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Of their working relationship, Kuo notes, “Bob and I have been talking about films for ages, and from the day I started here, we’ve had regular conversations — sometimes daily conversations — about films, certainly during and after film festivals. There was a way, even before he came on staff, in which it almost felt like he was an additional programmer.”
“Our first conversations about this [job] really began almost at this time last year,” Koehler adds. “From my end, I just wanted to get much more involved with programming. Not programming film series, which I’ve been doing, or coming up with a juicy little wish list and then phoning it off to the folks who really do the spade work in terms of getting the films. What I wanted to do was blend the conceptual side of it with the spade work.”
Koehler’s appointment was not without its share of raised eyebrows. Writing about the hire last April, Cinematical blogger Peter Martin (himself a former AFI Fest employee) deemed it an “odd move” while quoting at length from a Koehler essay in the Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope that chided North American festival programmers for their laziness and herd mentality: “The essence of interesting, vital festival programming is an intelligent argument for a certain kind of cinema — this kind, not that kind.” With his new job, Martin surmised, Koehler would get a chance “to put his money where his mouth is.”
Implicit in Martin’s provocation was the bane of every film programmer’s existence: how to challenge an audience without alienating them? How, in Koehler’s case, for a passionate champion of radical and avant-garde filmmaking (his “certain kind of cinema” in a nutshell) to program a festival with movies that Joe the Plumber might also want to see? As Koehler himself puts it, it all comes down to “finding a balance of tendencies, of kinds of films. You certainly want to avoid both a vanilla drift toward the middle on the one hand, and you also want to avoid an ideological purity that veers on the obnoxious on the other.”
To these eyes, this year’s AFI Fest lineup walks that tightrope ably, with the audience-pleasing likes of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Robert De Niro road movie Everybody’s Fine at one end of the spectrum and the more rigorous likes of Pedro Costa’s black-and-white anticoncert film, Ne Change Rien (see related story) at the other. In-between, an assortment of Oscar bait, political documentaries, world cinema discoveries and midnight movies fill out the bill. “Even if we wanted films X, Y and Z, sometimes we didn’t invite them because they would have tipped the program too much in one direction or another,” says Kuo. “At the same time, it’s not a popularity contest either.”
Oh, really? Don’t tell The New York Times. Included in AFI Fest are exactly half of the 28 films recently screened at the New York Film Festival (where this critic serves on the selection committee) — a selection lambasted by Times critic A.O. Scott as overly grim and esoteric in an October 6 editorial memorably titled “Wallowing in Misery for Art’s Sake.” “What was once a wide and crowded middle ground between popular taste and high art has eroded,” Scott opined, while marshaling such unlikely evidence as Pedro Almodóvar’s comic melodrama Broken Embraces and Michael Haneke’s Cannes-winning The White Ribbon — two of the New York festival’s most heavily attended attractions — to support his claim.
To be fair, there hasn’t exactly been a surplus of sparkling cinematic farces on the festival circuit this year, which may say more about the state of the world (which art, after all, is supposed to reflect) than about the specifics of festival programming. Even Juno director Jason Reitman’s lauded Up in the Air, one of the highlights of this year’s Telluride and Toronto festivals, is a “comedy” about unemployment and existential dread, while Sundance and Toronto Audience Award winner Precious (also screening at AFI Fest) is a grueling portrait of an obese, illiterate, physically and sexually abused teenager coming of age in Harlem in the 1980s. Still, Koehler understandably chafes at the suggestion that festival programmers intentionally favor “obscure” or “difficult” films.
“I honestly never look at it that way,” he says. “I just think about the films that I like, the filmmakers who I love, and then I ask, ‘Well, have they shown very much in Los Angeles?’ Philippe Grandrieux [director of AFI Fest selection A Lake] has never shown in Los Angeles — okay, that’s wrong. That has to be redressed. This city is frankly so far behind in catching up with so many filmmakers who matter right now. You could have a 300-film festival of works by important filmmakers who have almost never shown in Los Angeles. You could do that easily. You could do that in your sleep.”
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