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August 22, 2014

AFI DOCS Slate Highlights Politics, D.C.

The AFI DOCS documentary film festival, having announced earlier this year that it would expand its venues in Washington, released its slate of films on Wednesday, and they further solidify the event’s ties to the nation’s capital, with an array of contemporary political and issue-oriented movies.

AFI DOCS presented by Audi, as the former AFI Silver Docs has been re-christened, will run June 19-23 and will show 53 films in Washington at the Newseum, Goethe Institute, National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American History, as well as the traditional home of the festival, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md.

The opening night show, “Letters to Jackie,” sets the stage for the full slate. It’s a documentary by Bill Couturie about the letters of condolence that the late Jackie Kennedy received in the wake of the November 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.

The next evening features the festival’s gala screening, Michael Stevens’ “Herblock: The Black & The White,” the story of the 55-year career of the late political cartoonist, who won four Pulitzer Prizes, including one for public service at The Washington Post during the paper’s coverage of the Watergate affair.

Speaking of Watergate, the Penny Lane film “Our Nixon” features footage of the President Richard Nixon taken by aides such as H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman with Super 8 film, as well as commentary culled from the White House tapes. It’s all been under wraps by the FBI until recently, and one can’t help be fascinated with the prospect of such a behind-the-scenes look of the man behind so many caricatures — by, among others, Herblock.

Back to the centerpiece and closing night shows. On June 21, “Documented,” directed by journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas, gets its world premiere. With the Senate Judiciary Committee having just approved immigration overhaul legislation this week, Vargas’ story of outing himself as an undocumented immigrant is as on-topic as it gets.

And for the political junkies who are still suffering from withdrawal from the presidential race, the closing night’s show on June 22 is of AJ Schnack’s “Caucus,” a retelling of the run-up to the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses that resulted in the crash and burn of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential aspirations and a photo finish between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Anyone who’s covered the trail will be familiar with the large number of pork-related hoops the poor candidates have to jump through. It’s all good fun, and quite a way to pick a presidential nominee. Schnack directed 2009′s “Convention,” about the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. That was a crowd favorite at the 2009 Silver Docs.

Other films of note on the schedule: “Anita,” about Anita Hill; “Muscle Shoals,” about the legendary recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala.; “Remote Area Medical,” about free medical clinics in the United States that were once found primarily in the developing world; and “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” about the prosecution of the boxer after he objected to going to Vietnam.

The festival will also award its Guggenheim Symposium award to Errol Morris, the creative mind behind “The Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line,” among other influential documentaries.

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