AFI FEST isn’t thought of as an acquisition festival, as most of its offerings are either world premieres about to enter awards season (“On the Basis of Sex,” “Mary Queen of Scots”) or high-profile selections from Cannes and Venice (“Shoplifters,” “The Favourite”). Explore the program a bit, however, and you’ll discover any number of under-the-radar titles that have yet to find a home. That’s unsurprising, given how crowded the fall festival season has been, but dealmakers should seek out these worthy titles before it’s too late.
Gabriela Pichler’s debut as writer-director, the youth-in-revolt dramedy “Eat Sleep Die,” never got a theatrical release. That was a shame, and it’d be just as much of a disappointment if her follow-up met the same fate. Working from an appropriately zany premise — a small Swedish town attempts to woo a German superstore company into opening a new location via a promotional video — Pichler delivers clever scenarios and a surprising level of sweetness without ever letting things become saccharine. That’s thanks especially to youthful stars Zahraa Aldoujaili and Yara Aliadotter, whose lively performances imbue “Amateurs” with a vibrancy that’s almost infectious. There’s no reason this couldn’t take off the same way “We Are the Best!” did five years ago. —MN
Sales contact: LevelK
“Angels Are Made of Light”
A clear-eyed and confrontational portrait of daily life in modern Afghanistan, James Longley’s “Angels Are Made of Light” is a film about the Afghan people that attempts to see them more closely than most Westerners are accustomed, and to restore a basic humanity that’s been overruled by a forever war that most locals have no interest in fighting. Shot over three years, and mostly set inside the crumbling walls of the Daqiqi Balkhi School in Kabul, the film centers on three sons of a Daqiqi Balkhi schoolteacher, watching them as they struggle to survive.
Documentaries like this have a tendency to frame their subjects’ humanity in a way that flatters our own, as though recognizing the intrinsic value of a largely invisible person is an accomplishment of some kind. Your cultural vegetables are someone else’s existence. Without laying on a serious guilt trip, Longley refracts our relative helplessness through the hard work we see on screen, using it to underscore the frustrated promise of these young students, the incredible perseverance of their teachers, and the burden they all carry for a better tomorrow. —DE
Sales contact: Roco Films
Khalik Allah’s 2015 breakout “Field Niggas” was a dreamlike assemblage of impoverished Harlem faces, drifting through the after hours in slo-mo set to their philosophical lamentations. His latest feature, “Black Mother,” is a challenging and profound deep-dive into Jamaican identity that rewards repeat viewings and confirms the aesthetic of a visionary filmmaker. As with “Field Niggas,” Allah’s approach has the immersive qualities of installation art, even as he stuffs a preponderance of evocative visuals into some semblance of narrative structure. The three trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy provide a loose framing device as Allah careens through an 87-minute collage of Jamaican faces from multiple generations, as voiceovers share tidbits of history, racial struggles, and personal philosophies, fusing them together with spiritual fervor. There’s almost no music on the soundtrack, but the meandering testimonies take on a rhythm of their own — it’s oral history as art, and at a moment where filmmakers are clamoring for better representation onscreen, it’s a no-brainer that this dazzling cinematic poetry deserves an audience. —EK
Sales contact: Khalikallah@gmail.com
After making a name for herself with the demented mermaid musical “The Lure,” Agnieszka Smoczyńska returns with “Fugue.” It’s more grounded than the Polish auteur’s breakout film, but it’s still out there: Gabriela Muskała stars as a woman who returns to her family after a two-year absence in which she lost all memory of her former life. Muskała also wrote the screenplay, which at least partially explains how full-bodied and cerebral performance is — she knows her character inside and out, even if that character doesn’t know herself. What transpires from that cognitive dissonance gives new meaning to the idea that you can never go home again, especially if you never felt at home there in the first place. —MN
Sales contact: Alpha Violet
Naomi Kawase ranks among world cinema’s most polarizing auteurs, but she continues to be beloved by festival programmers (especially at Cannes, where “The Mourning Forest” won the Grand Prix in 2007) and loyal acolytes. Her latest is another conversation starter, with Juliette Binoche starring as a travel writer who treks to the forests of Nara, Japan in search of a vaguely mystical-sounding plant said to blossom once every 997 years and hold curative properties. Coolly enigmatic and increasingly strange, “Vision” hums along with its own internal logic that’s difficult to parse but easy to get lost in nevertheless — you want to stay in this forest even if you don’t fully understand why. Binoche remains a luminary of world cinema, and we’re all in trouble if a movie starring her can’t find a home. —MN
Sales contact: Elle Driver