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“Some of these films are challenging — I’m not going to say that they aren’t,” counters Kuo. “But I think in the context of a film festival, you should have a range of everything, from films that are accessible to a broad audience all the way to those that push the audience to some other end. When you’ve attended a festival like the BAFICI in Buenos Aires and you see some of these obscure, challenging films and the house is completely packed with 600 or 700 people, you realize it’s possible. So why not here in Los Angeles? I don’t expect everyone who goes in to say, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful film,’ but I hope they walk out and say, ‘Well, I didn’t totally get that, but I wonder why that film was in the program and what its place is in the canon.’ At the end of the day, it’s a leap of faith. If we’re doing it right and people come back year after year, hopefully their trust and their loyalty in us grow.”
There’s one subject, I find, on which Koehler and Kuo see completely eye to eye. At a time when so many festivals (including, increasingly, the summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival in Westwood) chase after world or U.S. premieres of studio films and starry American indies, they have resolved to bring L.A. audiences the best available films, regardless of where they may have shown before. (To that end, Koehler and Kuo this year lifted a rule that had previously limited the festival’s “New Lights” competition section to U.S. premieres.)
“I took it from my own perspective of living in Los Angeles, reading about certain films endlessly and then coming to the end of the year, when critics are putting out ‘10 best’ lists and year-end roundups, and thinking, ‘I haven’t seen over half of these films. When are they going to play in L.A.?’ ” Kuo says. “When Bob came on, we just decided we should become a festival of festivals. It’s what Toronto used to be, but they’ve now become more of a market festival that debuts new product. Especially in Los Angeles, it makes sense that we would be a yearbook of the year prior.”
“In some ways, it’s simply a return to the beginning of Los Angeles film festivals, with Filmex, which was also a festival of festivals,” Koehler says of AFI Fest’s ancestral predecessor, whose inaugural 1971 edition likewise took place at Grauman’s Chinese.
“Hopefully, we end up at the end of the year with the films that are essential to see,” Kuo concludes. “So, if you haven’t seen these films, run, don’t walk.”
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes