Christian Gaines & Rose Kuo talk about AFI FEST 2007

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Christian Gaines was born in Brussels, Belgium to American parents and educated in British boarding schools until he came to the United States in 1984 to attend Vassar College, where he earned a B.A. in English.

In 1988, Christian helped to start The American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, a communication and hospitality center for the American film community attending the Cannes Film Festival. In 1990, he went to work for the Hawaii International Film Festival as Administrator, and then served as Film Coordinator and Film Programmer in Hawaii from 1992 until 1994, dividing his time between Honolulu, Los Angeles and Cannes. He also coordinated the Asia-Pacific Film Tour in 1994, a fifteen film, eleven-city tour of films from Asia and the Pacific Rim.

In August 1994, Christian was appointed Film Programmer at the Sundance Film Festival where he was part of the team that programmed the 1995 and 1996 Sundance Film Festivals. He was also Director of New Media for the Sundance Institute and a consultant for the Sundance Channel, a premium cable channel under the creative direction of Robert Redford.

From 1996 to 2000 he served as Festival Director and Director of Programming for the Hawaii International Film Festival where he was responsible for the overall management and programming of this annual international event.

In June 2000, Christian was appointed Director of Festivals at the American Film Institute (AFI), where he oversees several festival and film programming projects including AFI FEST presented by Audi, the annual AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival. The 20th Anniversary film festival – AFI FEST 2006 presented by Audi – ran from November 1 – 12. Christian was instrumental in developing a strategic alliance with the American Film Market (November 1 – 8, 2006), establishing the first concurrent festival/market partnership in North America.

Christian has also developed AFI’s year-round exhibition programs, AFI at ArcLight, and Cinema’s Legacy: How Great Filmmakers Inspire Great Filmmakers, accessible, year-round programs of film series, mini-festivals, retrospectives and exclusive advance screenings presented by AFI in partnership with ArcLight Hollywood and the Skirball Cultural Center. Most recently, Christian has spearheaded the development of the new AFI Dallas International Film Festival (March 22 – April 1, 2007), an ambitious international film festival for the Southwest region of the United States.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us a little about the history of the AFI FEST, and your involvement in the festival?
Christian Gaines: AFI FEST has existed for 21 years as a program of AFI, the American Film Institute. Its origins stretch way back before then and before 1987, when the first AFI fest was launched, back to the founding of Filmex. Filmex was a very much loved and much mythologized film festival that existed here in Los Angeles from 1971-1985 and, at its height, was one of the largest film festivals in the world at a time when, of course, there were far fewer film festival as there are today. Filmex’s last film festival was in ‘85. In ’86, AFI agreed to adopt the festival and in ‘87 it was re-launched as AFI FEST. So really the whole event from beginning to end is about 36 years old. Compared to a European festival, it’s not that old and compared to an American festival it is pretty old. I have been here since 2000 and I did my first AFI festival in October of 2000 so I this is my 8th film festival coming up in November as the director.

Bijan: Have you brought any changes or new ideas to the festival? Since you became involved in the festival, have there been changes in the way the festival works?
Christian: Sure, I think there have been changes. We’ve seen a lot of changes just this year but I think over the last seven years we’ve seen a lot of things happen. We moved from being a festival that was spread across the city at one point to being focused in Hollywood and further focused at the ArcLight in Hollywood. We take over the top floor of the ArcLight in Hollywood and then we create essentially a “roof top village” on the roof of ArcLight’s parking garage, which is a 30,000 square foot communication and hospitality center for everyone attending the festival. These attendees range from the general public, to our filmmakers, to the media and our sponsors etc. We’ve created what I hope is a very focused and centralized user experience for the various constituents that converge on the film festival. That is one thing we’ve worked hard on that I’m proud of. From a programmatic perspective, I would describe us as a medium-sized film festival. We show about 150 films and this year we are showing 148 films from 37 countries. It is a ten day film festival, and it straddles two worlds from a programming perspective. On the one hand we have a mandate to show highly anticipated films from the masters, new films of the international masters. Many of those films may already be on the international film circuit. They may also be introduced into the award season gravity which lasts from essentially now till February. So we are showing new films from filmmakers like Alex Cox and Tamara Jenkins and on the other hand we are also a festival of discovery with first and second time emerging filmmakers and films that haven’t been seen before. We try to keep the quality of those films as high as we possibly can. In turn, with those emerging filmmakers we want to make sure that there are as many opportunities available to them to pursue their careers. We do that in a variety of different ways. For example, four years ago we partnered with the American Film Market when it moved from February to November. This has been extremely helpful to us and our filmmakers, and also to sales agents who are representing so-called art films, specialty cinema or foreign titles during AFM. There are 35 titles that are in official selection at AFI FEST this year that are also being represented at AFM. Last year, there were 26 titles that were either acquired for U.S. distribution or sold international territories, and negotiated remake rights for the U.S. version of the film. There is a very busy industry component to the festival that is primarily represented at the activity of AFM. It is kind of the best of both worlds. It is the contrasts between the two events that make it a success. One very much focused on commerce and another focused on culture; One whose primary activity takes place in the morning and afternoon in Santa Monica and one whose primary activity takes place in the evening and at night in Hollywood at ArcLight. There are definitely yin and yang advantages to the partnership that have been helpful. Also for our filmmakers we have the Kodak Connect program which is in its eighth year. This is a one-on-one filmmaker program that takes place Monday through Friday at the film festival. This offers filmmakers who have films at the AFI FEST to meet one-on-one with producers, agents, sales agents, buyers, seller, entertainment attorneys, and anyone that can be helpful as they pursue their careers as filmmakers. These are meetings that they would often never be able to have by themselves. Essentially from the moment that we select the film in mid- September, early October, until they arrive at the festival, we work hard with them to make sure they are getting the most out of the experience. Frankly, we just don’t leave them alone.

