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AFI Fest ‘Curates’ the Year in Film

Over the past decade, the AFI Film Festival has grown into something of an x-factor in the thick of award season. Similar to the earlier New York Film Festival, the Hollywood event has hosted late-breaking world premieres of films that have gone on to awards berths or major box office success, from “Selma” to “The Big Short,” “American Sniper,” “Moana,” “The Fighter” and “Lincoln.” This year the festival, which runs from Nov. 9-16 at the TCL Chinese Theatre, initially planned to close with a first screening of Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World.”

After a flood of sexual assault allegations surfaced involving Kevin Spacey — who portrayed J. Paul Getty in the film — Scott and Sony Pictures pulled the film, and now plan to reshoot it with Christopher Plummer in Spacey’s place. Yet even before this shocking sequence of events, AFI was already embracing a different approach.

“By not really focusing on premieres, we’re bringing in films from Toronto and Cannes and Berlin,” says director of programming Lane Kneedler (speaking before the Spacey allegations began to accrue). “And by being in L.A., there are a lot of film lovers who would love to go to those festivals but don’t really get a chance to, and so we’d like to bring those films to them.”

Rather than banking on attracting all of the big-name auteur films that haven’t yet played the fall festival circuit, AFI is enacting a more curatorial approach, corralling some of the most buzzed-about titles from the past year in cinema, and giving L.A. audiences outside the festival screening bubble their first glimpse of them.

Indeed, the AFI lineup presents something of a smorgasbord of the best from 2017’s earlier festival calendar. From Sundance, organizers have assembled festival opener “Mudbound” and “Call Me by Your Name”; from Cannes, “The Florida Project,” “April’s Daughter” and “Loveless”; from SXSW comes “The Disaster Artist” as well as such smaller indies as “Mr. Roosevelt,” “Gemini” and “Fits and Starts”; and from the fall Venice-Telluride-Toronto triad, “Molly’s Game,” “Hostiles,” “The Shape of Water” and “Bodied.”

AFI’s lineup is more idiosyncratic than a “best of the fests” approach might suggest. The festival is of manageable size, and organized into streamlined categories — the American Independents and New Auteurs sections, which are perhaps the two the festival organizers are keenest to draw attention to, are each limited to a lean nine films. Other sections have even fewer.

“We feel like these are filmmakers that you’re gonna know about five or 10 years down the road and be excited that you first saw their work at AFI,” Kneedler says.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that tickets to the films are free.

“In a city where you have a lot of film people who are striving to work in the industry, writing in coffee shops, or still in school, it’s really tough when you look at the cost of going to a festival, buying a $600 pass or spending $25 on a [film from a] filmmaker that maybe you only vaguely know of. So the festival being free gives people to take a chance on a film or a filmmaker and maybe discover someone they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise,” says festival director Jacqueline Lyanga.

“But you also have do it in a very focused way, where we say, ‘this is a film that you should pay attention to.’ It’s not too big, and we really work at curating those sections so they’re more focused. It lets us champion films that are not on everyone’s radar.”

As for those off-the-radar films, both Lyanga and Kneedler wax enthusiastic about Julia Murat’s “Pendular,” a Brazilian import about the relationship between a sculptor and a dancer that bowed at Berlin. Lyanga also singles out Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” Rungano Nyoni’s Zambia-set “I Am Not a Witch,” and animated Chinese noir “Have a Nice Day.” Besides assembling a focused slate, the festival is also responsible for “providing the context” for the year in cinema, she says.

“One thing we definitely did see is a lot of films with strong female leads, across the sections and at different age ranges,” she says. “From really young women in ‘Summer 1993’ or ‘I Am Not a Witch,’ to women who are older in films like Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Spoor’ or in Andrea Pallaoro’s ‘Hannah.’ And then everything in between from murder and noir mysteries like ‘Gemini,’ and then a fun idiosyncratic film like ‘Mr. Roosevelt.’”

Then there’s AFI’s opening night film, “Mudbound,” “where you have two incredible performances from very strong women, and a director who is a woman of color. It feels like a strong year behind and in front of the camera for women.”

The fest will host a technology summit, as well as special screenings and discussions from the likes of “Dunkirk” director Christopher Nolan, or Jordan Peele presenting a screening of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” which helped inspire his 2017 debut, “Get Out.” The fest’s recently launched retrospective program will feature a tribute to Robert Altman, with screenings of 12 of his films at the Chinese as well as AFI’s Los Feliz campus.

To be sure, the organizers acknowledge that hosting all-stops world premieres is a feather in any festival’s cap — “It’s exciting to sit down in a dark theater and not know what you’re going to experience and then experience it with 900 other people at the same time,” Lyanga says. “So we’re gonna continue to build those kinds of experiences, because it’s an essential role that festivals play.”

And AFI’s ability to attract a few splashy exclusive galas every year may be tested next year by the Los Angeles Film Festival’s move from June to September. (Certainly, last year’s AFI premieres showed the limits of world premiere-hunting, as its gala titles “Rules Don’t Apply” and “The Comedian” failed to gain traction after bowing at the fest.) But there’s more to a festival than simply chasing the momentary thrill of the new.

“At the same time, a festival can be a bit of a gallery or a museum of cinema for the year, and so there are so many other different themes and ideas that need to be a part of that experience,” Lyanga continues. “That’s what’s most important to us, that we have an experience that people can come to, and they can discover the work of new filmmakers, idiosyncratic films, or come to an in-depth conversation. It’s more about a multiplicity of different experiences, and those can happen especially at a free film festival.

“We’re definitely embracing our audiences, and trying to make filmmakers feel like they’re part of something special. Certainly with the ways that distribution has changed, not every film is going to get a theatrical release, and so AFI Fest is that opportunity for a filmmaker to see their film on the big screen and to engage in conversation with an audience, to find an audience and build an audience.”

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