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AFI Fest’s Jacqueline Lyanga Dishes on Almodóvar, Joe Swanberg and Free Tickets

Interview: AFI Fest head Jacqueline Lyanga

AFI Fest has long been Los Angeles’ big autumn film destination. Long a showcase of international cinema, the festival has had an increase in high-profile galas, such as this year’s opening film, Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” starring Leonardo DiCaprio (the festival even nabbed a wax figure of Leo outside its Pepsi Lounge at the Roosevelt Hotel for passers by to ogle over – and he did look rather hot).

Like most festivals, AFI Fest had its share of resource fallout following the financial crisis. And yet, fest organizers, then under the tutelage of Rose Kuo (now executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center) turned the proverbial lemons into lemonade in the form of free tickets to its screenings and galas. Now under the leadership of Jacqueline Lyanga, the result has been a boon in attendance and a greater reflection of the L.A. community, but also some pitfalls with ticket mishaps.

Still, the program has allowed the festival to be daring in its programming without some of the pressure filling seats when screening something that’s not readily an easy sell, noted AFI Fest Associate Director of Programming Lane Kneedler to Indiewire ahead of the festival’s opening.

Ahead of AFI Fest, which began November 3, we spoke with AFI Fest Director Jacqueline Lyanga about her festival and checked in again following the event’s awards ceremony last Thursday for comments how it all went down.

Indiewire: What sort of philosophical parameters did you go for when talking to your team about putting together a festival?

Jacqueline Lyanga: Whenever Lane and I go out after doing our call for entries, we are looking for the best films of the year. We don’t put so much of an emphasis on premiere status, but we want it to be a festival of festivals — bringing the best of what’s out there to Los Angeles.

And then at the same time, we’re influenced by our Guest Artistic Director. Last year we had David Lynch and this year it was Pedro Almodóvar. He’s so extraordinary and an innovator. He’s inspiring in that he has such a blend of styles and sense of humor. So that’s an influence in how we went about putting together the program. He explored something new this time and took risks and it’s such an essential part of great art.

It was interesting to me that you did a spotlight on Joe Swanberg. Of course he’s quite prolific, but still a young filmmaker.

Yeah, I met Joe Swanberg in Berlin and he talked about how he’s coming to the end of a particular period of what he was exploring at this time. Joe Swanberg is a filmmaker who explores his particular point of view and has his own unique style, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look at a series of his films looking at this period. It was great for us to look in a more concentrated way.

And that’s reflected in Pedro Almodóvar’s films that he picked to see what was influencing him — that’s valuable in understanding an artist’s process and influences now.

Of course, some films that were at AFI Fest will be distributed and some will find their way on DVD, but many of these are a shame not to be seen on a big screen. Films like “Pina,” or Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” or “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” or “Carré Blanc” are films meant to be seen on a big screen but also are meant to be a shared experience with an audience.

AFI Fest has been a traditional showcase for international film in LA. Is that still its focus?

AFI Fest continues to be a major showcase for international film in Los Angeles and we had a number of foreign-language Oscar nominees. I was excited to have Jafar Panahi’s “This is Not a Film.” Of course, he continues to be under house arrest in Iran. He was at the festival in 2006 with his film “Offside.” He’s really a remarkable filmmaker.

But we have films from Korea, Uzbekistan, Albania, South Africa, Israel, Denmark, France of course, Canada, Brazil and more. Even in our special screenings and galas, we have foreign films, so it has always been a [high priority at AFI Fest].

How do audiences react to some of the lesser known international filmmakers?

One of the aspects of having a festival that gives away free tickets is audiences are more willing to take a chance than had they paid $25. The free tickets have brought in a more diverse and younger audience. You have to build a new generation of cinephiles and it’s great when they discover a new filmmaker and then follow their career, which is also very exciting. I remember the first time I saw a Wong Kar-wai film and that was something that really stayed with me.

How do you get away with offering free tickets? Obviously we continue to have lean economic times and festivals have had hard times across the board, so how were you able to do that?

[Laughs] We have done that by being very lean and it’s a great team of people and they work really, really hard because they’re so passionate about film. We have great sponsors and the support of the AFI Institute and our team just puts together a really great festival. And yeah, we are able to provide free tickets, which is extraordinary.

Because we’re in Los Angeles, we get an industry audience and they always come to AFI Fest, but the free-ticket initiative brings in a different audience too. It’s great to see these disparate audiences come together and it’s a chance for the industry to see how these audiences react to these films.

How do you feel the festival went this year?

We were able to bring over 150 filmmakers to Los Angeles and fill tens of thousands of seats in the theaters with free ticket holders. So, I think it was a success because we were able to bring audiences and filmmakers together.

I heard there were some logistical challenges with ticket holders not getting in to some screenings. Were those isolated incidents? When there is high demand for an event, especially in a situation in which we are giving away free tickets, there is a chance that everyone is not going to be able to get into every screening. And that’s something that can happen at any highly anticipated event.

What were some of your favorite moments of the fest?

Some of my favorite moments from this year included moderating the conversation with Pedro Almodóvar on Monday night – Almodóvar is such a passionate cinephile, we were honored to have him as our Guest Artistic Director this year.

[Also, being able to] welcome the Dardenne brothers to Los Angeles for the first time to present “The Kid on a Bike;” having a sold out screening of Hong Sang-Soo’s “The Day He Arrives;” meeting Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Steve McQueen, Nacho Vigalondo and Udo Kier; Soderbergh bringing “Haywire” to the Chinese Theatre; Lang Lang’s performance of Marilyn’s theme on Sunday night; “Miss Bala”‘s sold-out Friday night screening; watching the audience respond to “The Artist” and presenting Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

And of course there are many, many more moments – there just isn’t enough room here for all of them.

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