“We all love each other .?.?.” says Los Angeles Film Festival director Rich Raddon.
“.?.?. until about April, and then we love each other again when the festival starts,” interrupts festival programming director Rachel Rosen.
It’s a Friday morning in early June and Raddon, Rosen and I have convened in a cramped inner office of LAFF’s temporary festival headquarters, as far away as we can get from the frantic din of the staffers and volunteers who scurry about outside. Opening night is now a scant 13 days away, which in the world of film festivals means it’s crunch time. There are prints to be shipped, equipment to be tested and parties to be planned — all of it made slightly more hectic by the festival’s move to Westwood Village after more than a decade of residency in West Hollywood.
“Everything is new this year, from a production standpoint,” says Raddon. “It’s mostly new venues. The festival’s a little bigger this year in terms of the number of films that we’re screening. Just thinking through all of those details is difficult. I can never remember it being at this pace. We’re working long, long hours.”
But it’s worth it. No mere publicity stunt, LAFF’s crosstown move is actually the latest way in which the city’s most adventurously programmed festival continues to adapt to meet the needs of its audience. In particular, parking, which at LAFF’s two West Hollywood venues — the Directors Guild of America and the Sunset 5 movie theater — had reached a crisis point in the past couple of years, thanks to attendance numbers that have been climbing by 10,000-15,000 patrons annually. Meanwhile, Westwood theaters and businesses were only too happy to welcome their new neighbor. “It’s no secret that Westwood has not been what it once was,” says Raddon, noting that the very building in which we are sitting was, until recently, the flagship Eurochow restaurant of celebrity chef Michael Chow. “I think people like the idea that we could shine a light on Westwood and hopefully draw people back into the community.”
From a programming perspective, the Westwood move has allowed the festival to stage more events in collaboration with one of its longtime partners: the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “I’m especially excited about some of these programs that we’re doing with UCLA,” says Rosen, singling out a sidebar called L.A. International, which showcases the work of three foreign-born filmmakers who settled and worked in Los Angeles as expatriates. “As someone who’s relatively new to Los Angeles, one of the things I love about this city is the idea of the hidden L.A. — that the longer you stay here, there’s always stuff to discover about the city, and that a place many people on the outside think of as being bereft of culture actually has rich layers of culture. That’s what I love about this program. It highlights these filmmakers who live among us, but who people might not be aware of, even though they’re renowned in their home countries.” Other UCLA-based programming includes a panel discussion on the challenges facing independent and foreign-language film distribution in L.A., as well as three films chosen by this year’s LAFF guest director, George Lucas. And speaking as one who attended film school with a great many Lucas acolytes who believed that cinema history began with the first Star Wars movie, I take a certain delight in the fact that the most recent of Lucas’ selections — Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant Masculin Féminine — dates from 1966.
Raddon and Rosen are both excited about this year’s documentary selection, which includes new films about the Jonestown massacre, the Rwandan genocide, the troubled legacy of a pedophile priest, and a unique Pennsylvania program that allows the victims of violent crime to confront their attackers face to face. But fret not, Rosen says: there’s also an unusually high quotient of comedies in the mix, which she promises are genuinely funny. To some extent, we’ll have to take Rosen at her word. For while LAFF continues to offer an eclectic sampling of the best recent offerings of world cinema, the 2006 program is weighted with a high number of world-premiere screenings — including 12 of the 19 films featured in the narrative and documentary competition sections — more than a third of which weren’t shown in advance for the press. Chasing world premieres for their own sake can be risky business for any festival, and it’s something LAFF’s directors say they bear in mind.
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“There is a desire, especially in this community, to see new work, because that’s what this industry feeds off of,” notes Raddon. “But it has to be quality work. There are a lot of other film festivals that came before us that took a different route, which is that they were just going to play a lot of new stuff, no matter what. We definitely want world premieres, but there has to be some sort of filter. You just can’t play everything that’s new. You have to believe in it and want to stand behind it.”
“Partly, it’s an indication that people feel more comfortable with us after a certain amount of time,” adds Rosen. “When I was trying to get people to have their world premieres here five years ago, I was going on faith. I hadn’t even been to the festival before. So, I think there’s a sense in which people have worked with us, have seen what the festival is doing and have a sense that there’s integrity here. Some of these filmmakers we actually have relationships with — they’ve screened here before and they want to come back.”
At the end of the day, Rosen and Raddon agree, it’s all about knowing your audience, and being willing to challenge them a bit too.
Says Rosen: “As programmers, it’s partly our job to say, ‘I think these films are important and deserve to be seen.’ But I don’t think you can have the arrogance to say, ‘These are the films — like them or leave them.’ It’s a dialogue, because the audience is part of the festival. It’s not like we’re curating a modern-literature book series. We’re creating an event that we want people to come to.”