by Bruce Fessier, The Desert Sun
The American Documentary Film Festival begins its sixth year Friday, and its fourth since being called one of MovieMaker magazine’s “25 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.”
It’s made incremental progress every year since then. With 140 documentary short and feature-length films from around the world, it’s become comparable in size to the Doclisboa Festival in Lisbon, Portugal, although not in the top tier stature of Full Frame in Durham, North Carolina.
It continues to add notches to its belt. Last year, festival founder Teddy Grouya developed the North-South Doc Network – a partnership between AmDocs and documentary festivals in Mexico, Ecuador and the Republic of Kosovo to share content and give indie documentary filmmakers greater access to international audiences.
This year, AmDocs has 14 films from those three festivals to complement a varied slate of American independents, ranging alphabetically and racially from the world premiere of Bob Herbert’s “Against All Odds: The Fight For a Black Middle Class,” to the international premiere of “Welcome Home Dick Van Dyke.” It features more than 50 world, North American and U.S. premieres, including an added slate of animation.
AmDocs has expanded from five to seven days to screen most of those films at one site, the Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs. Attendance is on pace with last year, but it’s well ahead of 2015 following last year’s paradigm leap, which Grouya attributes to the appearance of self-help star Tony Robbins at an opening night documentary about his live interactive events. This year, the festival opens with “Le Ride,” a film by “Amazing Race” director and personality Phil Keoghan about the first English-speaking team to ride in the Tour de France, back in 1928. Keoghan is expected to attend the red carpet launch.
Grouya finds it easier to measure his success internationally than locally, where AmDocs is vying for attention with the many the casino and McCallum Theatre shows and major events such as Dinah Shore Week, Desert X, the Indian Wells Art Festival, and the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition, whose reservation of the Indian Wells Theater at Cal State University San Bernardino-Palm Desert this year forced AmDocs off campus.
“I feel that each year there are strides made as we are very aggressive in sharing our mission,” Grouya said. “But there is a long way to go, surprisingly on the local level. Our film programming is stellar, so we’re surprised when folks exit the theater telling us how great their experience was and also noting that they didn’t know about AmDocs in the past – even though we have been working it for more than six years now.”
Some people may lack a passion for a documentary film festival because they don’t see a significant difference between TV non-fiction and documentary cinema. The line was further blurred this year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Best Documentary Oscar to the ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America” (which premiered in its entirety at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival).
“The traditional beauty of documentaries has always been that you get much more detail about a ‘newsworthy’ subject than a quick reference on a TV newscast,” Grouya said. “Documentary filmmakers of old had a journalistic bent, focused on fact, wanting ‘both sides of the story.’ Today, a documentary may be more akin to an essay on a subject, with the writer, or filmmaker in this case, creating their work to emphasize an opinion or subject matter. ”
Grouya, who viewed roughly 1,600 films, including 10 from filmmakers seeking funding from his Film Fund Pitch Competition, said he doesn’t program AmDocs with an eye on the Oscars. Documentaries vying for Academy Awards, he said, face rigorous requirements, such as having a theatrical run and accredited critical reviews in New York and Los Angeles. They’ve usually been screened at a mega-film festival and had a marketing budget to campaign for an Oscar nomination.
“At AmDocs, I’d be lying if we didn’t say we are proud to show past Oscar winners or future winners,” he said, “but we take pride in picking films that we know will resonate with our audience. Outside of a retrospective, we don’t go to another festival or market and specifically look to invite an Oscar winner or contender because, for one, many of these films may already be in the theaters. We want fresh films for our audience.”
The festival annually presents a Seeing the Bigger Picture Award to a champion of documentaries, including past honorees Oliver Stone, Harvey Weinstein and Peter Bogdanovich. This year the award will go to Jamie Redford, son of Robert Redford, who is an acclaimed film and TV writer, director and producer, and co-founder and chairman of the Redford Center, a non-profit organization committed to “transforming environmental and social challenges into stories that inspire action and change.”
AmDocs will screen three of his films as part of a Redford retrospective, including:
“Watershed” (2:30 p.m. Sunday), about the use of the Colorado River for drinking, sanitation and energy generation by seven U.S. and two Mexican states. Desert Sun water and environment reporter Ian James will lead a discussion with Redford following the screening.
“Toxic Hot Seat” (6:30 p.m. Sunday), about the nexus of money, politics and power and a few active citizens asking, “Why have we let 84,000 chemicals go largely unregulated in this country?”
“Happening” (7 p.m. Saturday), about Redford’s personal journey into the dawn of the clean energy era.
Grouya won’t reveal his favorite films in this year’s AmDocs, but he said the three Redford films would be among those he’d strongly recommend.
For the first time in the festival’s history, a selection of the Best of the Fest films will be re-screened on Thursday, April 6 at the Camelot.
Must-see AmDocs documentaries, day by day
20 must-see American Documentary Film Festival films besides the James Redford documentaries, based on their film descriptions and in order of their screenings:
“There Will Be Water,” Denmark / Per Liebeck / 59 min. U.S. premiere Friday. 11 a.m.
