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Rose Kuo was having problems.

While assembling the program for this year’s edition of AFI Fest Los Angeles, Kuo, in her first full year as artistic director, was encountering resistance when she contacted reps from film sales companies and national film boards.

“In some cases,” she recalls outside of the festival’s homey, ramshackle HQ on AFI’s Hollywood Hills campus, “they were listening to my requests for certain films that I strongly felt should be in the festival, and I could sense that they just didn’t want to go there. I would press a bit more. They still hesitated. I’d press back.

“Finally, I put this way: We’re doing a significant survey of the films of one of France’s most essential directors, Arnaud Desplechin, plus an unusual look at the films produced by Jia Zhang-ke’s Xstream Pictures, a platform for the new waves from Kazakhstan and Argentina, tributes to Danny Boyle — who’s all the rage right now with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ — and Tilda Swinton. They heard this, and they would say, ‘OK. You’ve got ’em.’ They realized that this festival is really serious.”

Bucking the long-held but increasingly out-of-favor goal of booking world premieres, AFI Fest in 2008 has adopted a festival-of-festivals approach, resulting in its strongest lineup in at least 20 years.

“From a European point of view,” says Austrian Film Commission CEO Martin Schweighofer, “a festival in Hollywood has the responsibility and must have the ambition to be more than just another middle-of-the-road event, and what has developed at AFI Fest is something that looks highly enjoyable and inspiring as well as offering a nicely balanced survey of world film.”

Reviving former fest topper Ken Wlaschin’s internationalist’s spirit, AFI’s new aim is screening the key films currently on the fest circuit while highlighting important trends and careers, especially those — like new Kazakh pics by Sergei Dvortsevoy (“Tulpan”) and Darezhan Omirbaev (“Chouga”) — that are just being discovered in the U.S. It’s a dramatic change in programming that Kuo launched in 2007, when she took the reins midway through the year, with programmers Shaz Bennett and Lane Kneedler tending to the narrative and doc competitions.

“There’s a huge headline this year,” Kuo observes, “which is a return to realism in filmmaking. … You can see this in the way that filmmakers are using non-pro actors, existing locations and inexpensive technology. This runs all the way through our Argentine survey, with films as completely different as Lisandro Alonso’s ‘Liverpool’ to Lucrecia Martel’s ‘The Headless Woman.'”

Both of which, it’s worth noting, arrive via Cannes, which is repped at AFI by a record 25 films spanning the Palme d’Or competition (including Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” Pablo Trapero’s “Lion’s Den” and Jia’s “24 City”), Un Certain Regard (Steve McQueen’s Camera d’Or-winning “Hunger,” Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool”), Directors’ Fortnight (Albert Serra’s “Birdsong”) and Critics’ Week (Duane Hopkins’ “Better Things”).

From cutting edge to red carpet

Several strong titles from other top-tier (Toronto, Berlin) and cutting-edge (Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Rotterdam) fests are also recognized to a degree previously missing from a crowded L.A. fest scene that had seemingly given up on the ambitious world cinema approach of the gone-but-not-forgotten Filmex, which AFI inherited.

Unchanged is the fact that red-carpet galas are key to the fest’s Hollywood setting, which has expanded this year beyond the ArcLight/Cinerama Dome complex to Hollywood Boulevard and screenings at the Mann Chinese complex and Grauman’s Chinese, Filmex’s original home. The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel will act as fest headquarters, where receptions and special events will take place.

Notably, even though the fest opener at the Dome, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” was a last-minute substitution for Joe Wright’s “The Soloist” due to the latter’s release date jumping to spring 2009, both films’ distributors smoothed the way for what would have amounted to unusually early premieres. Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” is the closer. “They both really end up being major pluses for us,” notes Kuo, “giving audiences advanced sneaks at the movies.”

Longtime festgoers will note significant changes: The old regional focuses on Latin America and Asia have been replaced by a wider and larger global section, combined with sidebars trained on specific themes. Gone is the midnight-movie-themed Dark Horizon section, revamped as Alt Cinema (and created by Kneedler) to reflect hard-to-categorize work, such as Jim Finn’s North Korea-themed “The Juche Idea” and Michael Almereyda’s latest video experiment, “Paradise.”

“It was extremely important to draw on the resources and skills of the city’s terrific film institutions,” Kuo says, “so Berenice Reynaud with CalArts’ Redcat Downtown came up with the idea for the survey of Jia’s films, while the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting much of the Desplechin retrospective and American Cinematheque is showing Tilda Swinton’s latest film, ‘Julia,’ in conjunction with our tribute. Since Los Angeles has exploded with film culture in recent years, it just makes sense for all of us involved here to work together.”

This fits in with another theme Kuo stresses, which has much to do with how she operates as artistic director. “You can never assume that you know it all, because no one does,” she says. “During the years when I’ve worked with people like (Telluride topper-founder) Tom Luddy, it became clear that the smartest thing to do was build friendships and contacts with the best people in the film world, and carry on a continuous conversation. That way, you share ideas and you keep track of what’s going on.

“More than anything else, this festival needs to be about giving audiences an idea of what really matters in the current cinema, and be part of a record of film history, and even nudge that history along. This is what the best festivals aspire to.”

AFI FEST TIP SHEET

What: AFI Fest 2008

When: Today thru Nov. 9

Where: ArcLight Hollywood, Mann Chinese, Grauman’s Chinese; lounges and panels at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

Galas: “Doubt,” “Che,” “The Wrestler,” “Defiance”

Tributes: Danny Boyle, Tilda Swinton

Full program info: afi.com/afifest