Bijan: That is great, because it shows the involvement of the film festival in helping cinema.
Christian: It is something that is very important to us. One of the things we come back to a lot is that a film festival like AFI FEST is a convergence of very different constituents. Filmmakers and audiences are your most important constituents but there are also others from the film community, from the neighborhood in which you operate, to your corporate sponsors, to the international media, to volunteers, and everyone else who converges on the site to experience the event. Many of them desire very different outcomes. The challenge is to make sure you’re addressing each of those constituents and focusing on providing those kinds of outcomes.
Bijan: With AFI FEST and AFM happening at the same time, some people have begun to compare the festival and market to the Cannes Festival and the Cannes market. As far as the two festivals how would you compare them?
Christian: It’s similar to the extent that the Cannes festival and the Cannes market are two separate organizations that exist concurrently. But I would say, and I think most people would say, that the comparisons pretty much end there. The content found in the Cannes market is fairly similar to the content found at AFM. And as much as a wide variety of film product is being bought and sold, everything from big budget commercial pictures that are looking for theatrical distribution, to so called art films and specialty films, all the way to genre product—Both the Cannes market and AFM feature these kinds of films. Again, what AFI FEST is focusing in on with our priority list of program that we do with AFM, through our relationships with sales agents, is really focusing in on that middle band of art films and specialty films because we are a film festival and that is really what we are counting on. I think that the Cannes market and festival and indeed the European film market and the Berlin film festival differ from AFM and AFI FEST in so much that the cities are very different from AFM and AFI fest. Obviously, there is a physical geographic distance between AFM and AFI FEST that discourages the kind of crossover that a participant may make between the market and the festival. In both of those European festivals, they may make the crossover three, four, five times a day. They can go to a festival screening or party and they have two market meetings and a market screening, and then go to a festival market event in the evening— so they would go backwards and forwards. AFM and AFI FEST, because of the geography is set up differently. LA is known as a spread out city, and has always been. AFM is very happy in its location in Santa Monica. We love our location in Hollywood in the center of it all at the ArcLight. We feel that if an AFM participant comes to AFI FEST two, three, or even four times during the seven day overlap of the overlap of the two events, we consider that a great success. So it’s definitely a different kind of energy from the European market that one thinks of when they think of a festival market structure. We have also noticed, in general, that every year we have more AFM badge holders coming to AFI FEST to check out a party, the atmosphere, and see some movies. We noticed that they are definitely a younger group from AFM—the younger generation of sales agents tend to much more predisposed to checking out AFI fest.

Bijan: Have you seen a growth in the audience at AFI FEST?
Christian: We’ve seen a huge growth, especially in 2002 when we moved to ArcLight. We continue to work hard on mundane but critical, logistical elements like parking and transportation. Those things need to be always worked on and streamlined. We are featuring a lot more free events this year. We have video art installations up at the Rooftop Village in the Cinema Lounge. We are debuting our TALK/SHOW events which are sit down, focused, informal conversations in the Loft at the Rooftop Village on the weekends at AFI FEST, which tackle various elements of the film industry. We are tackling cultural stereotypes in films and setting up a good natured debate between different approaches to filmmaking. We’re talking about to exact change in people in human nature to hopefully change the world. We’ve got Werner Hertzog talking about documentary filmmaking and the nature of reality in documentary film. We definitely see a growth. Ticket and pass sales are already 30 percent ahead of last year. We are very hopeful, gratified and excited about that. Our marketing efforts each year continue to grow; we have printed a million quick guides this year, more quick guides then we ever had printed before. They will be in the “LA Times” and inserted in LA Weekly magazines and in the “Hollywood Reporter” and Screen international. We care a lot about what we do and we really work hard on producing and delivering an event at a high level. That is something we return to again and again in our planning.

Rose Kuo has worked both in film festival programming as well as film production. As a programmer, Kuo worked for Santa Barbara and Mill Valley festivals, and also served as a consultant for the San Francisco International Film Festival and LACMA Film Screening.
She possesses an extensive background as a filmmaker, working as an assistant to Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker and as a camera assistant to famed cinematographer Haskel Wexler. Among a myriad of feature flm credits spanning over twenty years, Kuo has also worked with such top directors as Michael Mann, Paul Schrader, Ed Zwick and Martin Scorsese.
Well versed in both intrnational and American cinema, Rose has worked on several independent films, as post-production supervisor on Maggie Greenwald’s THE KILLOFF and as executive producer on Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s THE FLUFFER.

