Home­grown and other fresh ideas

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen

With a new pro­gram­ming team and re­vi­tal­ized sense of pur­pose, the Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val launches its 21st edi­tion Wed­nes­day with a rein­vig­o­rated mission. As a chal­lenge to or­ga­niz­ers and au­di­ences alike, the fes­ti­val is re­ground­ing it­self as a show­case for new, untested work.

In part be­cause of its place on the cal­en­dar, the fes­ti­val has in the past strug­gled to main­tain a firm iden­tity, fight­ing for ti­tles be­tween ear­lier launch­ing pads such as Sun­dance and Cannes but be­fore the fall cir­cuit that in­cludes Tel­luride and Toronto. Rather than feel stuck with sec­ond-tier choices or other fest’s castoffs, or­ga­niz­ers this year have cho­sen to dig deep in dis­cov­er­ing fresh voices and undis-

cov­ered tal­ent.

The fes­ti­val is pre­sent­ing 45 world pre­mieres — more than half its fea­ture slate — with more than 80% of the pro­gram by first- or sec­ond­time di­rec­tors. Look­ing to give fur­ther voice to di­verse per­spec­tives, nearly 40% of the films in the fes­ti­val were di­rected by women and nearly 30% di­rected by peo­ple of color. There is also a deep­ened em­pha­sis on films ex­plor­ing the lay­ers of ex­pe­ri­ence in the city it­self.

“I’m one of those peo­ple who like to re­ar­range the fur­ni­ture in my house,” said fes­ti­val direc­tor Stephanie Al­lain, a pro­ducer and for­mer stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive. “I think that’s why I Iike first-time di­rec­tors: It’s so fresh.” A re­align­ment

The fes­ti­val, spon­sored by The Times and oth­ers, opens Wed­nes­day night with the Los An­ge­les pre­miere of Paul Weitz’s “Grandma,” star­ring Lily Tom­lin. Though it may feel like the fes­ti­val has hit the re­set but­ton on its iden­tity, or­ga­niz­ers em­pha­size that they are try­ing to re­align the event with what its spon­sor or­ga­ni­za­tion, Film In­de­pen­dent, does year-round in pro­gram­ming at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, film­maker ed­u­ca­tion and grant pro­grams and the Spirit Awards.

Rather than an­other pre­miere, the fes­ti­val will close on June 18 with one of the Live Read script read­ings that have be­come a sig­na­ture part of Film In­de­pen­dent’s pro­gram­ming through­out the year. Film­maker Eli Roth will cast and di­rect a read­ing of the screen­play to the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridge­mont High,” di­rected by Amy Heck­er­ling and writ­ten by Cameron Crowe.

“How do you get peo­ple to come to a fes­ti­val of dis­cov­ery?” asked Film In­de­pen­dent Pres­i­dent Josh Welsh. “On some level, it is not dif­fi­cult to find good work from amaz­ing film­mak­ers of di­verse back­grounds. We see it year-round in our labs, at LACMA and at the Spirit Awards. And when peo­ple ask how do you find it, I just tell them we’ve been look­ing.

“If di­ver­sity, in­no­va­tion and unique­ness of vi­sion are your fil­ters, there is an abun­dance of great stuff to find,” he added.

Largely with­out the hooks of celebrity or rec­og­niz­able names that fes­ti­vals of­ten use to get peo­ple in the door, there is a risk that pre­sent­ing this much new work could con­fuse and over­whelm po­ten­tial au­di­ences. So fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers were re­lieved to see that ticket sales ahead of the fes­ti­val were up more than 30% from last year.

“There’s an ac­ces­si­ble, en­er­getic vibe to the films this year. I don’t know how else to de­scribe it,” said as­so­ciate direc­tor of pro­gram­ming Roya Raste­gar. “I feel so val­i­dated by the ticket sales. ‘Oh, we’re not crazy.’ Th­ese are ac­tu­ally films peo­ple want to see.”

“Be­cause you never re­ally know, are there not go­ing to be any re­ally strong films? Are peo­ple right, are there re­ally not films by fe­male di­rec­tors? Do black peo­ple re­ally not make films?” Raste­gar added, “Those kinds of doubts do creep up in the early part of the pro­gram­ming process.”

The re­align­ment ac­tu­ally be­gan at the fes­ti­val last year with the cre­ation of a sec­tion called L.A. Muse, meant to spot­light films set or shot in the city it­self. This year the sec­tion is back with 10 films, all world pre­mieres, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Cham­bers’ “Aram Aram,” Zoe Cas­savetes’ “Day Out of Days,” Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña’s “No Más Be­bés” (No More Ba­bies) and Stephen Pierce Ringer’s “Weepah Way for Now.”

