AFI Fest 2011: Twitch chats with AFI Fest's Jacqueline Lyanga & Lane Kneedler

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

Ahead of this Thursday's kick off of AFI Fest 2011, Twitch had a chance to chat with Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga and Associate Director of Programming Lane Kneedler about their vision for the festival and some of their top picks. Enjoy the interview below and check back tomorrow when we begin our festival preview.

Twitch: Twitter has been abuzz with praise for AFI Fest's particularly strong lineup of films. Can you tell us a bit about how the programming process went this year?

Lane Kneedler: It went really great. I love seeing the reaction. We put up all our twitter responses every time we put out a release and it's been very positive so far.

Jacqueline Lyanga: It did come together particularly well this year. I think that's due to two things. One, it was a particularly great year for films. A lot of both emerging and master filmmakers came out with films this year that I think we loved and also other filmmakers and press and critics have loved and lauded so we program them into the festival. And then also this is the second year that Lane and I have headed up the programming and so we're coming into a second year of building of relationships as well with filmmakers and that helped us elevate the levels of programming. And I think we're also taking more risks in some ways - which having free tickets also enables us to do.

Twitch: Talk about that a bit. Does the free ticket system take off the pressure of worrying about selling out the house?

LK: We definitely still worry about that. But the free tickets are really great from a programming perspective because it allows us to show more challenging and experimental stuff. Audiences are much more willing to take risks to come out and see stuff they might otherwise not get to if the tickets weren't free. We try to have a balance of audience pleasing stuff along with more challenging stuff, more disturbing stuff sometimes. I have to of course mention sponsors like Audi of America that make it so we're able to do this.

Twitch: Falling when it does at the beginning of awards season and at the end of the year, where do you see AFI Fest fitting into the film festival landscape and broader cinematic picture?

LK: We have a sort of two pronged approach to our festival strategy: awards season platform and world cinema showcase. A big part of what AFI Fest is its function as a platform for awards season. We have a big opening night and gala films and special screenings which are all positioning themselves as awards season campaigns start ramping up. And then the other big function is our international focus that also ties into the fact that we have a number of films that are the Foreign Language Oscar submissions. This year I think we have 8 - which is about normal for us. We always get a great number of Foreign Language Oscar submissions and they're not ones we know about ahead of time.

JL: In a way, we're kind of the best of the two dominant worlds and influences in this sort of kick off to awards season: the industry and public audience. We are really building a great public audience with our free ticket system and because we are in Los Angeles, we also have a solid firm base in our industry attendance. We really are able to bridge that divide and bring together the industry and the audience at our screenings.

LK: Another thing we're doing this year that we changed from last year - last year we only had one screening of every film. This year we are doing multiple screenings of almost each film in the festival. So that's another thing that will help I think not just build audiences but build conversation around the film which is something we are really committed to doing. We want people to see the films and then talk about then and share them with their friends and colleagues and other constituents so we can really get a dialog going about what these films are trying to say and hopefully push people to go see the added screenings as well.

Twitch: Not a lot of documentaries in the program this year. Is there a conscious effort to program narratives ahead of docs?

LK: We love documentaries. I wish we had more space to show them - I wish we had more space to show more films in general of course. But we also have a sister festival called Silverdocs in Washington D.C. in the summertime - and they are an all documentary festival and one of the best documentary festivals in the world. So I feel like AFI overall is well representing documentaries. So while we love documentaries at AFI fest and we wish we could show more, sometimes a documentary might lose out a spot to a narrative film just because we feel like Silverdocs does their job so well and they support and promote these documentaries so well that unfortunately sometimes we don't show as many as a result of that.

JL: Last year we made a shift in the program where we decided against breaking out documentaries into their own sections. So you'll find a documentary like DRAGONSLAYER in Young Americans and you'll find PINA and INTO THE ABYSS in the special screenings. It's a way for us to place these films where they belong as opposed to isolating them into a program section.

Twitch: Tell us about the Midnight Section. Three wonderful and very different films. Any thought of expanding past just the three films?

LK: That's sort of a function of how many days our festival is - because we only have 3 weekend days - Friday, Saturday, Sunday - so we only have 3 midnight slots. It's something we are considering expanding for the future because audiences really seem to love it. Last year all our midnight shows were really well attended and were some of the most loved films in the festival. But yeah, we definitely try to have it be a mix of films.

JL: We love to show these films that are daring and a little bit unusual and maybe not necessarily a typical midnight film. I think HEADHUNTERS is a zany thriller but extremely well written. KILL LIST is kind of classic midnight in a way - but there's so many influences that Ben Wheatley has that it's not just strictly a horror film, it's also really great writing - a really great drama in many ways. So that's one of these films in which someone just expecting a typical midnight movie should be prepared to be surprised.

