AFI a major attraction with new venues

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When Rose Kuo joined the AFI Fest as artistic director last June, she effectively ended a five-year sabbatical from a film career that had included production credits and a number of film festival positions. The last two years of her time off were spent living in Shanghai, so accepting the AFI position meant putting herself through both the culture shock of life in Los Angeles and the body shock of going back to work. But Kuo says the transition wasn't as difficult as it might sound.

"Being a part of the film industry is like adopting a religion," she says. "Once you work in it you don't actually ever leave it. I was a non-practicing film person for a while, but I still had the faith."

Over the 22 years that the AFI International Film Festival has been presented by the American Film Institute, the fest has sought to expand its survey of cinema from around the globe, and Kuo has been a strong advocate for keeping the international element of the festival particularly vital. This year, the Fest is also expanding its own swath of Hollywood geography, as it makes use of a new range of locations and venues and works with some new collaborative partners.

In years past the AFI Fest has been based at the ArcLight Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, with the festival base of operations being established at the "AFI Village" on the top floor of the ArcLight parking structure. This year the festival comes down to street level, with a base at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and screenings at the ArcLight as well as the Mann Chinese 6 and the Skirball Cultural Center. Additionally, the Fest is co-presenting several of its programs with LACMA and American Cinematheque.

Screening some 150 films over its run from Oct. 30 to Nov. 9, this year's AFI Fest is aiming to be not just a unique slate of film programming but a unique Hollywood event for the community of filmmakers and moviegoers it pulls together.

"This year we're trying to offer a more complete experience," says Kuo. "The festival's audience overlaps with the audience American Cinematheque reaches out to, so it made sense to see if they would be a part of the festival. And working with LACMA, there's an ability to go deeper into retrospectives. We had retrospectives in the past, but they had to be a little more superficial. If you're going to offer a retrospective, it's nice to really get deep into the filmmakers work, and we can do that now."

The expansion theme of this year's event extends to its international component, with programmers traveling far and wide to scout features at festivals as far-flung as Rotterdam, Toronto, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, among other locales. Surprisingly vibrant film scenes in both Argentina and Kazakhstan have helped to secure multiple screenings from each country, though the process of winnowing some 4,300 potential festival entries down to a lineup of 150 led to more than a few tough decisions.

"We work hard to try to get a real balance of films from around the world," says festival programmer Lane Kneedler. "We don't want to be too Eurocentric. At the same time, that means a lot of wonderful films aren't going to be in the festival, just because there isn't room for them. I love that we're expanding, but saying no to someone who's incredibly talented is not an enjoyable part of the job."

In addition to seeking a balance of international offerings, fest programmers have tried to achieve a balance of tones and perspectives, often discovering some surprising connections between geographically distant filmmakers.

"It's interesting to see a kind of collective consciousness emerge from filmmakers around the world," says associate director Shaz Bennett. "This year there were a lot of filmmakers around the world doing more introspective work -- taking more personal approaches, even when they were dealing with larger issues. The particulars of the story are very individual, but they become universal in the telling.

"We keep in mind that we're presenting the films in Los Angeles, which is such a culturally and economically diverse place," adds Bennett. "We've got a population of film lovers and people working in the film industry who might take risks on a film that would have a harder time finding an audience in a smaller city. Generally, the breakdown for the festival audience is that they're well educated, culturally diverse, and curious about the arts and events of the world -- really a reflection of the best of L.A."

Indeed, over the years the AFI Fest has provided local cineasts with an invaluable opportunity to plug into a distinctly non-Hollywood film culture that exists outside the omnipresent glare of the studio lights. Over the years the event has hosted local art house stalwarts like David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini, as well as tributes to gone-but-not-forgotten industry titans like Hal Wallis.

For Kuo, it's the unexpected moments that offer the greatest personal satisfaction. "We put the festival out there, and we think we have a sense of what we're presenting, but then we're always really surprised by who shows up and how they respond. That's part of the excitement of programming this festival. If we knew what was going to happen, it wouldn't be half as much fun."



AFI galas are an awards season sneak peek

The AFI Fest has earned a reputation for screening rare, obscure films, but it doesn't skimp on red carpets for higher-profile movies. Featuring a host of A-listers, the galas invariably generate plenty of awards season chatter. Here's a rundown of this year's red-carpet affairs.

The Soloist
The AFI Fest kicks off Oct. 30 at the Cinerama Dome with the world premiere of Joe Wright's "The Soloist." Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, and based on a series of columns written by the L.A. Times' Steve Lopez, the film tells the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a once-promising Juilliard music student whose battles with schizophrenia left him living on the streets.

Che
The festival's first Centerpiece Gala will be Steven Soderbergh's "Che," which will screen on Nov. 1 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The four-and-a-half-hour epic will be shown in its entirety with a half-hour break, and has previously been screened in this fashion only at Cannes and the New York Film Festival. Starring Benicio Del Toro, who also served as a producer on the project, the film splits Che Guevara's story into two parts: "The Argentine," which looks at his transformation from idealistic doctor to soldier, and "The Guerrilla," which examines his post-revolution years in Bolivia.

The Wrestler
Hot on the heels of winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Fest, "The Wrestler," from AFI grad Darren Aronofsky, gets a Centerpiece Gala screening Nov. 6 at Grauman's. Featuring Mickey Rourke in a performance that's generating early Oscar talk, this unflinching drama follows the struggles of a professional wrestler as he comes to accept the end of his career in the ring. Written by former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel, the film also stars Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood.

Last Chance Harvey
The most recent addition to the fest's gala lineup is "Last Chance Harvey," with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Written and directed by Joel Hopkins (2001's "Jump Tomorrow"), the film tells the story of a older man's rediscovery of romance while in London to attend his daughter's wedding. Screening time and location were yet to be determined as of press time, but both Hoffman and Thompson have committed to making in-person appearances at the screening.

Defiance
The AFI Fest closes out the evening of Nov. 9 with the world premiere of Ed Zwick's "Defiance" at the Cinerama Dome. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell star as three brothers who join resistance fighters in the forest of Belarus after escaping Nazi-occupied Poland.
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