AFI Fest: The Race to Find the Year's Best Indie Films
While waiting for a movie to start at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Lane Kneedler learned that his wife was pregnant. He was there scouting movies as part of his job as associate director of programming at AFI Fest — the most prestigious film festival in Los Angeles, which runs Nov. 7-14. Sure, it wasn't like she was having the baby — but it's the kind of interaction Kneedler would like to experience in person but sometimes has to miss.
In order to curate what festival director Jacqueline Lyanga describes as the city's "almanac of the year in cinema," she and Kneedler spend a great deal of time on planes and in screening rooms as they hop from one festival to another in search of the best the circuit has to offer. Their life of jet lag and long lines begins with a flight to Salt Lake City in January and continues sporadically until they return from Toronto eight months later.
Kneedler previously worked at the Sundance Film Festival, his and Lyanga's first stop on their annual tour, before landing at AFI in 2005. Even now he admires what he calls Sundance's "democratic approach" to programming: "People just send in a DVD in a plain brown wrapper, and that's how it becomes Primer or Escape From Tomorrow," two movies that arrived this year in Park City as total unknowns and left as must-sees, he says.
Although Lyanga notes that Sundance is "distant in the year for us programmatically" and many of its well-known films are released in theaters well before November (which disqualifies them from AFI), two notable Sundance premieres will screen at AFI: Breathe In, directed by AFI graduate Drake Doremus, and Charlie Victor Romeo, an engaging adaptation of the play of the same name, described by Kneedler as "a 3-D pseudo-documentary using real voice recorders from crashed planes." (See our story on the film in this section.)
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Kneedler occasionally then treks to the Netherlands for Rotterdam, "a fantastic festival," which begins while Sundance is still ongoing and ends just a few days before the prestigious Berlinale opens in early February. Though he can't make it every year, Kneedler is drawn to Rotterdam by its experimental programming, which this year included eventual AFI Fest selection My Dog Killer, a Slovakian film about a loner whose only friends are his guard dog and a group of skinheads.
Later in February, Kneedler and Lyanga head to Berlin. The 63-year-old icon of cinephilia has helped to make film part of the city's identity. Almost everything is centrally located at two multiplexes surrounded by hotels where many festivalgoers stay, which allows them to pack in a lot of movies per day. "If you were to build a Sim film festival," Kneedler says, "it would be Berlin." Lyanga says it's one of her favorites, along with Cannes and Telluride.
At Berlin, Lyanga says, they "spend a lot of time there catching up on world cinema titles," several of which made their way into this year's AFI Fest section of the same name: Gloria, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Child's Pose (winner of the Berlinale's prestigious Golden Bear) and Harmony Lessons, a Kazakh film Kneedler specifically recommends, about a school's network of teen bullies and criminals.
Suffice it to say that South by Southwest, held a month later in much warmer Austin, Texas, is "very different from Berlin." More laid-back and eccentric, it's also "a great festival for discovering American independent titles" whose popularity can make it a bit difficult to program around — like Sundance, SXSW has become an increasingly central part of the conversation surrounding indie film. As such, its selections are often released in theaters before November. "You kind of have to be there just because everyone else is there," Kneedler says; it allows him and Lyanga to track works in progress and stay ahead of any emerging trends in that particular cinematic sphere.
Both agree that these early fests in some ways feel like mere prelude to Cannes, still the world's most prestigious festival. It's "such a next-level experience it's hard to even describe," Kneedler muses. "Here in Los Angeles, you see screaming fans for Leo DiCaprio or whoever, and there people are screaming for Béla Tarr."
"We probably get more films out of Cannes than anywhere else," he adds: "Jodorowsky's Dune, The Congress, Blue Ruin, Borgman, Heli, Stranger by the Lake, Nothing Bad Can Happen, The Selfish Giant..."
"The Missing Picture," Lyanga adds, adding that Cannes' influence is felt beyond the screening room. AFI also does red-carpet galas of high-profile films, including Alexander Payne's Nebraska and the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis — both of which premiered at Cannes. Kneedler draws special attention to Nothing Bad Can Happen, from first-time writer-director Katrin Gebbe. Her depiction of an inductee into a Christian fundamentalist group is "very unusual," he says — "a real intense cinematic experience, the kind you don't want to watch out of the corner of your eye."
"After Cannes," he says, "we're so exhausted. There's a little bit of time where we don't have to travel, which is nice, and that's where we get a lot of our infrastructure planning set up for the rest of the year."
He next heads to Locarno in Switzerland, which, along with Rotterdam, may be the most avant-garde festival he attends — not to mention his favorite from a programming standpoint. There he discovered many selections for AFI's World Cinema category, such as When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears and Manakamana, the last being the latest work to emerge from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose experiential documentaries are proving increasingly essential, especially last year's AFI selection Leviathan.
Locarno is "also great for us in terms of American titles," Lyanga says. "They're often a little more experimental and more internationally influenced." It's also important, Kneedler points out, in that it "allows us to get a jump on a lot of stuff that plays later at Toronto and other festivals."
Telluride, which Lyanga describes as "adult movie camp," is chief among these other festivals. Held over Labor Day weekend, it allows cinephiles, critics and filmmakers to experience awards-season contenders, as well as surprise inclusions like The Wind Rises, famed animator Hayao Miyazaki's purported swan song, which will screen at AFI. A whirlwind event in a Colorado mountain resort, it leaves little time to prepare for what comes next.
Lyanga is "usually back in L.A. for about 24 hours" between Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival. It's an especially busy time at AFI headquarters, as Toronto opens just after AFI Fest's deadline for public submissions.
Described by both as "the most comprehensive" festival they attend, Toronto's program regularly includes hundreds of films. This can make it overwhelming, but Lyanga says there are "advantages to mixing in both the larger, more expansive festivals and some of the smaller festivals." For example, Toronto typically screens buzzworthy titles that other fests don't get, such as the star-laden August: Osage County, which is getting a gala at AFI.
Determining whether a given film should (or, given its release date, can) screen at AFI sometimes is tricky given how quickly they need to make final decisions afterward.
When they return home, it's a mad dash for the finish, as Kneedler, Lyanga and the rest of their team lock their programming a week after Toronto ends.
Despite their taxing schedule, both programmers downplay the hardships. "There are definitely times where it gets lonely and you wish you could be at home with your family," Kneedler admits, "but then, when you're watching a film that's really exciting, it makes it all worth it."
AFI FILM FEST | Chinese 6, Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel | Nov. 7-14 | afi.com/afifest
Correction: An earlier version of this article ran a photo with the caption "Moebius," the title of a film in AFI Fest. The photo was not from the film of that title. The photo also accompanied the article in print. We regret the error.
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