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AFI Fest: At 25, A Leaner, but Still Ample, Presence in LA

By Tom White

AFI Fest commemorated its 25th anniversary last month, and in the past quarter-century the festival has taken on as many different incarnations as positions in the calendar and locations in Los Angeles. Its seeds were planted much earlier-in 1971, in fact, as FILMEX, the sprawling, much venerated showcase for international cinema. The American Film Institute took over that festival and reconstituted, rebranded and relaunched it in 1987 as AFI Fest. Its first decade or so saw some growing pains, with locations shifting from Santa Monica in the spring to West Hollywood in the summer to Hollywood in the fall. But over the past decade, AFI Fest has anchored down the early November slot, as well as its geographic location in Hollywood, albeit shifting its epicenter from the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard to the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

But we've also seen significant changes at the helm over the past few years, and beginning in 2009, a slimming down of programmatic offerings, screenings and festival dates, while making most screenings available for free. And gone are the documentary strands and the corresponding jury prizes and audience awards.

But docs still abound at AFI Fest, nestled among the World Cinema, Special Screenings and Young Americans strands. Such high-profile Awards Season fare as Wim Wenders' Pina and Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss drew overflow crowds, while festival circuit favorites like Tristan Patterson's Dragonslayer, Kim Ki-Duk's Arirang, and Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This Is Not a Film highlighted the Young Americans and World Cinema strands, respectively. Mama Africa, Mika Kaurismaki's portrait of the late South African singer/activist Miriam Makeba, made its US Premiere. What's more, David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a profile of an octogenarian  master sushi chef, shared the Audience Award in the World Cinema category.


From David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi


 "The program is smaller in terms of the overall number of films, although we did grow our numbers from 2009 to 2011," says Jacqueline Lyanga, who was appointed festival director in 2010, having served as a programmer since 2005. "It's meant, though, in not having as many films as we used to have, that we were really able to focus and try to bring as many of the best films of the year as they're available to the festival. We're not as focused on world premieres; we have some world, US and North American premieres gathered into the festival, but it really becomes about engaging everyone in a dialogue about the most significant films of the year.

"In terms of documentaries, a shift did occur in 2009," she continues. "We very much love documentaries; I grew up on a steady diet of documentaries in Canada on the CBC. But what we really started to recognize is that there were documentaries that we felt could stand up against the narratives--they didn't need their own section. They were talking about the same kind of ideas. They were exploring visual ideas the same way that narratives are; they were playing with narrative structure and storytelling. So it became this opportunity to showcase them, as opposed to just in a documentary stream, but alongside films that are like them in terms of the voices and where they were coming from. I think it's great for all the films to just be viewed and explored by our audiences as films. We do identify documentaries within our program guide, but I think it's really wonderful for audiences to just encounter a special screening, and because it's in that section there's that excitement and they'll go see a documentary they might not have gone to see otherwise. Or they might challenge themselves to see all the Young Americans films, and they'll see a documentary they might not have planned on seeing."


AFI Fest Director Jacqueline Lyanga



For any festival, position in the calendar carries significant weight in securing premieres and showcasing groundbreaking discoveries. Sundance has the primary slot at the beginning of the calendar year, Cannes rules the spring, while Toronto kicks the fall awards season into high gear. IDFA, meanwhile, has positioned itself in late November as the forerunner of things to come for the following year. AFI Fest, arriving in early November, has the advantage of riding the wave of Awards Season, but it faces challenges branding itself as a discovery festival.

"it's actually an incredible opportunity," counters Lyanga. "We really do get a number of awards season contenders in terms of our special screenings and galas, but also in terms of our World Cinema program and foreign film titles, some of which may have already premiered at Toronto or Venice but some that are coming from Cannes. There are definitely some discoveries in the foreign section, like Faust or The Invader or Mama Africa, which made its US Premiere here. So it gives us in many ways the best of both worlds; we're able to premiere some films at the end of the year, but at the same time really shine a light on some films that perhaps wouldn't get as much needed attention otherwise."


Miriam Makeba, subject of Mika Kaurismaki's Mama Africa.



A sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles is home to a plethora of festivals-community, region and genre-specific, large and small-scheduled just about every month in the calendar. AFI Fest and the Los Angeles Film Festival are the most visible showcases in the region, with the latter holding down the valued early-to-mid-summer slot. How does AFI Fest distinguish itself from its crosstown contemporary? "One of the things that really distinguishes AFI Fest is that we bring in so many international filmmakers to Los Angeles," Lyanga explains. "But at the same time we work and collaborate with other programmers. We see each other on the festival circuit. And we think its important for communities like Los Angeles to have as many opportunities to view films theatrically that they otherwise can't, especially with the demise in the arthouse film circuit. The film festivals are that last bastion of film exhibition, in a way. I think it's important for Los Angeles to have the number of festivals that it does, and it makes for a richer and more knowledgeable film community."


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.