American Documentary Film Festival Reflects Growth in Nonfiction Genre

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by Paul Gaita

A superstar of the self-help world, doctors aiding Syrian refugees and an array of relationships ranging from intimate to obsessive are among the subjects showcased at the fifth annual American Documentary Film Festival. The event will feature more than 150 feature-length and short-form documentaries, including 50 world premieres, during its six-day run from March 30 to April 4 at the Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs and the Indian Wells Theater and Oliphant Auditorium on the Palm Desert campus of Cal State San Bernardino.

This story first appeared in the March 29, 2016 issue of Variety. Subscribe today.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose latest film, “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,” officially opens the festival March 31, will receive the annual Seeing the Bigger Picture Award, which has been previously bestowed on Oliver Stone, Harvey Weinstein and Peter Bogdanovich.

The Individualists celebrates the art of storytelling in a series of portraits and short films. Personal anecdotes from independent leaders in film explore individuality and its affect on their lives.

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“Joe is one of today’s most important auteurs in the world of documentary film, and we are thrilled to be able to honor him at this year’s festival,” says AmDocs founder and festival director Ted Grouya. Both Berlinger and the subject of his film, the life coach and best-selling author Tony Robbins, will be in attendance for the screening.

As part of the tribute, three of Berlinger’s previous documentaries will be screened among the festival lineup. The DGA Award-winning “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) will play April 1-2; “Under African Skies” (2012), which focuses on Paul Simon’s return to South Africa 25 years after the release of his “Graceland” album, April 2-4; and the 2014 biographical doc “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” about the trial of the infamous Boston gangster, April 2-3.

According to Grouya, the expanded program this year is commensurate with the increase in documentaries produced both in the U.S. and across the globe.

“Documentary filmmaking continues to grow and expand as an art form all over the world,” he says. “Our festival reflects this growth in the genre, as well as the growing popularity of documentaries overall.”

To that end, AmDocs has formed the North South Doc Network (NSDN), a partnership with international documentary festivals in Kosovo, Mexico and Ecuador that will allow films and filmmakers to gain greater access to worldwide audiences.

Seventeen NDSN films will screen at AmDocs 2016, several of which address aspects of the immigration issue: “Transient Hotel” (April 2) looks at the lives of deported Mexican migrants residing in the titular establishment, while “Abdul & Hamza” (April 1) focuses on Somali immigrants in hiding near the Serbo-Romanian border.

“We certainly hope to grow the film alliance,” says Grouya about the program’s debut. “But these four festivals provide a great base from which to move forward, because they represent very different geographical regions and very different cultures overall.”

AmDocs will also include several films that focus on subjects of a more private nature. These “Mature Audiences Only” films include “Skin and Bones” (April 2), about a trio of Danish men with muscular dystrophy who plan a visit to a brothel in Berlin; “Danny Wylde” (April 3), which looks at the darker side of the adult film industry through the experiences of the eponymous performer; and Sweden’s “For You Naked” (April 3), which addresses how love can transcend issues of language, culture and addiction. Through these and other films, the festival organizers hope to raise awareness about individuals who might otherwise invite distance or even scorn by viewers.

“When you look beyond the risqué, you see that these films offer a meaningful artistic expose on vulnerability and humanity,” Grouya says.

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