Though 2004 ostensibly marks its 10th anniversary, it could be argued that
the Los Angeles Film Festival has only just turned 4, its birth (or rebirth)
marked by a serendipitous moment in 2000 when the Independent Feature Project/Los
Angeles entered into partnership with what was then called the Los Angeles Independent
Film Festival. Soon, partnership gave way to takeover: Following a lackluster
2001 festival, the IFP initiated a major managerial shakeup that, among other
things, saw the replacement of longtime LAFF programming director Thomas Ethan
Harris by Rachel Rosen, a veteran of one of America’s oldest and most prestigious
showcases, the San Francisco International Film Festival. And so began a concentrated
effort to transform the identity of what many considered a stagnant, second-tier
Sundance into the most important film festival in a city where the air runs
as thick with movies as it does with smog.

“My own interest has never been in American independent film per se,” Rosen
told me over a recent breakfast at the Farmers Market. “I like a lot of different
kinds of films, so it seemed strange to me — this idea of wanting to have a
significant festival, but to be showing only American independent films, in
a vacuum. It would be as if the Toronto Film Festival only showed the Canadian
perspective. Here was a little group of films, and they were talking to each
other, but it seemed kind of hermetically sealed.”

That Rosen was in a hurry to imprint her own identity onto the festival was
evident her first time out, in 2002, when the LAFF’s previously paltry international
sidebar expanded to include some 17 titles. In addition, Alfonso Cuarón was
invited to curate his own program of films that had inspired or influenced Y
Tu Mamá También
, resulting in the first local screening in years of Jacques
Rozier’s Adieu, Philippine, a seminal film of the French New Wave. Rosen’s
brush strokes grew only bigger and bolder in 2003, when a special focus on Chinese
cinema gave L.A. moviegoers their first (and, so far, only) chance to see Jia
Zhangke’s masterful Unknown Pleasures and featured the North American
premiere of Wang Bing’s landmark nine-hour documentary, West of the Tracks,
which up to that point had shown only once before, in Rotterdam.

But while you can build an ambitious film festival — rooted firmly in the
notion that “independent film” is not a specifically American phenomenon — the
question always lingers: Will the audience come?

“I think it’s getting better year by year,” Rosen admits. “It’s a whole new
set of skills the organization has to learn, because it’s a different kind of
marketing. When the festival showed mostly American independent films, a lot
of them were from Los Angeles, so they sort of had a built-in audience, but
it was an insular one. It’s way harder to go out to the general audience in
L.A. and get them to come see stuff. When I wanted to show West of
the Tracks
, I was like ‘I know what the audience is for this movie, and
I still want to show it, so let’s find a room. Great, here’s a theater [the
video-screening room at the DGA] with 30 seats in it — that’s the audience for
this film. Those 30 people are going to be really happy they came, and we’ll
put something else in the 500-seat theater.’”

Indeed, a large part of Rosen’s success has been her sharp knack for knowing
her audience. “It’s funny,” she says, “because after 10 years in San Francisco,
I knew what would go over there, and I knew generally how many people would
show up to everything. It was almost the opposite of here. Invariably, programs
like the 20-hour Chris Marker TV series would be the first thing to sell out
there. Here, it’s not exactly anti-elitism, but there’s very much more a consciousness
about popular culture in L.A. In San Francisco and New York, it’s more about
intellectual culture. Of course, those are broad generalizations, and they’ll
offend certain people.

“At the same time, those three cities are the same in that they already have
great film cultures, so you really have to think about what a festival can do
that’s different from what all the cinematheques and screening programs are
doing already. Part of it is just the mix. Part of it is how things work with
each other, and having guests and events so that people feel like they’re doing
more than just going to see movies. There are also the logistical things that
had never occurred to me. I mean, in L.A., parking is half the game.”

As to this year’s installment of LAFF — with its eclectic amalgam of sidebars,
seminars and parties, an international competition numbering 20 features, three
“secret screenings” that will require audiences to sign nondisclosure agreements
before entering the theater, and, yes, more parking — Rosen is proud of what
she’s accomplished, but hardly complacent. Speculating on the LAFF’s future,
she tells me, “I want to have a little more depth to some of the areas that
we’ve just started to explore. For example, I’m not an expert, but I like avant-garde
film — at this point, there’ll usually be a short or two in one of the shorts
programs. And I would like to do way more outdoor screenings, because for someone
coming from outside of Los Angeles, that’s one of the glories of a summer festival
here. Mainly, though, we want to continue on our way to being a major festival,
and I don’t think we’re being shy about saying that.”

For festival information and reviews, see Film

LA Weekly