The man who grew Frameline into arguably the world’s leading LGBT media arts body returns to festivals as AFI Docs director after a six-year stint as executive director of the International Documentary Association.

Michael Lumpkin

As the festival kicks off, Lumpkin talks about the pervasive power of non-fiction, why Best Of Enemies seems the perfect choice for opening night and what to expect from a DC crowd.

AFI Docs runs in venues in Washington DC and the AFI Silver Theater and Culture Center in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, from June 17-21.

What drew you back to festivals and this one in particular?
I hadn’t run a documentary festival before. My six years at the IDA really immersed me in the documentary community and I learned a great deal and saw his as a new way to apply what I had learned at IDA. This is also about being able to be a part of AFI: it’s on organisation I have admired for years.

One of the many things that drew me to AFI Docs was its location and [the idea of] screening documentaries in that city where so much goes on in terms of politics and legislations. It’s the ground zero for having impact in this country certainly and [around] a lot of the world. It’s a great opportunity to present films for people in that community.

Why did you opt to open with Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film about the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr?
When I saw Best Of Enemies At Sundance it struck me immediately as the perfect opening film because it’s about politics and debate and punditry. It was these debates in 1968 that were kind of beginning of that kind of broadcast news. There is a direct connection with what is on broadcast news and 24-hour stations now.

What can you tell us about the AFI Docs audience?
When I first started looking at the festival and digging deep, I saw this was the most educated urban area in the country. There’s a wealth of very educated people… so it’s a very smart audience, which is what draws people to documentaries: people who are interested in learning new things, learning about people and learning about new points of view and learning about other cultures and other parts of the world.

Obviously you love all your children equally, but can you highlight a couple of selections?
The Armor Of Light by Abigail Disney. She’s produced and executive produced a number of documentaries and this is the first film she has actually directed. It’s a film about guns and violence. The main character is an evangelical Christian who is very much aligned with the fundamental Christian community. He is based in DC and the right wing conservative Republican community. But his inner conflict is the alignment of the Christian community with the NRA and witnessing the kind of violence happening in our country with guns. For him as a Christian and a minister that was not sitting well. So he starts exploring it and the film is [about that.] Both sides are presented. It’s a very balanced and serious subject from a side you don’t see it approached from, namely both.

Along the same lines there is [David Holbrooke’s] biopic The Diplomat, about [his late father] Ambassador Richard Holbrook. It’s a great portrait of this longtime diplomat for the US and how he represented the US in a number of conflicts and a number of countries for several administrations.

When did you begin to feel a strong attachment to documentaries?
It began when I was running the LGBT festival in San Francisco. It was a mix of fiction and documentaries and all types of films. I would induce an audience reaction and connection to a film. There’s this electricity that can happen in a theatre when an audience is incredibly engaged with a film and a character and are with it the whole way through. More often than not these special moments were happening with documentaries.

When the real person you just spent one and a half hours with [comes on stage]… what happens is very much more personal for an audience. There’s a deeper connection with what they’re seeing as something real. This is one of the main reasons for the rise of non-fiction content being consumed by audiences – the connection between an audience and a character from the story. That connection with a real person can be so much deeper than with a fictional character. That was the beginning of me realising there was something special.

Documentaries are no longer the esoteric preserve of the few
You hear in an airport or restaurant mention of the word ‘documentary’. My 85-year-old mother in Texas is part of that; the awareness of documentary and non-fiction.

Netflix has certainly brought docs to the masses. Your view?
Netflix is one of many great platforms that have developed for documentaries. It’s good for documentaries because they still to this day have a difficult time in theatres and breaking through. The theatrical format is there to support fiction films and a certain level of fiction films and there are very few documentaries that can compete with studio fiction features.

Doumentaries are often trying to fit into a theatrical system and format that can be not very favourable, so Netflix and others have created new business models that are friendlier for docs. That’s been a key factor in the rise of documentary and the increased popularity. The delivery models for the content have ben changing rapidly and there’s a lot of experimentation going on… documentaries in a lot of ways have been successful in competing within these platforms.

Tell us about AFI Docs’ two-day conference
We have various sessions that will bring people together and take deep dives into different topical areas. We’re looking at the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking, which is a complicated area that is being discussed more. A lot of traditional journalism is changing. There’s a lot of change in that world and things are starting to overlap much more.

If you’re with PBS Frontline you have that institution behind you. A lot of independent filmmakers who go out to cover subjects in more dangerous areas, whether that’s a war going on or uncovering something that a government doesn’t want to be uncovered… filmmakers need to know how they can best protect themselves to mitigate all these varieties of risks. We will have a session on PBS’ recent announcement on putting more resources into independent documentary.

We’re also going to look at web-based content – another explosion of non-fiction content. We’re working with NPR Visuals and a team from NPR will do a session on how they create web-native content.

So how do you feel?
It’s hard to believe I have only been here five or so months because we have produced a really exceptional festival and I already can’t wait to get on to next year.