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Moving into her third year as director of programming at the Palm Springs film festival, Helen Du Toit recalls that when she first worked for the festival in the 1990s, “the attendance was about 12,500. Last year, that number topped 130,000 — over 10 times the size.”

By that potent measure, the 22-year-old festival must be considered a success. “We’ve worked very hard to understand our audience, their likes, their criticisms, and adapt to them while at the same time present them with a challenging and entertaining overview of international cinema survey of the past year,” she says.

Being one of the earliest festivals on the calendar and driven by an entirely different agenda (including few world premieres) than Sundance and other sprocket operas, Palm Springs can serve as a kind of retrospective of the year just ended immediately before the deluge of festival premieres begins.

With its unique “Awards Buzz” survey of films submitted to the Academy for the foreign-language film Oscar, it can also provide a dashboard for awards season watchers of the key films in the race, including Oliver Schmitz’s “Life, Above All” (South Africa), Xavier Beauvois’ “Of God and Men” (France), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Thailand) and Semih Kaplanoglu’s Berlin Golden Bear winner “Honey.”

Maintaining a shrewd revision made previously to the lineup, the roster serves as a cream-of-the-crop selection of the overall foreign-language field rather than the former glut of titles.

While this section, as well as the annual gala event honoring awards hopefuls, are what have imprinted Palm Springs as the “Oscar festival” for many, Du Toit stresses the fresh alterations to the overall program as well tweaks to such regular features as the showcasing of a single country’s or region’s cinema — or, in this case, a continent.

Du Toit says this year’s African survey, dubbed Cinema Safari, is a project “we’re very excited about, since it reflects what our programming team observed this year to be a real upsurge in African and African-themed filmmaking.”

The survey ranges from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man” to newcomer Caroline Kamya’s Berlin-premiering “Imani,” filling a gap, Du Toit feels, “since we’ve under-represented Africa up until now.”

The program is also complemented by a re-upping of sponsorship by Penfolds, which has joined Bono’s RED campaign to provide Africa with needed antiretroviral drugs. For the first time, the festival is hosting a pre-event retreat for visiting filmmakers, organized around the talking point of, as Du Toit terms it, “what can be done to support voices of under-represented filmmakers around the world.”

A notable change in the competition named for director and festival supporter John Schlesinger is its focus on docs.

“John began his career as a documentary filmmaker,” Du Toit notes, “and we thought that by concentrating it this way, it appeals to our many fans of documentaries and also draws more attention to the films.”

Although Palm Springs has, at least for the moment, disbanded the memorable archival presentations curated by Milos Stehlik, a mini-retro of director Monte Hellman is on tap, featuring his Venice-premiering “Road to Nowhere” and the 1967 anti-Western, “The Shooting.”

Such retros mark a slightly outsider stance for a festival which is generally replete with audience-pleasing fare dominated by recent European product, marked in this edition by such films as Mona Achache’s “The Hedgehog” and Francois Ozon’s opening nighter “Potiche” starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu.

As for future changes, Du Toit sees the possibility of cash prizes for winners (the current prize for the New Voices, New Visions competition is a $60,000 camera package), outdoor screenings and a reduction of the program’s current total of 200 film titles to a potentially more manageable 150 down the road.

More from the Palm Springs Festival:
Jumping January fests | Palm Springs fest report card | Honorees
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