AFI Fest Boosts Female Directors Under New Leader

In June, a mere five months before the American Film Institute’s 32nd annual film festival, Michael Lumpkin took over the reins from fest director Jacqueline Lyanga, who exited after eight years at the helm.

Despite the short turnaround time, Lumpkin, already head of the AFI Docs festival in Washington, D.C., was determined to make this year’s Los Angeles-based fest a diverse mix of cinema with a focus on new auteurs, international filmmakers, the best work from 2018’s earlier festivals and, of course, potential Oscar players. He didn’t disappoint.

From 4,000-plus submissions, the fest will screen 83 features, four episodic shows and 47 shorts for a grand total of 134 titles from 45 countries. Selected films are dispersed into eight categories that include galas, world cinema and cinema legacy.

The festival — which kicks off Nov. 8 at TCL Chinese Theatre — boasts five world premieres: Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box,” Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” and Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” plus Patty Jenkins’ limited TV series “I Am the Night” and Chuck Lorre’s “Kominsky Method.”

Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and Rourke’s period drama, “Mary Queen of Scots” about the titular Scottish queen (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) battle for the English throne, will serve as opening- and closing-night films, respectively.

Leder, one of the first women admitted to the AFI Conservatory, hopes that “On the Basis of Sex,” is perceived as a “rallying cry” no matter which way the midterm elections go.

“Our world is very much in trouble,” Leder says. “This film is all about equality, inclusion, justice, a seat at the table and a seat on the bench. So my hope is that audiences find the movie relevant, important and, of course, entertaining.”

Rourke, director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, also sees her film as a pertinent story about women and power. It’s a story that Rourke says needed to be told from a female’s perspective.

“When you look at the history of period dramas they have mainly been directed by men,” Rourke says. “To tell strong and truthful stories about female empowerment has always been tremendously important to me. So I hope what people get from ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a new way of looking at both of these women — Mary and Elizabeth.”

Including Leder and Rourke’s projects, the fest touts 65 films directed by women. They include Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” starring Nicole Kidman, Alexis Bloom’s feature documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” experimental animator Jodie Mack’s “The Grand Bizarre” and Gabriela Pichler’s “Amateurs,” which won the Goteborg Film Festival’s Dragon Award for Nordic film in February. On Nov. 13, the fest will host a conversation with Kidman in tribute to her career following the screening of “Destroyer.”

Films from female directors make up 48% of this year’s lineup.

Lumpkin and AFI Fest director of programming Lane Kneedler say while the number of women helmers has grown by 25 since last year, having nearly an equal number of movies from male and females was not a mandate born out of the Me Too movement.

“All of the attention around who is working in the industry and whose voices are being shown on the screen is very much in our world,” Lumpkin says. “So of course when we were programming the festival we were aware and involved in that conversation, but selecting 65 female filmmakers to be part of the festival happened organically and it’s something we are really proud of.”

In addition to a rise in female filmmakers, this year’s lineup also saw an increase in documentaries and episodic content.

Twenty-eight documentaries (15 features and 13 shorts) will play in various categories during the fest compared to last year’s 19 selected docus.

Meanwhile, there are four episodic series screening, as opposed to the one that screened in 2017. They include Jenkin’s TNT limited series, “I Am the Night,” starring Chris Pine; the first three episodes of Chuck Lorre’s Netflix series “The Kominsky Method,” starring Michael Douglas and Alan
Arkin; Saverio Costanzo’s “My Brilliant Friend,” which is based on the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” written by Italian Elena Ferrante; and “Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI,” a four-part documentary series from Alex Gibney inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner’s book, “Enemies: A History of the FBI.”

“We see the episodic section really organically growing more as the festival moves forward into the future,” Kneedler says. “It’s where so much interesting work is happening. It’s also where so many fantastic creators are gravitating towards and also where audiences are gravitating towards.”

As for the future of the entire festival, Lumpkin says he will make his mark by ensuring that the AFI Fest is on the leading edge of the entertainment industry.

“There is an incredible amount of content out there and festivals play a very important role in pointing people to what they should be looking at,” Lumpkin says. “That’s a big responsibility for a festival and a really important one. So overall I want to make sure that AFI Fest is aware, responding to and to some extent informing where the industry is headed.”

What: AFI Fest
When: Nov. 8-15
Where: TCL Chinese Theatres
Web: afi.com/afifest

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