Robert Koehler turns film fervor into eclectic menu

Filmex — the legendary Los Angeles Film Exposition that debuted at Grauman’s Chinese in 1971 — not only thrives to this day under its married name, AFI Fest, it also christened a passion and a professional calling in the heart of a young critic-to-be who decades later is now AFI Fest’s new director of programming, Robert Koehler.

“Filmex was my education,” Koehler recalls, “a selective, judicious, two-week crash course in current world cinema. That was always the template for me, the best kind of film fest for Los Angeles.”

Koehler, a steady contributor to Variety for more than a decade, is known among his film critic colleagues for his tireless fervor. One editor dubs him the “iron-man pentathlete of movie critics” for his marathon stamina at devouring new films. Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., who every December discuss their impending award selections in a back-and-forth fusillade of emails, know only too well that while weighing the merits of, say, the latest Coen brothers film against the latest P.T. Anderson or Alexander Payne, Koehler will march in a staggering list of little-known “must sees” by directors hailing from Iran to the Philippines.

And his advice is heeded. The best supporting actor award given by LAFCA to Vlad Ivanov in 2007 was a sincere expression of the group consensus, but overall awareness was ensured by Koehler doggedly directing his fellow critics toward “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the Romanian film in which Ivanov appeared.

“Bob’s the kind of guy who, if you make a comment to him while you’re both walking out of a theater, it’s suddenly three hours later,” laughs Rose Kuo, AFI’s artistic festival director who with Koehler and senior programmer Lane Kneedler constitute the trio of gatekeepers who fill the festival’s bill. “The discussion will have gone in a huge circle, but by the end of it you’re still talking about that film.”

Kuo brought Koehler into the position of curator at AFI Fest earlier this year. “It’s not just that he sees the movies, it’s his enthusiasm about film,” she says. “Bob sees over 500 movies a year, and yet — it’ll be the end of the year; he’ll be 400 movies in — he’ll have just seen a movie, will walk into my office, and say: ‘You have got to see this!’ His excitement is as fresh as if he were discovering movies, period, for the first time.”

Kuo has long been a partisan of such appetites. Her aim in overseeing AFI Fest has been to deepen the film-programming’s “relevance” and “excitement” — favored words for her. “We don’t just put a collection of films out there and hand you a schedule,” she explains. “We put it into context. We try to explain why a certain piece of film is significant.”

Koehler, whose devotion to international cinema was stoked from that very first year at Filmex — where he saw his first Iranian film, Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow,” not to mention Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana” — has parlayed that curiosity into the kind of contacts that only come from viewing films and mixing with their creators in far-flung regions.

“Bringing Bob inside the tent as a programmer makes all kinds of sense to me,” says Ray Greene, filmmaker, author and former editor of Boxoffice. “He has personal relationships with many great and neglected filmmakers all over the world. He also has a long memory for the masters of the past who should have been celebrated more thoroughly in the American film capital.”

Critical sensibility is also key, according to Kuo. “I arrived at this job in June 2007,” she recalls. “I’d already missed Cannes; I had to rely on critics to scout that year’s best movies.” She asked those with whom she was best acquainted — Manohla Dargis, Todd McCarthy, Anne Thompson, Emmanuel Levy, John Powers, and Koehler — to furnish her with lists.

Ever since, the festival has been defined by the adventure and exploration such diverse tallies of “the best” might imply. In picking Koehler to curate, Kuo seized on an opportunity long dormant in this country: “Throughout the world, film programmers have always come from the ranks of film criticism,” she says. “It’s only in the U.S. that this is not the case.”

AFI Fest 2009 will present 67 feature films and 27 shorts from 32 countries. This is a third less than were shown last year — a choice provoked by the radical decision to offer every film to the public, free of charge (see sidebar).

In keeping with Kuo’s philosophy, Koehler trusts AFI’s “taste” will be harder if not impossible to track, “because we deliberately cherry-pick,” he says. “We take the best from every festival that’s preceded us and make our selections accordingly.”

In this regard, the fest touts such titles as Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which cleaned up at Sundance with the Grand Prize and Audience Award, not to mention the People’s Choice laurel at Toronto; Berlin Golden Bear honoree “The Milk of Sorrow,” directed by Claudia Llosa; and Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death,” winner of the Golden Seashell at San Sebastian.

Koehler’s primary focus as curator, however, has been the New Lights series, which is devoted to first- and second-time filmmakers, including two works from Romania, “a country that had such a strong year we could have offered a Romanian sidebar,” he says. “Our films this year represent 32 countries.”

While last year’s fest was staged at multiple theaters linked by a shuttle, this year everything screens at the Grauman’s Chinese complex — before, circuslike, pulling up stakes and moving across town for a final two days to the Laemmle’s Monica as a way of linking the fest to the concurrent American Film Market in Santa Monica.

Even the venue choice was informed by Koehler’s curatorial sense, says Kuo: “As we were trying to ‘find’ the festival, debating the validity of showing fewer films, Bob came in with a stack of these old Filmex catalogs. He said, ‘Look at this: 40 films, in the Grauman’s. We should go back to the Filmex model.’

“This wasn’t our original, conscious intention, but with Bob I’m happy to say we’ve found our way back to the festival’s roots.”

TIP SHEET

What: 23rd AFI Fest

Where: Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; Laemmle’s Monica in Santa Monica

When: Friday through Nov. 7

Wattage: Actors Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron; filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Tom Ford, John Hillcoat and Haskell Wexler, among others

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