The idea is simple – bring saltwater into the desert – evaporate it by means of the sun and create freshwater, food and energy in desert areas, thus creating the potential to change the lives of millions. But it’s 50 degrees in the sun and it seems that every drop of fresh water requires a drop of sweat.
“The Other Side,” U.S. and Mexico / Griselda San Martin / 6 min. world premiere Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Just like every other weekend at Friendship Park, dozens of people have come to meet and greet one another on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, an experience that many describe as being “bittersweet”. Among those present is Jose Marquez, a 67 year old Mariachi singer, who has come to see his daughter Susanna. Although they live just a few miles apart, they have been separated by the U.S.-Mexico border for almost 15 years.
“The Desert Walkers,” U.S. / Jason Outenreath / 6 min. world premiere Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Jeff is a volunteer with No More Deaths, a controversial aid organization based in Tucson Arizona. Tasked with hiking deep into the Sonora Desert, which borders Mexico, Jeff and his team leave water at remotes points called way points in an effort to mitigate the deaths of migrants occurring in the sweltering heat of summer.
“The Bill Murray Experience” chronicles an actress’s quest to meet Bill Murray. (Photo: Submitted)
“The Bill Murray Experience,” U.S. / Sadie Katz / 84 min. world premiere Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
At a crossroads in her life, actress Sadie Katz embarks on a year long quest to have a magical experience with legendary comedian Bill Murray.
“Coke Habit,” U.S. / Dan Covert, Andre Andreev / 4 min. U.S. premiere Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
My name is Mike, and the summer after 10th grade my love for Coca-Cola turned into an addiction which still haunts me years later. At the height of my habit, sneaking around my parents watchful eye, I was drinking 9 cans a day. A pattern that over time left me with horrible horrible migraines, dizziness, blindspots, tunnel vision, and that ultimately sent me to a neurologist when I didn’t know when else to turn. This is the story of my Coke Habit.
“Cradle Of Champions,” U.S. / Bartle Bull / 100 min. Southern California premiere Sunday, 11 a.m.
The epic story of three young people fighting for their lives in the New York Golden Gloves, the world’s oldest, biggest, most important amateur boxing tournament. The film follows James Wilkins, Nisa Rodriguez, and Titus Williams on a classic urban odyssey.
“Welcome Back Dick Van Dyke” follows the homecoming of 91-year-old comic actor Dick Van Dyke. (Photo: Submitted)
“Welcome Home Dick Van Dyke,” U.S. / Logan Sekulow / 24 min. International premiere Sunday, noon.
A rare look into the life of Hollywood Legend, Dick Van Dyke. Follow Van Dyke’s return to his hometown of Danville, Illionis as he tours the city and visits his recently condemned childhood home for the first time in over 60 years. Hear stories about his youth, Walt Disney, the efforts to save his home and so much more. Dick may be 91, but his childlike wonder and charm has not even begun to fade.
“Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star,” Canadad France / Larry Weinstein / 53 min. U.S. premiere Sunday noon.
Leslie Caron, the beloved star of classic American cinema, is one of the last witnesses to a golden age of the 20th century. She is one of the rare performers who excelled in the triple worlds of film, dance and theater.
“No Asylum: The Untold Chapter of Anne Frank’s Story,” U.S. / Paula Fouce / 75 min. Palm Springs premiere Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Anne Frank has become an icon of tolerance and the face of the Holocaust. Through recently discovered letters from her father, Otto, and interviews with remaining members of the Frank family, the painful and relentless struggle to save the family from the Nazis is revealed. One by one his pleas for exit visas were rejected as the world turned its back on him, one country at a time, leaving the Franks, with no asylum and no hope.
“Kallen Esperian: Vissi D’Arte” tells the story of what happened to the former protege and favorite opera co-star of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. (Photo: Submitted)
“Kallen Esperian: Vissi D’Arte,” U.S. / Steven Ross / 61 min. California premiere Sunday, 7 p.m. with a Q&A after the film and a performance by Esperian accompanied by pianist Gary Beard.
For two decades, Memphian Kallen Esperian was the toast of the opera world: discovered by Pavarotti, and a favored co-star of Placido Domingo, she sang often at La Scala and The Met. Then a series of life blows took her away from the international spotlight. This is the story of what happened to Kallen Esperian, and her ongoing attempt to resurrect her career.
“Stronger Than Bullets,” U.S./ Matthew Millan / 88 min. Sourthern California premiere Sunday, 9 p.m.
When filmmaker Matthew Millan traveled to Libya to document the bloody revolution to overthrow brutal tyrant Moammar Gaddafi, he was floored by what he discovered. Amidst its crumbling walls, a high octane, defiant music scene erupted out of Benghazi. Hip-hop, heavy metal, rock, and blues take center stage in “Stronger Than Bullets”, as the musicians become the leading voices of the revolution…but their hard-earned victory proves fragile as Libya descends into post-revolutionary chaos.
