as the activities of daily life the rest of take for granted — are not spared. That Gleason would allow all of this on camera is a testament to his dignity.
In a doc that is gnashing to the soul, the film’s most anguishing sequence comes when Gleason, with his computerized voice, asks wife Michel, in a bed next to his — for they no longer share — if she is “happy.”
“Sure,” she says, convincing neither herself nor Steve — or us.
“I love you,” his digital voices says, which elicits only an “uh huh” in response.
Surely on the day of their wedding, no thought could possibly have been given to how pertinent “in sickness and in health” meant in their vows. Heretofore Michel was always supportive and there for her husband, but years of toil and being his nurse, as well as his ever-patient mate, are clearly taking their toll. (Caregivers also need comfort.) That she loves him is never in doubt, but no one could ever blame her for any feelings of resentment — at Steve, at fate, at God.
It goes without saying that years have passed since they were able to live a traditional husband-and-wife relationship, physically or otherwise. Were it not for Rivers, we believe, she might reasonably have checked out long ago.
Love, in the end, is what keeps Gleason, Michel, his family and friends, moving forward. Steve Gleason shows a fortitude and strength of character and soul that is well beyond what any of us could likely ever imagine for ourselves. “Gleason” is not shy about the ravages of disease, but it also is ultimately a testament to the extreme will — to live, to love, to continue on — that defines us as a species.
Screens Friday at 6:15 p.m. at Landmark 1.
Remember, bring tissues.