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A Global Serving: AFI Fest Turns 20

By Tom White

The AFI Fest celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, having evolved from Filmex, the cinematic extravaganza that dominated the Los Angeles cultural calendar in the 1970s and 1980s. AFI Fest itself has bounced around the seasons, first in the spring, then early summer, then mid-October, until it finally staked its claim this decade in the post-Hallowe'en-pre-Thanksgiving slot.

With the Los Angeles Film Festival anchoring the mid-to-late June position, the two major fests in this vital region are far enough apart in the calendar to give each other breathing space. The partnership with American Film Market (AFM), now in its third year, gives AFI Fest the cachet of a market, although with AFM in Santa Monica and AFI Fest in Hollywood, the two entities seemed a whole freeway apart, despite the presence of complimentary shuttles between the two locales.

The ArcLight Theatre in Hollywood served as the primary venue, with the rooftop accommodating both parties and spectacular views of the harvest moon-lit Hollywood skyline. The International Documentary Competition was a mélange of world and US premieres, and docs also showed up in the Special Presentations, World Cinema and American Directions strands.

This year also marked the launch of AFI Project 20/20, an initiative designed to enhance international cultural exchange and collaboration among filmmakers around the world. One of the docs represented in this initiative, Back Home, was an extraordinary personal journey to Rwanda, the center of one of the most horrific events of the 1990s. While we have seen many documentaries about the Rwandan genocide, few, if any, have been made by actual survivors. J.B. Rutagarama, the Tutsi son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, escaped the horror with his brother, reaching a refugee camp across the border in Congo. Befriended by ABC News journalists who were reporting on the plight of the refugees there, while he served as a translator, Rutagarama soon found himself separated from his brother, who had returned to Rwanda to look for their mother. When ABC News beckoned the news crew home, the journalists--one of whom, Linda Vester, became a producer on the film--decided to cross a line and take Rutagarama with them to London. They supported him through university and they helped him secure a job as an ABC News cameraman. It was the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 that prompted him to return to Rwanda. Back Home is about that return--his wrenching reunion with his mother, and his reconnection with his homeland. Rutagarama's mother, in attendance at both screenings, received thunderous standing ovations. Back Home earned a Special Mention from the International Documentary Competition Jury.    

Motherland Afghanistan is also a personal journey to a ravaged homeland. Afghan-American filmmaker Sedika Majadidi traveled with her parents, both doctors, to Afghanistan to work in a maternity ward in Kabul and a rural hospital in the Ghazni Province. The conditions are grim and the medical equipment and training are sub-standard, but there is something affirming about what the filmmaker's parents--and the filmmaker--are doing. You forget at times that this is a family because the tensions that one would normally associate with the dynamic are notably absent. Majadidi admitted in the post-screening discussion that her parents were initially reluctant to participate in her film. Motherland Afghanistan, destined for PBS, with support from ITVS, is a modest film, which underscores the self-effacing character of the parents.

Buddha's Lost Children takes the viewer to another volatile region--the Golden Triangle in Thailand, where drug trafficking thrives and where children are often kidnapped and forced into prostitution in Bangkok. In the middle of this turmoil, seemingly an oasis unto himself is Khru Bah, former soldier and kickboxer turned Buddhist monk. His Golden Horse Temple is a hybrid of a monastery and training center, where Khru Bah takes in children and trains them to follow the Buddhist path, teaching them kickboxing and horseback riding, but also self-respect and compassion. The film, shot on HD, captures the lush surroundings that belie the poverty that dominates this region. But at the center is Khru Bak, along with Sister Mae Ead, a Buddhist nun, who is his partner at the Temple. Buddha's Lost Children, directed by Mark Verkerk and produced by Tom Okkerse, both of The Netherlands, won the International Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

I did not have the opportunity to see Lucy Walker's Blindsight (Sybil Robson Orr, prod.) about a Tibetan school for blind children and their trek, with mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to scale Mount Everest, to the summit of Lhakpa Ri, in the Himalayas. That film tied for the Audience Award for Documentary with Screamers, Carla Garapedian's account the rock band System of a Down's campaign to acknowledge and understand the 1915 Armenian genocide.

But I did manage to see The Last Days of Yasser Arafat. Sherinne Salama, the Palestinian-Australian filmmaker whose last film, A Wedding in Ramallah, captured the Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 AFI Fest, returned this year in the World Cinema strand with a film that belies the elements of a portrait or biopic. Salama is very much a presence here, as a character trying to secure an interview with the Palestinian icon, over two separate visits, the second of which takes seven weeks of pleading and coaxing to finally land what would be Arafat's final filmed interview. The waiting is the story, as this chapter in the long story of the Palestinian struggle comes to a close with Arafat's passing. That the film eschews talking-head observations about the controversy and complexity of the longtime Palestinian leader is to the filmmaker's credit; that would have been another film. This is about one filmmaker's search for a story, for access and the story that evolved from the waiting.

Finally, although my colleagues Tamara Krinsky and Sarah Jo Marks wrote eloquently about AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain About A Son in their dispatch from Toronto, I would like to weigh in also.

Once in a great while, we are treated to a documentary profile that defies convention: Tupac Resurrection, Judy Garland By Myself and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home: These are films that transcend the possibilities of the genre. And here comes Kurt Cobain About A Son, in which we barely see Kurt, much less hear his music. But we hear him, thanks to 25 hours of audiotaped interviews with journalist Michael Azerrad. That provides the sonic landscape, enhanced by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard's ambient score and by some of the music that inspired Cobain. And there's the visual landscape, furnished by DP Wyatt Troll, of the places that defined Cobain--Aberdeen, Washington; Olympia, Washington; and Seattle. Kurt Cobain About A Son is an elegy.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.