“Against All Odds-The Fight For a Black Middle Class,” U.S. / Bob Herbert / 76 min. world premiere Monday, 11:30 a.m., with personal appearance by Bob Herbert
African-Americans have faced extraordinary difficulties establishing and maintaining a middle class standard of living. The black middle class remains proportionally much smaller and far less healthy than the white middle class. Nearly 40 percent of all black children are poor. For every dollar of wealth the average white family has, the typical black family has only a little more than a nickel. Bob Herbert shows why this is still the case a half century after the civil rights movement.
“American Veteran,” U.S. / Julie Cohen / 74 min. California premiere Monday, 6:30 p.m.
America’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a generation of American veterans so severely disabled that they would have died in previous wars. Now they are kept alive by improved medical tactics. “American Veteran” follows Sgt. Nick Mendes, for five years after he’s paralyzed from the neck down by an IED. An unflinching, romantic and often funny portrait of Nick as he studies for a real-estate license, learns to cast a fishing pole with his mouth and marries his caregiver.
“Davi’s Way,” U.S. / Tom Donahue / 90 min. California premiere Monday, 7 p.m.
Typecast as the bad guy in over 130 feature films (including “The Goonies” and “License to Kill”), actor/performer Robert Davi has always yearned to be the romantic lead. Trained as an opera singer, music is his chance to do just that. “A Very Good Year” is a character portrait of Robert Davi as he makes a shift from acting to singing professionally. The film also reflects on the cultural impact of Frank Sinatra – and Robert’s own quest to put on a concert celebrating Sinatra’s 100th Birthday.
“The First American,” U.S. / Kevin Knoblock / 94 min. California premiere Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.
George Washington is central to understanding America’s founding. He was the crucial figure in winning the American Revolution, in creating the Constitution, and in establishing the precedents for effective self-government as our first President. In this documentary film, The First American, Newt and Callista Gingrich, in collaboration with the Gingrich Foundation and Peace River Company, explore the life and legacy of George Washington.
“Stan Bitters Modern Primitive,” U.S. / Francesca Di Amico, Claudia Unger / 9 min. world premiere Tuesday, noon
Local locations like the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs show how Stan’s work is a staple of the Mid Century Movement from an artist working since the 1950’s to today. More people have seen Bitters work than they have famous pieces of art, because they grace the walls of our churches, banks, and schools. We pass by them everyday. The film is a study of contrasts, Stan, a reserved man, whose work, much like Jackson Pollack’s, is the culmination of physical battle with his preferred medium, clay.
“Windshield: A Vanished Vision,” U.S. / Elissa Brown / 47 min. reprisal Tuesday, noon
One of the best docs on Modernist Architecture. Originally screened as an AmDocs-Modernism Week Special Event in February, we are pleased to screen a reprisal of this unique work. In the mid-1930’s an idealistic patron of architecture boldly embraces modernism and sets out to change society by commissioning Richard Neutra’s first building on the East Coast. Presented following a screening of the Tavo Olmos short, “Neutra in Roatan.”
“Impression of A War,” Colombia / Camilo Restrepo / 26 min. California premiere Tuesday, 2 p.m.
For over 70 years, Colombia has been confronted with internal armed conflict. Over the years, the outlines of the conflict have grown indistinct. A climate of generalized violence has gradually settle
“Man in the Camu Jacket” chronicles the journey of Mike Peters of the Welsh band, The Alarm. (Photo: Submitted)
“Man In The Camo Jacket,” U.S. / Russ Kendall / 80 min. world premiere Tuesday, 7 p.m. with special pre-screening performance by Mike Peters and Live Fusion.
Man in the Camo Jacket – the story of Mike Peters of the Welsh band, The Alarm, and a cancer survivor’s crusade to change the world one concert at a time.
“Kaya From Jeopardy” is the closing night film of the American Documentary Film Festival. (Photo: Submitted)
“Kaya From Jeopardy,” U.S. / Seth Douglas / 76 min. world premiere Wednesday, April 5, 7 p.m. (Closing night film)
Kaya Blauvelt is a paraeducator, a ribald outsider artist, a trivia champion and a fanatic about Jeopardy! Now, after a decade of low paying and often demeaning jobs, Kaya believes she can “change her life forever” by winning the game show she’s watched her entire life.
What: The American Documentary Film Festival, presented under the auspices of the Palm Springs Cultural Center
When: Starts at 9:30 a.m. Friday with the American Documentary Film Fund Pitch Competition, presented by Synimatica. Opening night film. Daily screenings 11 a.m. Friday-7 p.m. Wednesday, April 5 with Best of the Fest screenings at times to be announced on Thursday, April 6
Where: Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs
Tickets: $225 for the Big Deal (all access), $199 for everything but the opening night film, $55 for opening night, $55 for six films, $11 per film
Information: www.american-documentary-film-festival.com or (760) 322-3689