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AFI Fest Programmers Reveal Secrets to 2014 Slate

Programming a world-class film expo is easy. Just have a thorough indoctrination in all things cinematic and a bottomless appetite for the medium. And comfortable shoes.

So advise the curators of AFI Fest 2014. Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga and programming associate director Lane Kneedler log thousands of miles annually to bring a cross-section of the world’s best to Hollywood over eight days, starting Nov. 6.

Lyanga puts it simply: “We’re looking at the year’s films, and contextualizing what we see.”

Their academic bona fides are solid. AFI screenwriting alum Lyanga had art history and criticism concentrations, while Kneedler was immersed in experimental film. Both paid their circuit dues through almost two decades apiece of programming and marketing from Sundance to Toronto, before joining AFI Fest in 2005.

As for their appetite, Lyanga saw 255 films, and Kneedler 272, for their sweeping, diverse repertoire of masterworks, retrospectives and first efforts. Staff sorted through almost 4,000 submissions such that a spectator can shuttle from the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” to an experimental doc or shorts program midday, to a young grad’s horror pic at midnight.

But the team’s assured command of fest logistics may be their ace in the hole. “Film festivals are about a dizzying array of screenings and meetings,” Lyanga says. “You’ve got a screening or a meeting on the hour.” Hence the value of reliable footwear.

“Also, if you’re at Cannes, you’re going to have to quickly change to be gala-ready and work that red carpet at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. They actually won’t let you on without bow tie or evening gown.”

Equally important, Kneedler reveals, is “a hearty immune system. You fly in a plane, shake a lot of hands, stay out late sometimes for karaoke parties, get up early for press screenings, and you’re fallen quickly by a festival flu.”

The team jointly hit most of the major convos, where surprises always emerge. For his 8 a.m. Cannes kickoff, a jetlagged Kneedler encountered a two-hour drama set in a Ukrainian deaf school, sans subtitles or translation. How can the heart
not sink?

Yet Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “The Tribe,” he says beaming, “absolutely woke me up from the first frame and never let me go.”

Lyanga caught up with Eskil Vogt’s aching “Blind” in Berlin, where she also spotted the prankish Mexican, New Wave-inspired “Gueros.” “They’re going to find, in Los Angeles, a tremendous audience response,” she predicts.

During August’s dog days, the team split up, Kneedler jetting to edgy Locarno to nab Lav Diaz’s prizewinning 5½-hour “From What Is Before” and “Alive,” a survival epic by Park Jung-bum whom Kneedler dubs “a South Korean Orson Welles.” On the three-hour shuttle from Grand Junction to Telluride, Lyanga communed with helmers Xavier Dolan and Yann Demange, whose respective “Mommy” and “’71” will screen.

AFI Fest uniquely fuses the various expos’ distinctive qualities, Lyanga says. “We have the intimacy of Telluride, where you can meet the filmmakers.” (Most AFI screenings end in Q&As, and Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and cinematographer Roger Deakins will hold salons.) “Then there’s a large program, not as expansive as Cannes or Toronto but really accessible, distilling the experience of going to all these festivals throughout the year.”

And that makes all the agita worthwhile.

“What’s exciting about the job, is that sense of openness and wonder,” Lyanga says. “You force your brain, every single time you sit in the dark, regardless of how tired you are, to be open. And then it just makes the experience so much more extraordinary, when it’s great.”

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