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What AFI Docs’ New Director Looks for in a Film

A panel at last year’s AFI Docs. Photograph of AFI panel courtesy of AFI Docs.

After a year with no full-time director, AFI Docs hired Michael Lumpkin, who arrives at a key time: The festival recently shifted most screenings from Silver Spring to DC, with more documentaries chosen for their potential impact on policymakers. But it’s not just about targeting wonks. “You have to know your audience,” he says.

How’d you get hooked on documentaries?

I ran the San Francisco LGBT film festival for about 25 years. Documentaries were a key part. Having 1,500 people watching a documentary and there being a ten-minute standing ovation—part of that is that they’re seeing depictions about their community they haven’t seen onscreen before. The earliest was probably The Times of Harvey Milk. I knew [director] Rob Epstein when he was making a short film about the “No on 6” campaign. As he was shooting it, the Milk assassination happened, and the film changed.

What kind of films are you looking for?

First, it’s about “Is it a good film? Will it play to an audience?” You’ve got to satisfy that basic transaction—“I’m spending my money and my time to be here”—and viewers cannot leave feeling they’ve wasted either of those, or you’ve lost. Then you get into the other nuances: What’s available? Are themes emerging in this year’s crop?

Have themes emerged?

A number of films deal with the US/Mexico border, cartels, violence, drug trafficking. A number are about journalism: Best of Enemies, about the Gore Vidal/William F. Buckley Jr. debates during the ’68 conventions; a documentary about the Nation; one about New Yorker cartoons.

Is there a place for films that aren’t as hard-hitting?

Yes. The festival is about coming to see really great films. Having impact and creating change—I don’t relegate that to one type of documentary.

The American Film Institute’s documentary festival will take place at multiple venues, June 17-21. For more ongoings this month, check out our Editor’s Picks.

This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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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.