AFI DOCS 2021: Programmer Picks – American Film Institute


AFI DOCS 2021: Programmer Picks

With tickets and passes now on sale for the 19th edition of AFI DOCS Film Festival,  we asked our dedicated team of festival programmers to share which films playing at this year’s festival that impacted them the most –  here are their picks.

Sarah Harris – Director of Programming, AFI Festivals


A day in history where, if you were old enough, you remember where you were when you heard what happened. There are millions of stories about September 11th. Twenty years later, as details in those memories start to fade, the details of the ordinary people who survived this traumatic experience are contextualized with great care. Each member of our programming team had a cathartic response to watching and we spent the entirety of our next meeting sharing our own memories and experiences of that day. A gripping, thoughtful and immersive watch of how that fateful day unfolded. Buy Ticket 


I’m so excited for the launch of this new series from Netflix and Higher Ground at the festival. Documentaries continue to push the boundaries of non-fiction storytelling forms – expanding beyond what a typical definition of a doc may be. With this program in our DOCS Talks events, the conversation will explore how music and animation are part of educating a new generation about civics and democratic responsibility. The entire series is so fun, and I can’t wait to hear how Chris Nee and the artists brought this to fruition. (You’ll never think of your taxes the same way!) Buy Ticket 


Ken Jacobson – Senior Documentary Film and Special Content Programmer, AFI Festivals


One of the first films I fell in love with in 2021 was this charming gem about a small town Iowa newspaper run by the indefatigable Cullen family. Art is the editor and has won a Pulitzer Prize. His son Tom is a crack reporter whose ideas still have to pass muster with Dad. Then there’s Art’s wife, brother, sister-in-law — and dog, Peach — all who have a role to play. What makes this film a winner is the mixture of hope and doom brought on by huge systemic forces in the news business. They don’t call it Storm Lake for nothing. Buy Ticket 


It feels like a small miracle when a film you’ve been tracking and anticipating for years finally gets finished — and ends up soaring beyond your own high expectations. Such is the case with THE FIRST STEP by DC-based director Brandon Kramer and producer Lance Kramer. Tracking the plight of CNN commentator Van Jones and his seemingly quixotic quest to get a criminal justice reform bill passed under the Trump Administration, THE FIRST STEP is one of the most nuanced, engrossing and thought-provoking films about political change to come out in years. Bravo, Brothers Kramer! Buy Ticket


Malin Kan – Programmer, AFI Festivals


For many, this last year has been eye-opening; it is no longer possible to disregard the impact our government has on our daily lives. Exploring what that impact entails can launch you into an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, particularly in recognizing the vast inequalities that allow some to remain untouchable while others fall to the mercy of an unreliable “system.” In the tradition of the very best institutional observational films – did someone say Wiseman?– Antonio Méndez Esparza’s intensely emotional look at the Tallahassee Unified Family Court offers profound insights and adds an incredible complexity to that conversation. Buy Ticket 


Difficult to talk about, to write about – and one can only imagine, to make – Angelo Madsen Minax’s NORTH BY CURRENT hovers in an emotional, introspective space, in the connections and associations we draw between moments in our lives. Returning to his hometown after the unexpected death of his two-year-old niece, Minax also returns to a familiar feeling of out-of-placeness. Inhabiting that discomfort, together with his parents and sister, he explores the ways in which our childhood traumas have shaped us. Beautiful, contemplative, poetic, imbued with an overwhelming sense of love and empathy, I cannot recommend this one enough. Buy Ticket


Eric Moore – Manager, Programming Operations, AFI Festivals


To hear about the roles our queer foreparents played in LGBTQIA+ history, and how they helped us get to where we are today is obviously inspiring. But the part of their stories rarely explored is what happens to them in their golden years. In director Luisa Conlon’s short film SENIOR PROM, we meet the delightful residents of the Triangle Square retirement community in Los Angeles and watch them as they prepare to strut their stuff at their annual senior prom. Your heart can’t help but melt as they get to have the dance they never got to have when their generation was in high school. Buy Ticket


I think for me it is the incredible intimacy of DAUGHTER OF A LOST BIRD that makes it feel so precious and special. There are heavy topics explored in the film – including her family’s connections with the Indian Child Welfare Act and Indian Adoption Project – which are skillfully interwoven into the fabric of the project, helping us understand how Kendra and her family members are connected, disconnected and reconnected. To be privileged with the ability to join Kendra on her journey of self-discovery felt like a real gift and is proof that director Brooke Pepion Swaney has a talent for getting close to her subjects without getting in the way. Buy Ticket


Join us for this year’s virtual festival, June 22-27. Get your festival pass or tickets now at

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