“You re­ally can’t rein­vent a film fes­ti­val. But you can make it more com­pat­i­ble to the city,” said Film In­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor Elvis Mitchell. “The idea of Los An­ge­les, you go to film fes­ti­vals around the world and you see films from Los An­ge­les. Why weren’t we just reach­ing out to the peo­ple in our own backyard and mak­ing them more in­volved? That just seemed a log­i­cal thing.”

Mitchell, along with Al­lain, or­ga­nized many of the fes­ti­val’s more high-pro­file or celeb-heavy events, such as the gala pre­sen­ta­tions of “Fi­nal Girls,” “Seoul Search­ing” and the up­com­ing tele­vi­sion se­ries “Scream.” There will be a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Mitchell and direc­tor Jonathan Demme with a pre­view of his up­com­ing “Ricki and the Flash,” star­ring Meryl Streep.

The newly cre­ated Buzz sec­tion spot­lights high­er­pro­file films from other fes­ti­vals, such as “Brand: A Sec­ond Com­ing,” “The Di­ary of a Teenage Girl” and “The Overnight.”

Other new sec­tions this year in­clude one called Zeit­geist, for Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent work, and Night­fall, for genre-ori­ented films. A sec­tion called Launch is be­ing in­tro­duced for dig­i­tal works. The bulk of the fes­ti­val’s pro­gram was over­seen by Raste­gar and se­nior pro­gram­mer Jen­nifer Cochis. The pair had pre­vi­ously worked to­gether at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val.

The doc­u­men­tary “Can You Dig This,” play­ing as part of the L.A. Muse sec­tion, is an ex­am­i­na­tion of the move­ment of ur­ban gar­den­ing told through a hand­ful of sto­ries cen­tered on South Los An­ge­les. “I’m re­ally ec­static to have some­thing that is fo­cused par­tic­u­larly on Los An­ge­les in a fes­ti­val in Los An­ge­les,” said direc­tor Delila Val­lot of pre­mier­ing the film for a home­town crowd.

The fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers voiced hopes that lo­cal film­mak­ers will be able to or­ga­nize their own sup­port net­works to make each screen­ing its own event.

“It just feels like the right place,” said Den­nis Hauck, writer and direc­tor of U.S. fic­tion com­pe­ti­tion en­try “Too Late.” “This is prob­a­bly the only time we can get all the cast to­gether in one place. We prob­a­bly would not have been able to do that at any other fes­ti­val.”

Though the main hub of the fes­ti­val is down­town’s Mi­crosoft Theater (for­merly L.A. Live), the pre­miere screen­ing of “Too Late,” star­ring Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tor John Hawkes as a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor piec­ing to­gether the story of a miss­ing woman, is tak­ing place at LACMA.

‘The idea of Los An­ge­les, you go to film fes­ti­vals around the world and you see films from Los An­ge­les. Why weren’t we just reach­ing out to the peo­ple in our own backyard and mak­ing them more in­volved?’

— Elvis Mitchell,

Film In­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor

Chal­leng­ing ef­fort

Though why any given film does or doesn’t play a given fes­ti­val can be a saga of pol­i­tics and drama big and small, pulling to­gether a pro­gram so heav­ily weighted to­ward dis­cov­ery and world pre­mieres meant that the pro­gram­ming team was look­ing to get away from the cy­cle of films that play at fes­ti­val af­ter fes­ti­val like a herd on the move. In part the chal­lenge be­came not only find­ing the films they wanted to show but also hold­ing out against ac­cept­ing films that were more easy and ob­vi­ous to get.

Cochis said that once they had their pro­gram­ming goals in place, it was then a dif­fi­cult part of the process to not cave in to pres­sures to ac­cept cer­tain films be­ing pushed on them by dis­trib­u­tors or sales agents.

“If we get to have one crack at start­ing over, this was the mo­ment to re­de­fine our po­si­tion with the in­dus­try,” said Cochis. “I think maybe next year the con­ver­sa­tions will be eas­ier. This year was a big learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us, and I think it was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for all our friends and col­leagues who had dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions of what this fes­ti­val might have been.”

The fruition of that work, and the new di­rec­tion for the Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val, will play out in the dark as au­di­ences have a chance to en­gage with the movies.

“For most peo­ple, go­ing to a movie you know noth­ing about is a com­pletely un­usual thing,” said Mitchell. “So many peo­ple now, you see what you want to see af­ter you read a tweet about it or hear about it on Snapchat. That idea of sit­ting in a room with a bunch of peo­ple you don’t know see­ing some­thing you don’t know for the very first time, that’s a part of a film fes­ti­val that most of the world doesn’t ex­pe­ri­ence.”


Delirio Films / LAFF

L.A. MUSE se­lec­tion “Can You Dig This” looks at ur­ban gar­den­ing in South L.A.


JOHN HAWKES stars as a pri­vate eye in the pre­miere screen­ing of “Too Late” at LACMA.

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