If you ever wondered what it takes to curate a film festival, AFI Fest Director Jacqueline Lyanga has some valuable insight. Kicking off today in Los Angeles, the annual AFI Fest features some of the year’s most talked about films, including B for Boy by Chika Anadu, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Biyi Bandele’s film adaptation Half of a Yellow Son. The eight day, free event also features a strong slate of panels and talks with the likes of Steve McQueen and actor Michael B. Jordan.
I spoke to Lyanga about the festival, its international focus, and why she decided to work in film festival curation after film school. For more information about the festival and to get tickets, visit: http://www.afi.com/afifest/.
Shadow & Act: How did you become involved with the festival and what are some of your personal motivations for this year’s festival?
Jacqueline Lyanga: I’ve been the director of the festival since 2010 but I’ve worked for the festival through the American Film Institute since 2005 so I worked with programming, screenings through out the year, and was active both in programming for the festival and behind the scenes as well before becoming the director of the festival, so I know the festival quite well. We have a great team both of programmers and operations staff that come together to put on the festival. Each year the goal is to better serve the community and the filmmakers that come to the festival, and to do as best as we can to give Los Angeles and anyone who can get to Los Angeles for those eight days because it’s a free festival, an opportunity to see some of the best films of the year, and then be able to engage in that dialogue that’s occurring around cinema as a result of seeing the films.
S&A: Awesome. There’s some really great films this year. Which ones are you looking forward to sharing with audiences in particular?
JL: I’m looking forward to sharing all of the films. It’s really been a great year in film with a lot of diverse views of the world, from more perspectives than have been in the past, and that’s what’s really exciting.
We’re seeing a lot of films that are written by and directed by people of color, which is exciting and there are some strong performances that you’ll see at the festival. You’ll see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which stars Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela based on the autobiography, and another film based on a prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun which is written and directed by Nigerian filmmaker Biyi Bandele which I’m really excited to share with the audience here, since it premiered in Toronto. We’re also sharing another Nigerian film in our breakthrough section, B for Boy, which a woman, Chika Anadu, directed and again in that film, really strong lead female performance and great actors. In the story, a woman is struggling with the values and traditions of her family in modern life and society in Nigeria, a really great modern film for Africa.
And also you’ll see a film in our shorts program from the rapper Young Jake, so a real diversity of voices and all kinds of storytelling. We’ll have Steve McQueen here as well for a conversation on Sunday evening, talking about 12 Years A Slave, which I am really looking forward to.
I think the festival is a great way to experience cinema from around the world and see films in that context alongside films from say, Iran. We have two Iranian films, Closed Curtain and Manuscripts Don't Burn, that are films of protest. The filmmakers have been banned from filmmaking in their country and they made these films despite that ban, which is really incredible. There’s also great performances and storytelling in a film like Gloria, and films from young filmmakers, like Harmony Lessons and Baby Blues so it’s an opportunity to see films from Georgia, like In Bloom, and see rare glimpses of artistic life in other countries.
S&A: I’ve read that you attended the film program at AFI. What led you to working in the film festival world after AFI as opposed to maybe seeking out a career as a filmmaker or another avenue?
JL: Well, one of the things in film school that I noticed as I saw friends making films and having screenings and trying to get the attention of the industry, was that I could see there was a changing landscape for foreign films and independent films, and festivals really play a huge part in helping a filmmaker have a career. A festival is a place where you can show an audience a film that might be otherwise overlooked and may not get distribution and that provides opportunities for that filmmaker.
So, it’s a place where there’s a certain kind of experience and the experience I love when I watch a film- that communication that you get when you discover a new artist and a new world. At a film festival, you can share that in much broader ways than you can when you are working on one individual project, so I just fell in love with that process and that environment, and this really gives me a chance to share my love of cinema with many more people than filmmaking, in a much more expansive way.
S&A: I’ve always appreciated the international focus of the festival, there’s films from everywhere. What’s involved in maintaining that focus? You must have to watch endless films and travel. Can you talk about that?
JL: Over the course of the year, I watch dozens of films, and along with the programming team, thousands of films are watched and we travel to other festivals to look for films. We start at Sundance, we head to Rotterdam and Berlin and Canne and Locarno, to Toronto and Telluride and pull what we can, and we curate from those festivals a festival in Los Angeles at the end of the year that gives people a taste of what the year in cinema has been like. So our goal is to take the audience on that journey that we’ve been on.
S&A: What are your thoughts on people of color, or women of color in film festival director positions? I know that Stephanie Allain is at the Los Angeles Film Festival as well and it’s nice to see women of color in these positions. What opportunities or options do you think these positions provide for the indie film community especially?
JL: It’s great to give people the idea that these jobs are out there. I think sometimes not everyone knows what it’s like to be a programmer or that you can curate a film festival or what a film festival is, and I think that someone who might not come to a film festival might decide to and might explore programming as a career option. And it’s certainly important in the arts, curation is certainly about experience and individual taste so it’s great to have a community like the broader Los Angeles community, in which there is a diversity of tastes and experiences that are contributing to the artistic life of the city.
S&A: Can you give advice to S&A readers/filmmakers who might be submitting films to festivals in the future?
JL: My advice would be to go to film festivals. That’s the best way to understand what a festival is like and perhaps what it’s culture is like, which is often framed by the community that it serves. So, that’s the first step, go to a lot of festivals, as many as you can and research the film festivals if you can’t go, read about the film festivals, look at the program and see what kinds of films are shown at that festival. It’s like a gallery, the curation and the tastes of the programmers and how they’re being programmed as well because that’s another thing in putting together a program, whether it’s a shorts program or features, there’s a balance that one tries to achieve.
So, research, attend, and just continue to get to know other filmmakers and engage yourself in the larger independent filmmaking community.