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Interview: Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga Takes S&A Inside AFI FEST

Interview: Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga Takes S&A Inside AFI FEST

AFI FEST, a “celebration of global cinema in today’s
Hollywood,” is currently in full swing in Los Angeles. A program of the American
Film Institute, it is the only major festival that is free and open to the
public. S&A recently spoke with AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga about
what to look forward to during this year’s festival.  

JAI TIGGETT: You’ve
been running AFI Fest since 2010. What were your goals for the festival this
year?

JACQUELINE LYANGA:
My goal from year-to-year is always to build our audience in Los Angeles and to
provide an environment in which there is an experience for the audience and for
the filmmakers that’s beyond what they would find at a regular screening during
a theatrical run or if they’re watching a film at home, an environment in which
movie lovers can congregate, that is a catalyst for conversation about new
ideas in film, that really gets people talking about film as an art form.

Can you tell me about
the curatorial style of the festival and generally the kinds of films that you look
to showcase?

Identity-wise, we look to, as best we can, create an almanac
of the year in film. So we start looking for films at Sundance and then we’re
in Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Locarno and Toronto, and we’re even looking for
films at Venice and Telluride at the end of the year, looking to see what are
the most significant films and trends and ideas that have emerged over the past
year, and then curating them into a program that really reflects the ideas that
artists around the world have been working on.

And the fact that the festival is free also gives us a
chance to take some risks in the programming and showcase some films that
perhaps otherwise might be difficult to encourage an audience to see, and help those
films to really find audiences. Again, the goal is to build audiences and to
really build filmmakers’ reputations so that they can make their next film. Sometimes
it becomes a platform for them to find distribution and gain wider recognition.

This is really the
only major festival that offers free ticketing, which opens it up to some
audiences who may not typically see these films otherwise. Tell me about the
decision to make it a free festival.

It’s about opening up the festival-going experience to all
of the Los Angeles community. Festivals can be expensive – the passes, the
tickets – and that can be a barrier to people experiencing new and challenging
works of art. And so we view the festival setting as a kind of gallery setting,
where the films have been curated, and we want as many people as possible to
have access to be influenced and inspired by the films.

We’re also able to work with a number of cultural partners
and have them invite their constituents to the festival and really break down
those barriers that sometimes exist and prevent people from being able to see
these great films from France and from Asia and from Africa.

How does that usually
affect the audience? Are you seeing much different attendees than you would see
for example, at Sundance or Venice or Telluride?

Because we’re in Los Angeles, we have a really great mix of
industry audience that comes out to see our films, and a public audience. The
public audience is definitely diverse and oftentimes it reflects the
communities that the filmmakers come from. But there’s also cross pollination,
which I think is really exciting, especially once buzz has built for films and
people are on site and start to go on that discovery, because they don’t have
to worry about purchasing a ticket. So we’ve definitely seen the diversity in
our audiences grow since we’ve been a free festival.

Can you tell me about
this year’s lineup and some of the highlights?

We had a great opening night with the world premiere of J.C.
Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” We’ll be closing with “Foxcatcher.”
In our Special Screenings section we have some really great documentaries, “Merchants
of Doubt” and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” a very LA story. The
Dardenne Brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” and Olivier Assayas’
“Clouds of Sils Maria.” Xavier Dolan’s latest, “Mommy,”
which is Canada’s Foreign Language Oscar submission. We’re very excited because
he’ll be coming to the festival, as well as the Dardennes to present their
film.  On Tuesday, we’ll be
presenting a first look at “Selma,” with the director Ava DuVernay,
producer Oprah Winfrey, and the star, David Oyelowo, in attendance. So we’re
very excited about that.

We’re also presenting a number of international films that have
already garnered some acclaim, and we really hope the audiences embrace here. “Black
Coal, Thin Ice,” which was a prizewinner at the Berlinale. We’ll be
showcasing a French film that we really love, “Girlhood,” which takes
a look at a group of young women in Paris. We also have another French story in
our Breakthrough Section, “May Allah Bless France” by Abd Al Malik,
who is a rapper and wrote a book about his life, which the film is based on,
and then directed the film. Abderrahmane Sissako is coming to present
“Timbuktu,” and Philippe Lacôte, who has been a documentary producer,
is coming from Paris to present his first narrative feature, “Run” in
our New Auteurs competition section.

With the films from
the African Diaspora, it’s a very international lineup. Are you seeing any
specific trends or themes among those films and filmmakers?

I think if anything, we’re seeing coming-of-age stories. I
mentioned “Girlhood,” and “May Allah Bless France,” also
very much a coming-of-age story. And then there are some political stories, both
“Run” and “Timbuktu” are political in nature and dealing
with contemporary Africa, which is very relevant. I also see a lot of stories
about artists exploring the mediums. Some of our Mexican films, for example
“The Absent” from Nicolás Pereda, really challenges contemporary
narrative form, as does an Argentinian film, “Jauja” from director
Lisandra Alonso.

How did the first
look event for “Selma” come about?

It’s actually going to be exclusive footage and a
conversation. We love Ava DuVernay. We actually showcased her first narrative
feature, “I Will Follow,” at AFI fest, so it’s really exciting to
have her back with a larger film and film that’s on such an important subject.

What else should
attendees look forward to during the festival?

We just announced that we’re going to have a Secret
Screening [Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”] on Tuesday evening,
and tickets for that are available on our website right now. And that’s always
really fun.

Again, the festival is about creating an environment in
which audiences can experience film in new and exciting ways, and engage and
find themselves in conversations that they might not otherwise have. So I’m
most excited for the audience to come and discover films that perhaps have not
been on anyone’s radar.

AFI Fest runs through November 13 in Los Angeles. Find the screening
schedule and tickets at the festival website here

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