The 2020 AFI DOCS festival, held online this year, was a rousing success in my eyes. I screened nine films over the five days it ran, and every single one of them was good. No clunkers. You couldn't ask for more from a fest. I wrote full-length reviews for several of those films, and links to those reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. First, here are capsule reviews of the rest. Remember their titles and be on the lookout for them.
Transhood - Director Sharon Liese follows four different transgender kids (ages 4, 9, 12, and 15) over the course of several years. We witness their struggles – everything from body dysphoria to rejection by peers or extended family members. The level of intimacy is what makes the film special. Heartbreaking personal moments, like the trans boy who is dumped by his girlfriend after she finds out, prove enlightening about the issues people endure while transitioning. This is not a play for easy sympathy, though. Each of the kids, in his or her own way, grows to a place of self-acceptance, and Transhood has a great message about how happy kids are healthy kids. The film, which won the Audience Award for Best Feature, is slated to air on HBO later this year.
Women in Blue - No film at AFI DOCS this year was more timely than this one. Director Deirdre Fishel started off following Janee Harteau, the first female police chief in Minneapolis, as she attempted to elevate the role of women within the force. During filming, Harteau was fired and replaced with Medaria Arradondo. (You may have seen him on the news lately.) Interspersed with that drama are individual arcs from some of the female cops in the city, who try to stand out in a male-dominated field. The Minneapolis Police Department is, of course, deeply unpopular right now. Women in Blue reminds us that women officers are statistically way less likely to be involved in excessive force situations. This is a compelling look at a group of women who are dedicated to their job and transforming the department.
Blood on the Wall - Sebastian Junger (the Oscar-nominated director of Restrepo) teams with Nick Quested (Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS) to explore migrant caravans. Their cameras track a 17-year-old girl making the journey from Honduras to (hopefully) America, along with a mother and her young children doing likewise. To call it eye-opening would be an understatement. Concurrent with that, the directors showcase the kind of drug-related violence the people in these caravans are fleeing from. Specifically, they focus on Acapulco, which was once a glamorous tourist destination but has become a place where grisly murders are commonplace. Blood on the Wall isn't easy to watch – there are shots of dead bodies and decapitated heads, among other things – but it's an essential examination of why these caravans exist, plus a call for viewers to have compassion for immigrants.
Coded Bias - Here is a documentary that will fundamentally change the way you think about artificial intelligence. There's no doubt that it's amazing what technology can do, but the film points out that a portion of what it can do is filled with errors. Some of it is caused by flawed algorithms, some by its inability to discern the gray areas that a living human being could. Over-reliance on it, as director Shalini Kantayya makes clear, might be opening up a Pandora's box of problems society isn't quite prepared for. The central figure is Joy Buolamwini, an MIT Media Lab researcher whose study made a startling discovery: facial recognition programs are less likely to accurately identify black faces than white ones, and more likely to identify men than women. In digging further, she found that the algorithms used to teach these programs tended to be input with predominantly white faces, so that's what they see. From there, the movie explains what that could mean. Most alarmingly, with facial recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies, it may well result in people of color being “recognized” committing crimes they did not actually commit. Coded Bias is provocative and more than a little unnerving.