LK: And then BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW... which is sort of an indefinable strangeness - almost like it jumps outside of genre. I really like it a lot. I can't wait until they put out a VHS tape of it and I'm just gonna have it on in the background of my office all the time.

Twitch: Tell us about bringing in Pedro Almodóvar as the festival's Artistic Director.

LK: Last year we had David Lynch as our Artistic Director which was very successful and we were trying to think how to follow that up. Mr. Almodovar has been a great supporter of the festival for a number of years. We've had him here for almost every one of his films and, like I was saying before, we are very much about international cinema and he is pretty much one of the biggest if not the biggest figure on the international cinema stage. So he is very much someone we feel is representative of what kind of films AFI wants to showcase.

Twitch: How about the films he is bringing with him - four of his personal inspirations and then his film LAW OF DESIRE? Did you ask him to show that film?

JL: That was his idea. You know LAW OF DEISRE is a film that contains so many of the elements that you find in Pedro Almodóvar's films since then. It's perfect that it's the 25th anniversary of the screening and it's the 25th edition of the festival and we've shown so many of his films at the festival over the years. So in a way, there is sort of this parallel journey over the 25 years. He's a real reflection of contemporary world cinema.

LK: He's such an articulate and passionate cinephile. He's written up these descriptions of why he's chosen the other four films for our official program guide. It seems like they are really an influence on his latest film THE SKIN I LIVE IN and it's really interesting to hear him talk about that and hear him talk about what he like from thrillers and sort of mad doctor movies and that sort of thing. It's one of the things we are most excited about this year - that he can come to the festival and be involved again.

Twitch: You are also spotlighting three films by Joe Swanberg. How did this come about and how do you view his recent influence on cinema?

JL: I talked to Joe Swanberg in Berlin - it was the first time I'd met him - and asked him what he was working on, did he have anything that would be coming out in November? And he said that he was finishing up a film that he thought would be ready in November. And what's really exciting about this, he expressed it was really the end of a particular cycle of filmmaking and he's not quite sure of the direction he's headed into next. So I think in a way, it's a great chance for us to kind of showcase the prolific young director and showcase three of the films that are in that series of films he's made. He's really brought an element of very personal and autobiographical filmmaking. His collaboration working with so many of the same people again and again and people working in different kinds of production roles - that idea of close knit circle of filmmakers recalls in many ways how filmmakers worked in the 70s. So I think there's an energy that a lot of young filmmakers and artists are responding to. And I think he's very influential in that regard.

LK: He's a really interesting filmmaker. He's someone who generates a lot of discussion and a bit of controversy sometimes. It's fascinating to watch what's happening as the tools of filmmaking become more and more inexpensive and filmmaking crews can become smaller and smaller and more and more intimate - where the sort of line is drawn between the filmmaking and the real world drama - especially if you're working with a cast of friends and lovers and very close relationships. That's fascinating to me and I think as that's something we're going to be seeing more of in the future as cinema is evolving in the next few years.

Twitch: Any discoveries you've made along the way that you'd like to bring particular attention to before the festival begins?

JL: I've really enjoyed Sophia Takal's GREEN. She's actually a collaborator with Joe Swanberg and she's made a really great intellectual drama that has these elements of psychological horror. That's in the Young Americans section and I highly recommend people see that.

PINA is Wim Wenders 3D dance documentary and it's really spectacular. It's a new way in which to experience dance and aside from being a beautiful story and a beautiful film, it's just a new way also to experience 3D in terms of not being shocked by the pop up images but immersing you in the space of a performance.

I also really think people will find HANAAN interesting. It's an Uzbekistani movie but it talks about this Korean man whose been living in Uzbekistan and a clash of cultures between Uzbeks and Koreans who are living there. It's really fantastic.

LK: Two others that pop into my mind would be CARRE BLANC - which is this French film which was at Toronto so it's fairly new on the circuit. It's this French science fiction dystopian world where people are being recycled into hamburger, sort of a Soylent Green kind of thing where everyone's lives are so miserable people stop having children or when they do have children they hide them. It's a really, really great movie. It's one of my favorites and very dark and grim but very thought provoking.

Another one I really like is THE LONLIEST PLANET which stars Gael Garcia Bernal and a very talented young actress named Hani Furstenberg. The two of them play a young couple who are hiking through the Georgian mountains. The third actor in the film is a real Georgian guy and it's a very sparse and deliberate and delicate film with, of course, very beautiful cinematography. It says a lot with a very little - a lot about relationships between men and women or just really between people in general. But it does so in a very economical way. It's one of my favorite films definitely.

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Our hearty thanks to Jacqueline Lyanga, Lane Kneedler and everyone else at AFI Fest. Be sure to check out the AFI Fest website for more information on ticketing and check back soon for out AFI Fest preview and more AFI Fest coverage.

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