Bijan Tehrani: When did you start, and what is your involvement at the AFI FEST?
Rose Kuo: I started at the AFI FEST June of this year, so only a few months ago. I am the Artistic Director of the festival.

Bijan: What do you think the main focus of the AFI FEST is?
Rose: I think the focus is to bring the best of international cinema to Los Angeles.

Bijan: How strong do you think the presence of international cinema is at the AFI FEST of 2007?
Rose: Representing great films from around the world is the mandate of our festival so we are strong in the selection of international cinema; we host attendees from around the world. We have an excellent selection of Spanish language cinema, particularly from Mexico. With Asia, we have films from China, Korea, Japan, and our first Singaporean film at the festival, SOLOS. The Middle East has had a particularly active film production year with PERSEPOLIS, JELLYFISH, and THE BAND’S VISIT. What’s notable about those films is that women are either the directors or co-directors. We are also excited that significant creative artists from world cinema such as actors Catherine Deneuve, Joan Chen, Mathieu Amalric and directors Max von Sydow, Cristian Mungiu, Alex Cox, and Agnieska Holland will be attending the festival this year.

Bijan: Are there any international films directors attending the festival?
Rose: Yes. We have Cristian Mungiu the director of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS; Alex Cox with SEARCHERS 2.0; Paprika Stein who directed the Swedish film, WITH YOUR PERMISSION; Zihan Loo of SOLOS is coming from Singapore; The Chinese director of PLEASE VOTE FOR ME, Weijun Chen, will attend; Moussa Toure will be here with NOSALTRES; as well as Raul Marchaud with MANUELA Y MANUEL, Sergio Umansky with IT’S BETTER IF GABRIEL DOESN’T’ DIE and Alberto Arvelo with CYRANO FERNANDEZ – those last three are Spanish language films; and Daihachi Yoshida from Japan will attend with FUNUKE SHOW SOME LOVE YOU LOSERS! and Stephane Lafleur will be here with CONTINENTAL, A FILM WITHOUT GUNS. Directors Agnieska Holland and Isabel Croixet will be on the jury,

Bijan: What are the tributes this year?
Rose: This year we will tribute Catherine Deneuve, the grand dame of French cinema, and an icon of indie cinema, Laura Linney.

Bijan: Are there any cash prizes for the filmmakers?
Rose: We give critical honor to the filmmakers. Our feature competition is limited to first and second time filmmakers who are debuting a film in the U.S. so it’s our discovery section. We also have a documentary competition and a shorts competition. All are newer directors who we believe are the talent to watch.

Bijan: What are the different events of the festivals?
Rose: This year, we are debuting a program called Talk Show, which are conversations about topical issues—we have five of them. We have the AFI Digi fest this year which is the new media component of our festival. We have a free Halloween film screening that we are presenting on October 31st. The public was invited to vote on a film from AFI’s 100 Year’s list and it’s going to be “Psycho.”

Bijan: What is the selection process of the films for the AFI FEST?
Rose: We get over 4,000 entries of features, documentaries and shorts. We have a screening committee that views all the films several times and in addition, someone from the programming staff views the films as well. Basically, we start to narrow the film selection down as we are viewing the films. There are a lot of things that are considered: where the filmmakers are from and the subject matter, all things are considered. We go to other festivals and try to gauge what is going on around the world in cinema, what are the main issues, trends, and observe what regions seem to be more active, and then we start to shape the program.

Bijan: What do you think an audience members should look for in 2007?
Rose: Well China, Mexico and the Middle East are strong regions this year for filmmaking. There are quite a few films made by women directors. Some predominant themes: How do we define ourselves is the focus of films like QUEST FOR THE MISSING PIECE, MANUELA Y MANUEL, FARO: GODDESS OF THE WATER, and PERSEPOLIS; we see how economic growth affects societies in BLIND MOUNTAIN and DEFICIT. CARAMEL, NIGHT TRAIN, SOLOS deal with issues of sexuality. For the person who loves movies we have a lot of films about the film industry: HECKLER, MR. WARMTH, OPERATION FILMMAKER, VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS, SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, PIERRE RISIENT: MAN OF CINEMA, and NEVER APOLOGIZE. Also, be sure to check out the films by masters Yang, Bergman, Antonioini who passed away this year. These films are hard to see: THE TERRORIZER, SHAME, THE PASSENGER. These directors informed the contemporary filmmakers who are in the festival. I would encourage an audience member to step outside of their comfort zone and to select a film from a region or maybe a subject matter or style that is unfamiliar. We are introducing some groundbreaking experimental work by Jennifer Reeves, for example. I would also recommend seeing something out of our competition section since those are our discovery films. Those films are by emerging filmmakers who we think display notable talent. Of course, I recommend that they look at the world section, which is a strong overview of contemporary world cinema. Finally, with what is going on in the world, everyone should see one film on a political subject such as BODY OF WAR, OPERATION FILMMAKER, SHAME, ATENCO: A CRIME OF STATE, OPERATION FILMMAKER, TORN FROM THE FLAG or ORANGE REVOLUTION. As we say this year; SEE A FILM.

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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