Member Spotlight: AFI National Council Member and Documentary Filmmaker James Costa – American Film Institute


Member Spotlight: AFI National Council Member and Documentary Filmmaker James Costa

With AFI DOCS 2020 just weeks away, we spoke with AFI National Council member and documentary filmmaker James Costa about which documentaries inspire him and the power of documentary storytelling to serve as a catalyst for social change. Costa has several high profile documentaries soon to be released, including the Sundance award-winning WELCOME TO CHECHNYA about activists confronting anti-LGBTQ+ persecution and the docuseries AND SHE COULD BE NEXT, a look at how traditionally marginalized women of color are harnessing political power as grassroots candidates and organizers.

In addition to serving on AFI’s National Council, Costa is Co-Vice President for the Board of Directors for the International Documentary Association. He is also on the Leadership Council for The Roundabout Theatre in New York, as well as an Executive Council member for CAP/UCLA, and is a member of the Producers Guild of America.

AFI: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. How did you first learn about AFI and why did you decide to join AFI’s National Council?

James: I’ve been in the doc world for close to 10 years and have always respected what AFI does for filmmakers in all branches. Your alumni list is a who’s who of film. To be asked to be on the National Council was an honor I couldn’t refuse.

AFI: From your perspective as a documentary filmmaker, why is it important that we celebrate the art of documentary storytelling? What impact do documentaries have on our culture and society?

James: Documentaries are today’s generation six-o-clock news. So many people get their opinion on things from documentaries. I love how people are excited to watch and talk about the “next” documentary film. Now the flip side of this is that documentaries need to be fact-checked and when they’re not, we can run into campaigns of misinformation, which is quite scary. Documentary filmmakers need to be responsible and not intentionally mislead people.

AFI: For those new to the genre, what films would you recommend people view? What documentary films have inspired you?

James: I think the first documentary I ever watched was THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK. I would recommend SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, AMERICAN FACTORY and I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. There have been so many great docs that have inspired me over the years – ROGER AND ME, LET THE FIRE BURN and THE ACT OF KILLING to name a few.

AFI: Can you share a little bit about your first documentary, LUNCH HOUR, and what you learned from that experience?

James: It’s truly one of those if I knew what I knew now – oh boy, would it be a better film. I was someone with a camera in 2011 who was really angry about the issue of school lunches and how we treat our kids. I called up a few friends in the field and said, “Let’s make a doc about this.” The passion for the subject is in the film and that I am proud of. The tech stuff, now that’s another conversation!

AFI: In 2019 you produced ANIMAL PEOPLE, which was executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix. The film follows six young activists who are indicted as terrorists by the U.S. government. How did you become involved in the project? And what was it about the subject matter that resonated with you?

James: I’ve been an animal rights person for close to 20 years. My screenwriter/showrunner friend Mikko Alanne told me about this film he was producing and asked if I would jump on board as an executive producer. The story is about justice for people as well as animals. It’s an amazing yet frightening story.

AFI: How have you been staying productive during this unique time of social distancing? What projects do you have on the horizon?

James: I was on a jury for BAFTA for student films and watched over 200 films from all over the world. It was so uplifting to see students creating these works of art and letting their voices be heard. I have also been reading a ton of books! I have a few films going out in the next few months – AND SHE COULD BE NEXT which I co-executive produced, and WELCOME TO CHECHNYA which I co-produced. I am also an executive producer on Violet Feng’s doc called HIDDEN LETTERS.

AFI: Documentary filmmaking is such an interactive process, with filmmakers shadowing their subjects in their daily lives or capturing large-scale events. How do you see documentary filmmaking evolving as we continue to deal with COVID-19?

James: Documentary filmmakers are always facing problems whether it’s financing, distribution and all the other issues of filmmaking. We are a nimble group and will have to get creative. I know some filmmakers are relying on b-roll and zoom interviews. It’s going to be exciting to see what filmmakers use to get over these new hurdles.


AFI DOCS virtual film festival will take place June 17–21. Learn more here.

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