Lineup of unspoolings reveals an increasingly foreign array of pix

One of the ironies seldom noted about the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest is how the Hollywood-based event has put a major emphasis on presenting non-American films. That may become a bit more noticeable this year, as the fest — in its 20th session — has added a section devoted to African and African diaspora cinema labeled African Voices, with a six-pic section encompassing new works from the continent’s north (Marwan Hamed’s Egyptian epic “The Yacoubian Building,” Rachid Bouchareb’s Algerian WWII film “Days of Glory,” Tunisian Nacer Khemir’s magical realist “Bab’Aziz”), the south (Norman Maake’s South African thriller “Homecoming”) and beyond (Ngozi Onwurah’s U.K. comedy “Shoot the Messenger”).

The addition of a spotlight section on Africa comes just as the fest has ceased its four-year project of featuring new German cinema, and reflects exec director Christian Gaines’ concern for “keeping this festival containable, so we don’t grow just for the sake of growing.

“We have sections that are like concentric rings,” he adds, “some addressing established and emerging film communities, from Asia to Latin America. We’ve become very interested in African film, and felt we weren’t representing that part of the world.”

It also underlines that the great weight of AFI Fest’s programming tilts internationally and away from Stateside fare, a far cry from the institute’s original mandate in the mid-1960s to promote the country’s film heritage — itself a reaction to the perceived commercial threat from the then-explosive growth in the popularity of foreign-language movies on U.S. screens.

Even the other newly added section, Dark Horizons, highlighting midnight movie, horror and “extreme” fare, is mostly from abroad. Four of six titles have foreign ties: British sci-fi comedy “Alien Autopsy,” Bong Joon-ho’s Korean monster hit “The Host,” the Pang brothers’ latest Thai horror item “Re-Cycle” and the Thora Birch starrer “Dark Corners,” a U.S./U.K. co-production.

Whether such changes, along with its collaboration with AFM as the only North American festival-market marriage, will translate to a new level of respect for the late-fall event remains an open question.

Gaines says he’s well aware of long-standing criticism that a confab that aspires to be, in his words, “a festival of record for international cinema,” has frequently not shown many key current festival pics. (The Africa section, for example, lacks both “Bamako” and “Daratt,” the two most lauded African pics on this year’s fest circuit, while such Cannes prizewinners as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” also are absent.)

“We’ll invite lots of films,” notes AFI Fest programmer Shaz Bennet, “but for a myriad of reasons — from sales companies’ or distributors’ strategies to calendar conflicts, and on and on — we can’t get everything we want. Getting brand-new American films is always tricky, too, since they’re waiting for word from Sundance. But I think we have a pretty great international spread this year, representing 45 countries, and 22 world premieres.”

Foremost among these world preems are Zhang Yimou’s new epic, “Curse of the Golden Flower,” starring Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat; Alan White’s “Broken,” with Jeremy Sisto and Heather Graham; and Henry Jaglom’s “Hollywood Dreams.” Also high on the list: Chad Lowe’s “Beautiful Ohio,” featuring William Hurt, Rita Wilson and Michelle Trachtenberg; and Karen Moncrieff’s thriller “The Dead Girl,” with a thesp lineup including Toni Collette, Giovanni Ribisi, Brittany Murphy and Rose Byrne.

Making its West Coast preem is former AFI student (and rebel) David Lynch’s latest, “Inland Empire.”

More nostalgic nods are directed toward the long-lamented Filmex, the original Los Angeles festival that would be celebrating its 35th year (and 34th edition) had it survived. A 24-hour marathon of highlight films that screened at various Filmexes during the years will, says Gaines, “in our modest way try to recall some of the spirit of that amazing time.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s debut, “The Last Picture Show,” launched the first Filmex and will be part of the marathon, while Bogdanovich’s presence will be dramatically extended during the fest with his admired live solo performance “Sacred Monsters” and an unspooling of his updated and revised doc “Directed by John Ford,” both at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater, an added Hollywood venue this year.

A new experiment is AFI’s “20/20″ touring program, in which 20 filmmakers participating in the fest will then take their work on the road (including AFI’s Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md., and to universities, archives and other venues Stateside and abroad), for group discussions, exchanges and a planned blog network.

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