Festival moves forward despite economy

“Texas is going through an interesting period now,” says AFI Dallas artistic director Michael Cain as he prepares to launch the festival’s third edition, which runs March 26 through April 2. “There was just a big march in Austin demonstrating for increasing film production incentives in the state. It’s only one sign that there’s this growing drive of interest in films and filmmaking, and it doesn’t stop with us and South by Southwest,” he says, referring to the sprawling film and music event in Austin that shutters just before AFI Dallas.

Given that Cain began in the film festival world 10 years ago as head of Dallas’ funky, grassroots Deep Ellum festival, an offshoot of the city’s beloved Deep Ellum music event, the leap to running a large citywide festival with international programming ambitions indicates that Dallas is finding its legs as a cinema town.

“The fact that the city can support 12 film festivals of varying shapes and sizes, and appealing to a wide range of communities speaks volumes of where we’ve come from,” Cain notes. “When we started Deep Ellum, we were only the second festival in the city.”

Cain is willing to say that AFI Dallas is “Deep Ellum 2.0,” especially this year, since the event has probably wisely scaled back to a program of 77 features after last year’s jump to 150 titles (from the first year’s slate of around 100). A tougher selection process was called for, he says, and not just because the economic downturn is forcing virtually every U.S. festival to trim its sails: “We want to be more selective and try to show only first-rate films, and this gets us back to our roots in many ways.”

The fest’s narrative and doc competition sections pluck several fresh Sundance premieres, including Robert Siegel’s well-received “Big Fan”; Peter Callahan’s “Against the Current,” with Joseph Fiennes; Noah Buschel’s “The Missing Person,” starring Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan; Tze Chun’s “Children of Invention”; Kim Longinotto’s South Africa-shot doc “Rough Aunties”; and Canuck docmaker Paul Saltzman’s “Prom Night in Mississippi.”

Another South African-set pic, Anthony Fabian’s drama “Skin,” an import from AFI Dallas’ sister festival, AFI Fest Los Angeles, joins the narrative race, along with Matt Aselton’s Gotham comedy “Gigantic,” from Toronto.

“I loved Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick,’ ” Cain says, “so we’re excited to have Rian’s new film, ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ for opening night, with Adrien Brody and Rinko Kikuchi in person. We’re also hoping that our centerpiece screening of Guillermo Arriaga’s ‘The Burning Plain’ will be the start of a long partnership with a fine filmmaker, and it’s matched in intensity with our other centerpiece film, Kathryn Bigelow’s amazing ‘The Hurt Locker.’ ” The fest will close with a double dose of docs: James Toback’s “Tyson” and Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove.”

A nine-slot world cinema section underlines the fest’s interest in international cinema — a way of distinguishing itself from the U.S.-indie-centric South by Southwest — and includes a disparate group, from Carlos Cuaron’s “Rudo y Cursi,” with Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, to Hideaki Anno’s popular anime “Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more