Festival to host tribute to Errol Morris, conversation with Agnès Varda, doc luminary roundtable
AFI Fest is kicking into high gear today with its first full evening of programming, after Thursday's opening night gala screening of Dee Rees' Mudbound.
Documentary programming is well represented again this year at the festival in Los Angeles, with more than a dozen feature-length and short docs, including Errol Morris' Wormwood, a 256 minute-long true crime story that combines archive and fresh interviews with extensive reenactments. Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban are among the stars who play a variety of sinister and/or disturbed real-life characters.
We screened Wormwood Thursday and found it absorbing and compelling. It explores the mysterious death of Frank Olson, a government scientist and biological warfare researcher, who leapt from an upper floor of a New York Hotel in 1953. Netflix will release the film -- or mini-series; either term feels correct -- in December.
With a unique hybrid approach, the film uses dramatic recreations alongside documentary techniques... the resulting work is among the pinnacles of long-form cinematic achievement this year.
Wormwood screens at AFI Fest on Saturday, to be followed by a tribute to Morris, the Oscar-winning director of The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, and from earlier this year, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography.
Another film legend, Agnès Varda, will appear at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood Friday night for a "World Cinema Master in Conversation" event moderated by Serge Toubiana, President of UniFrance. Varda's current documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), co-directed by the artist JR, which recently qualified for Oscar consideration, will screen beforehand.
It will be a busy weekend for Varda. On Saturday (November 11) she's set to receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy's Governors Awards in Hollywood, joining three other honorees -- actor Donald Sutherland, cinematographer Owen Roizman and writer-director Charles Burnett.
Related: Errol Morris on his Elsa Dorfman portrait -- 'This is a really gifted artist and an incredible human being'
On Saturday, AFI Fest will host a documentary roundtable discussion with a distinguished group of filmmakers including Evgeny Afineevsky (Cries From Syria), Greg Barker (The Final Year), Kasper Collin (I Called Him Morgan), Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo), Yance Ford (Strong Island), Bryan Fogel (Icarus), Steve James (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), Amanda Lipitz (Step) and Brett Morgen (Jane).
Among the documentaries programmed in the festival are Sammy Davis, JR: I've Gotta Be Me, directed by Sam Pollard, a portrait of the supremely gifted entertainer and member of the Rat Pack. The film includes interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, the late Jerry Lewis and Billy Crystal, who is known for his wicked Davis impersonation.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond -- Featuring a Very Special and Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton is set to screen on Monday (November 13) and Wednesday (November 15). Chris Smith's film plunges viewers behind-the-scenes during the making of the biopic Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufman. Carrey rarely broke character during filming, "much to the delight, bemusement, frustration and, occasionally, rage of his co-workers," as the AFI Fest program notes.
California Dreams by Mike Ott debuts on Monday (November 13) the story of Cory Zachariah, a young man with a refreshingly original orientation toward reality. The film -- one of my personal favorites of the year -- premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Related: The men with the matching "Dang" tattoos -- California Dreams director Mike Ott and his subject Cory Zachariah
Another fascinating character is revealed in the documentary Filmworker, directed by Tony Zierra and produced by Elizabeth Yoffe. It tells the story of actor Leon Vitali who starred in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and later became the director's chief "assistant" -- a term woefully inadequate to describe the extraordinary effort he put into helping Kubrick execute his cinematic vision.
Related: Filmworker director Tony Zierra on his poignant subject, Leon Vitali -- 'He was living in I would almost call a messy Kubrick exhibit'
Québécois director Denis Côté comes to AFI Fest with his documentary A Skin So Soft (Ta Peau Si Lisse), a story of French-Canadian bodybuilders.
"His latest film... follows the men as they go about their days, cavorting and even encountering tragedies, all while being gently guided by a semi-improvised script," the AFI Fest program says. "These ultra-masculine men tend to their bodies as temples, with constant tanning and liberal application of body lotion."
Among short documentaries, I highly recommend Ten Meter Tower by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, a mesmerizing film that captures ordinary people as they try to summon the courage to jump off a 10-meter high dive platform. It screens as part of the Shorts Program One selection happening tonight (November 10) and Monday afternoon.
The full AFI Fest guide can be found here, with details on all the fiction and nonfiction offerings from the festival, which runs through November 16.
Note: this piece has been updated to include details and a photo of Denis Côte's A Skin So Soft. The lead also has been recast slightly.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.