When you’re programming a Los Angeles-based film festival, certain obligations come with the territory — showcasing Hollywood talent, of course (see “Lions for Lambs”), selecting films that make creative use of the city’s geography (like Alex Holdridge’s “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”) and, above all, enticing local audiences, particularly those jaded industryites for whom watching movies doesn’t exactly count as a leisure activity.
Ideally, you’d also have a full year to juggle these considerations. When Rose Kuo was hired as AFI Fest’s inaugural artistic director in June, replacing programming director Nancy Collet, she had roughly four months (and not even three weeks and two days, to borrow the title from the fest’s Palme d’Or-winning Romanian entry) to play catch-up.
“We spent a lot of time looking for the right person,” says fest director Christian Gaines. “It was a very, very intense process. It’s not as simple as picking films. It’s really examining what the festival is, and what it should be, and what direction it should take.”
This shift in direction is most evident in AFI’s new decision to prioritize acclaimed titles over new discoveries — a decision that inevitably befalls every film festival that isn’t named Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance or Toronto. This year’s selection boasts only seven world premieres — down from 13 last year and 20 the year before.
Kuo couldn’t be more pleased with the 97 features and 51 shorts that form her slate or less concerned about the numbers. In curating an event properly known as the AFI Los Angeles Intl. Film Festival, she and fellow programmers Shaz Bennett and Lane Kneedler took the word “international” as seriously as they did the fest’s location, ensuring that rabid L.A. cinephiles will get to see the latest offerings from world-renowned auteurs like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Carlos Reygadas, Alexander Sokurov and Jacques Rivette.
“Of course we’re going to have a commitment to showing films by the studios,” Kuo says. “But in the world section, we are going to aggressively go after what we think are the best films, by world masters and new talent, that have debuted on the world circuit.
“I don’t think these films are necessarily going to be easy or even enticing, but they’re important. We’re making a conscious effort to include films that will be somehow important, in a world-historical sense of cinema.”
Gaines says the festival had been leaning in this direction over the past few years, though it wasn’t until Kuo came aboard that the shift became a decisive one. Among her other innovations this year is the Milestones retrospective section, honoring recently departed filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ousmane Sembene, Edward Yang and Laszlo Kovacs.
“Rose was the catalyst that allowed a lot of ideas to kind of hit the table,” Gaines says. “She didn’t come in and say, ‘These are the changes we are going to make.’ She came in and opened up a dialogue.”
Kuo, 47, began her journey as a professional fest-hopper in the mid-’80s as a volunteer at Berlin. She has since been a prominent figure on the California circuit, working as a programmer at Mill Valley, a hospitality coordinator and consultant at San Francisco and a programmer at Santa Barbara, focusing on that fest’s Asian program.
Concurrently, she deepened her immersion in the film world with a career in production. After working on the crew of the 1985 slasher pic “Blood Cult” (which she proudly describes as “the worst horror film ever made”), Kuo helped edit films including Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” and Paul Schrader’s “Light of Day,” as well as Michael Mann’s 1986 TV series “Crime Story.” She also worked as a camera assistant to Haskell Wexler and exec produced the 2001 gay-themed indie “The Fluffer.”
That year, Kuo also worked as a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, programming retrospectives for Hou and Abbas Kiarostami and developing an intimate knowledge of the city’s arthouse venues. It was at this time that she first crossed paths with AFI Fest, interviewing for a programming post — a gig she ultimately declined, along with any other full-time film work, to devote her full attention to her family. “The scheduling was not really conducive to parenting,” she says.
Six years later, including one spent abroad with her family in Shanghai, Kuo returned to Los Angeles in time to hear that Gaines was looking for an artistic director. Having continued to steep herself in world cinema and the festival scene even during her sabbatical, and eager to start working full-time again, she saw the opportunity as a no-brainer.
“I remembered thinking (even in 2001) that AFI would be the perfect festival to work at — like, this is the right fit for me,” says Kuo. “So when this job opened up — I had just sent my son off to first grade — it was kind of serendipity.”
When you’re programming a Los Angeles-based film festival, serendipity always helps.