At age 21, festival takes more worldly view

Just as film festivals can be born, they can also die. Los Angeles festgoers with a reasonably good memory are painfully aware of this, having watched the innovative and stimulating Filmex — so influential in the 1970s that its impact was directly felt on the nascent Toronto Film Festival — fade and crumble as a result of myriad financial snafus and personality clashes.

Like a celebrity offspring, the AFI Los Angeles Intl.Film Festival, which rose from the ashes of Filmex, has struggled in the shadow of its predecessor, even under the sophisticated early leadership of Ken Wlaschin.

All of which makes AFI Fest in its 21st year something notable. Though much of the staff is intact, the entry of festival programming vet Rose Kuo (replacing Nancy Collet and taking over in the newly defined role as artistic director) has clearly triggered a serious shift in priorities. Some changes may at first seem cosmetic, as with the fest’s various geographic sections on Africa, Latin America and Asia being regrouped under the already existing umbrella title of World Cinema.

Kuo notes, however, that this points to a longterm change in the festival’s perspective: “Categorizing films by geographic regions is really difficult and even misleading, since films are now being made across borders and continents.”

Speaking of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” (slotted in the broad world cinema section), “How do you define it — as a Taiwanese film because of Hou’s national origin? As a French film because it’s shot in Paris, stars Juliette Binoche and is mainly in French? As something in between?

“The old categories came at a time when festivals were Eurocentric, and in the need not ignore the rest of the world, they created these separate geographic sections. Today, this has completely changed, since we look at films from all continents, so it feels like ghettoizing to keep the labels.”

More crucially, the festival’s global survey now encompasses far more of the important films on the world festival stage, including far more from Cannes than in several recent editions. This lineup includes not only Hou’s well-liked love letter to Paris, but Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”; Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine”; Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light”; Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop”; Li Yang’s “Blind Mountain”; Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel”; Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (programmed as a tribute to Catherine Deneuve); and Etgar Keret and Shira Gefen’s “Jellyfish” among others.

The list indicates a few things, not least of which is AFI’s intention to present a broad selection of the films currently making an impact around the world, but ones that may never get a U.S. distributor, or, even if they do, benefit from little domestic market exposure.

In this same spirit are several works that have recently premiered in Venice (Jacques Rivette’s “The Duchess of Langeais,” Alex Cox’s “Searchers 2.0,” Stephane Lafleur’s “Continental, a Film Without Guns” and Veiko Ounpuu’s “Autumn Ball”) as well as a sampling from Berlin (Sam Garbarski’s “Irina Palm,” Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters”) and Karlovy Vary (Bard Breien’s “The Art of Negative Thinking”).

Sprinkled through the lineup are gems that arguably should have been talking points during the fall fest glut, such as the wildly eccentric “The Living Wake,” but have been generally overlooked elsewhere. Then there are the more experimental films such as Jennifer Reeves’ “Light Work Mood Disorder & He Walked” and Adam Wingard’s “Pop Skull” that would have been hard to imagine in previous AFI editions.

What can also be read in AFI’s lineup is a possible cure for “world-premiere-itis,” in which fests compete — often against their own best interests — to get films based on their out-of-the-box freshness rather than quality. Fest programmer Lane Kneedler says, “Chasing brand-new film usually ends up with giving audiences maybe less than they hoped for, so we decided to really scale that back this year.”

Accompanying this is a welcome sign of a more serious and eclectic approach. AFI is the first fest anywhere in 2007 to organize a section (dubbed “Milestones”) honoring five key filmmakers whose deaths in rapid succession was like a giant slug to the stomach: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Edward Yang, Ousmane Sembene and cinematgrapher Laszlo Kovacs.

Usually a dumping ground for whatever “extreme horror” pic is available, the fest’s Dark Horizons section simply can’t be categorized this year, with a mix from Anders Morgenthaler’s “Echo” to Mika Ninagawa’s erotic period manga adaptation “Sakuran.”

Perhaps most impressive of all is that Kuo didn’t even have a full year to do her work, since she was hired after Cannes. “I came on with a very experienced staff,” she notes, “which was essential, but given that the festival is in transition, this was a challenge — a good challenge.”

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