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More Galas, but World Cinema Still Rules at AFI Fest

AFI Fest Steadfast for World Cinema

Since opening back in 1971 as FILMEX, later re-branded under the American Film Institute, AFI Fest has long been a Los Angeles showcase for the latest in international titles. While world cinema remains the event’s biggest component, there’s an increasing number of high-profile galas such as this year’s opener, “J. Edgar.”

But this year’s lineup also includes a number of anticipated films from major festivals, including work by Lars von Trier, Jean-Marc Vallée, Alexander Sokurov, Kim Ki-duk, Béla Tarr as well as Pedro Almodóvar, who is also serving as this year’s guest artistic director and screening his latest, “The Skin I Live In.”

AFI Fest head programmer Lane Kneedler told Indiewire he’s excited about the number of splashy events this year, but that the core of the festival is still its lineup of international offerings. Kneedler shares how he tells his friends to pick films from the festival’s roster, gives a shout out to this year’s crop of new filmmakers and why AFI Fest’s free tickets gives him leverage.

What’s your take on this year’s AFI Fest lineup and of films traveling the festival circuit generally this year?

We’re very excited. I’m so happy that we have so many first-time filmmakers this year. One of the best thing our festival or any festival does is give exposure and support to filmmakers at the begining of their career. We of course have new filmmakers in our New Auteur showcase, and some in other sections as well.

We have 12 first-time filmmakers this year, which I’m very happy about. They run the gamut from Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” all the way to films in our Breakthrough section featuring small American independents. It’s a cool group.

What sort of balance do you take at AFI Fest when programming?

It varies depending what’s on the circuit. This year we have a lot of special screenings, which are sort of like gala-type films. Films like “Melancholia,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” etc. We have a lot of those this year, so when this happens we try to balance it out with films in our World Cinema section which are not English-language and not celebrity driven.

But people like the Duplass brothers are big stars in the festival world and they’re here. They’re not DiCaprio-, Clint Eastwood-level stars, but we’re of course happy to get them here.

AFI Fest has traditionally been such a place for international fare in LA. Is international still at the core of the festival in terms of programming?

We did a lot of press for our gala films, especially that we’re doing eight this year. That gives us a lot of media coverage, but the core of AFI Fest is still our World Cinema lineup. That section is still the largest of our sections, but even our Midnight, Breakthrough and New Auteurs are very international as well.

Of course, I’m excited about “J. Edgar” which opened the festival and the galas, but films like “Alps” by Giorgos Lanthimos are big for us. My mom may not know Giorgos Lanthimos, but for us it’s huge.

How many galas were planned this year compared to last year?

It’s about the same number of galas. Last year, though, we had only four special screenings, which are high-profile films that are not galas; this year we have 11. We had all these films that came along but were too big to put in World Cinema, like the Werner Herzog film and Lars von Trier.

How do you recommend films in the international lineup to your friends?

The kinds of films I like to recommend to friends is the edgier stuff, films that are a bit more challenging like this French film, “Carré Blanc” (directed by Jean-Baptiste Léonetti), which is one of my personal favorites. It’s sort of a “science-fictiony” distopian film about a society that has human beings being ground up into hamburger and also everyone’ stopped having children. Or if they do, they’re hiding them from society, so it’s almost like a “Children of Men” sort of thing.

So yeah, that’s what I’m trying to point people toward. Even for my friends who aren’t in the festival world there are so many films and I want to point them toward. Basically, stuff that isn’t cliché or standard.

One of the films in your lineup that’s challenging and controversial is “Michael” by Markus Schleinzer.

Oh yeah, “Michael.” I missed it at the Cannes Film Festival and then the distributor, Strand, let us catch up on it afterward — and yes, it’s disturbing. There are a couple of films like that here this year, which are sort of like horror films, but they’re so like art house films, so they don’t feel like horror.

Similar to “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they have an art house pedigree, but I doubt Netflix, for instance, would classify them as horror.

Pedro Almodóvar, who is your guest Artistic Director this year, mentioned back in Cannes that he’s in his “thriller period” right now. He said that while his latest, “The Skin I live In” isn’t exactly a thriller, it has “thrillerish elements.” It was interesting that he picked thrillers for this year’s AFI Fest.

Yeah, I love that. In watching these other four films [he picked] you see there are elements of classic thriller and noir elements that have informed all his films — this femme fatale character that is in danger or the source of danger herself. I wonder if he’s going to continue in the vein of thrillerish elements.

Yeah, I wonder if that is the case. Someone observed in Cannes that it may be harder for fans to grow an affection for the characters in this film, and he said, “Yes that may be true.” But he also said he can do comedy and will. He also said he’s working on his first English-language script.

Huh, that’s interesting. But I think he’ll gain a lot of new fans with this one. We’re thrilled to have Mr. Almodóvar here again this year. We’ve had him here a number of times. I think we’ve had him here for every one of his films and have had tributes to him and Penelope.

We had David Lynch as our guest artistic director last year and he’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. He was great to have here also because he’s an AFI alumn.

So, we were wondering what we could do for this year, but it worked out so well to have Almódovar. He’s a great choice because he’s what AFI is all about — international cinema and he’s such a big figure on the world stage, and he’s also so interesting as a filmmaker.

His films are so passionate and visually very vibrant and alive. So yeah, we’re happy he’s here. We [screened] “Law of Desire” here this year which is great. And you can see 25 year-old Antonio Banderas in the film as well.

How does having free screenings work with your approach to programming.

Galas and special screenings of course are still free along with regular screenings and those tickets go very fast, of course. It’s our third year doing it and it looks like we’re going to continue doing it.

From a programming point of view, I love it. It frees you up to maybe have programming that’s challenging, experimental and edgy because you know you can fill up every screening. Even with a dark, depressing grim documentary, it’s going to be a full house becasuse all the tickets are free.

Even last year for “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” we had people lined up around the block. It of course won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, but it’s still a challenging film. It’s great that we can get audiences out to see this challenging work.


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