After 21 years of producing one of the most prestigious film festivals in the United States, how does one keep the American Film Institute Fest fresh? Fortunately, this year's festival, running Nov. 1-11 at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, will pay homage to the past while touting new talent.
Film legends will certainly be a presence at the fest, which will open with the highly anticipated drama Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. AFI will honor Catherine Deneuve and Laura Linney with special tributes, and celebrate filmmaking giants who died this year, including Michelangelo Antonioni, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, and Chinese director Edward Yang.
Shaz Bennett, the festival's associate director of programming, said the organizers' goal is to strike a balance between the old and the new. "We want to honor the people that are masters of their craft, but our whole competition is focused towards first- and second-time filmmakers and brand-new talent that we're trying to introduce to L.A.," she said.
The best in new digital, interactive filmmaking will be on display during the two-day DigiFest, Nov. 8-9, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. Burgeoning filmmakers will get a glimpse of the digital revolution's future from speakers such as writer-producer Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething, Quarter-life); Matt Wolf, creator of Fallen Alternate Reality Game; and Joanna Drake Earl, president of new media for the online network Current TV.
Bennett said she and Rose Kuo, the fest's new artistic director, let the more than 4,300 films submitted determine the festival's themes. "We tried to let the films dictate the programming, and this year there seemed to be a lot more films that were pushing the boundaries in content and form," said Bennett.
Those boundary-pushing films will be screened in the event's first series dedicated to new experimental and avant-garde features and shorts, including a debut film and live performance by the influential experimental artist Jennifer Reeves.
Bennett said she was thrilled that numerous submitted films focused on actors and/or were made by them. "Particularly we had a lot of films that highlighted actors and comedians and a couple in which the director was also the writer and the star--a lot of actors making their own opportunities," she said.
Well-known actors will be among those premiering their directorial efforts. Gael Garcia Bernal's directorial debut, Deficit, will be featured in AFI's Latin Cinema Series. Heckler, a documentary produced by Jamie Kennedy about how performers deal with unruly audience members and bad reviews, will be in competition. Danish actor-director Paprika Steen, best known for her work as an actor in Dogme 95 films such as The Celebration, will screen her latest feature, Til Doden Os Skiller (With Your Permission). Anna Biller once again proves herself to be a master multi-tasker with her new musical, Viva, which she wrote, directed, edited, designed the costumes, and stars in.
A Little Hollywood Help
Actor-writer-producer Mike O'Connell is particularly excited to see how industry pros in the AFI audience will respond to his film, The Living Wake, screening Nov. 9 and 10. "It's a good way for them to be forced to see it," he said, laughing. "Just a copy of the DVD on the desk doesn't do it."
Although Wake played at the CineVegas Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival, O'Connell said screening it in L.A. is special, if not a little intimidating. "I'm just excited to see how it plays here," he said. "I just know from standup that L.A. audiences are a little colder. People like [the film] or don't like it; either way it's just such an interesting thing to see how it plays."
Hubbel Palmer, who wrote and stars in the comedy American Fork, screening Nov. 7 and 8, is also looking forward to being featured. "We've been in about 10 festivals throughout the year, but this is definitely the biggest deal," he said. "I've admired the festival for a long time from afar, and I also admire the organization quite a bit."
Palmer wasn't surprised to hear that the AFI Fest received more films written, directed, and/or produced by actors, although advancing his acting career wasn't his motivation for writing a film. "First, I had a story that I really wanted to tell and it happened to be about a character that I felt I could do justice to. To be honest, it wasn't like, 'What's the perfect vehicle for me?' "he said. "Although I do think actors need to do that. If they don't find that things are moving in their career, they should take the reins and get together with some friends and see if they can put something together."
Tickets to regular screenings at AFI Fest are $7-$11. Festival passes are $80-$795. Tickets can be purchased by phone, online, or at the AFI Fest Village on the roof of the ArcLight Cinemas parking structure, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. For more information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com.
BY LAUREN HORWITCH