Things to Do

AFI Docs to Open With Hal Holbrook and Close With Roger Ebert

The annual documentary festival begins June 18 at the Newseum.

Roger Ebert in Life Itself. Photograph by Kevin Horan courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The organizers of AFI Docs said last year that the annual documentary festival will take a programming shift toward more policy-oriented films as moves away from Silver Spring and more into DC. But the bookends of the 2014 edition are clearly crowd-pleasers instead of wonk slogs.

This year’s AFI Docs will open June 18 at the Newseum with the world premiere of Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a retrospective of the actor Hal Holbrook’s seriously long-running one-man show about Mark Twain. Holbrook has staged the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, in which he portrays the great satirist giving dramatic readings of his works, on and off since 1954.

Scott Teems’s biography looks at Holbrook’s long career, focusing on the show he has mounted for 60 years and which Holbrook has no apparent intention of ending any time soon. The film features former Holbrook collaborators like Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, and Robert PatrickMark Twain Tonight! has played about 40 times in Washington over the years, most recently over a two-night stand last month.

And anyone who has reviewed a movie—or, really, gone to a movie—in their lifetimes will likely be allured by Life Itself, a biography of the great critic Roger Ebert, which will close the festival with a screening at the National Portrait Gallery on June 21.

Life Itself, an adaptation of Ebert’s memoir of the same name, premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was also shown, obviously, at Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois. It is slated for a July 4 release, but is getting another festival show to close out AFI Docs.

Director Steve James, who was at Silverdocs in 2011 to promote his film The Interrupters, started working with Ebert and his wife, Chaz, in late 2012 as the critic’s health started fading. The film traces Ebert from his long-running rivalry and friendship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, to his unshakable love of the moviegoing experience, to the loss of his voice to cancer, and finally to his death in April 2013. Life Itself features Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, as well as appearance by directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

AFI Docs will announce its full slate May 21.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.