Member Spotlight: John King – American Film Institute

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Member Spotlight: John King

An AFI member since 2001, John King is a longtime supporter of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD, as well as the AFI DOCS film festival, which just successfully wrapped its 19th edition. In addition to serving as the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Silver Theatre, King is also an award-winning producer and director of television documentaries and the founder and President of Chieftain Productions LLC. He previously served as Vice President of Development at Story House Productions, and his credits include THE LOST BATTALION, NEW ORLEANS RISING and COUNTDOWN TO GROUND ZERO.

AFI spoke with King about how he first became an AFI member, some of his favorite documentaries and the AFI Silver Theatre’s reopening in May.

AFI: What is a film or television show that really had an impact on you growing up and made you fall in love with the art form? 

KING: Like many children, Disney films drew me in when I was young with their imaginative worlds and stories. As a young adult with a passion for documentaries, EYES ON THE PRIZE, from Henry Hampton, with its epic scope and incisive examination of the civil rights movement, opened my eyes to what documentary filmmaking can do. THE CIVIL WAR docuseries by Ken Burns, with its pioneering use of primary sources and stylized landscape shots to evoke the action of a bygone era, was also a major influence.

AFI:  How did you first become an AFI member and why did you gravitate toward AFI’s mission?

KING: I have had a life long love of film and drove by the construction of the AFI Silver Theatre 20 years ago, and it grabbed my interest. I was drawn in by the theatre’s link to the great work of the AFI. Plus, the theatre’s art deco architecture and history as a movie palace add to its use as a community arts space. From there, I became very involved as a volunteer and eventually as Chairman of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Advisory Council.

As a documentary filmmaker, I love film and think it is the defining art form of our time, and I believe the AFI is one of the central players in honoring and preserving this art form. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future as technology gives us virtual reality and other methods to enjoy visual storytelling, and I’m confident the AFI will be right there.

AFI: How do you feel about the AFI Silver Theatre reopening? How have you supported the theatre during the pandemic and what is the important role the AFI Silver Theatre plays for the local community?

KING: I am thrilled to return to the movies in person! During the pandemic, I worked with other Silver boosters to support our incredible staff through the transition to Silver online screenings and virtual festivals. We also launched a matching fundraising campaign to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic strong, and this campaign generated significant funds for the AFI Silver.

The AFI Silver Theatre exhibits films that otherwise would not be seen in the DC metro region. They program silent movies, independent and arthouse selections, as well as several film festivals throughout the year. It is a community center for people to connect through the cinematic art form, and it’s wonderful be together with an audience to experience the big screen again.

AFI: AFI DOCS wrapped last week with several in-person screenings at the Silver. Looking back, what have been some of your favorite moments or films from AFI DOCS over the years?   

KING: The 2019 Opening Night selection, TRUE JUSTICE: BRYAN STEVENSON’S FIGHT FOR EQUALITY resonated profoundly with the audience. The Q&A with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, after the screening was incredibly moving and inspiring for the call for civil rights and greater fairness in the criminal justice system.

I also enjoyed THE WOMAN WITH FIVE ELEPHANTS, a 2010 AFI DOCS selection which followed Swetlana Geier, considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German. It is a quiet, moving film that delves into philosophical questions of the mysteries of language, translation and the meaning of the written word. It won the Sterling Award for Best World Feature at the festival due to this entrancing quality.

And MINDING THE GAP, which screened at the 2018 AFI DOCS, impacted me greatly by depicting the pressures of modern American life and how people grapple with them.

AFI: In addition to being a fan of documentaries, you also make them. Can you tell us about your company Chieftain Productions and the kind of documentaries you produce?

KING: My high school Latin teacher lit the first spark when she assigned us to make a movie about Ancient Rome and its mythology. The challenge of taking up different roles on the project hooked me to the collaborative process, and our Latin class successfully produced two films. My father was a history teacher, and he instilled the value of documenting lived experiences in order to understand history and social subjects — the focus of our work at Chieftain Productions.

Our film NEW ORLEANS RISING captures this ethos. The documentary tells the story of five people striving to save unique elements of the city’s culture in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It dives into different socio-economic and cultural neighborhoods in the city during the critical period when many wondered if New Orleans could come back.

Over the course of two years, we chronicled how the city and people fought to continue. Our first-hand stories include testimonials from a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, a member of the Rex Krewe, an independent craft artist from the French Quarter, a high school marching band director and a former participant in the Zulu Krewe.

As these five residents grapple with the intense challenges of the first two years after Katrina, we see that the battle to repair and to save the singular culture and art of New Orleans is just as important as the struggle to repair broken homes and businesses.

AFI: What is your favorite documentary of all time and why?

KING: It’s very hard to narrow it down to only one. But HOOP DREAMS, and its story of two high school students pursuing their dream of becoming professional basketball players, stands out as a breakthrough documentary. Another past AFI DOCS selection, MURDERBALL, following the rivalry between wheelchair rugby teams competing on the global stage, still sticks out in my mind. And 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, which won the Oscar® for Best Documentary Feature, was brilliant in shifting the spotlight to background singers who support the stars we already know.

AFI: If you could make a documentary about any subject, living or dead, or any event from the past, present or future, what would it be and why?

KING: A real dream project would be an in-depth series on civilizations across the world. We’d explore the creation and development of culture, thought, society, and art over time to better understand how the civilizations of the world came to be. And in the last episodes, we’d delve into where these civilizations are potentially headed in the future.

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