AFI Fest Report from Austin Film Festival programmer Jesse Trussell

Special guest post by film competition programmer Jesse Trussell of the Austin Film Festival.

afi fest
AFI Red Carpet - photo shamelessly ripped from Shaz Bennett's Facebook album.

A pimp is out searching for a kidnapper in a crowded neighborhood. He comes to an intersection, and his Jaguar slams into the car of an agitated young man, covered in blood. Is this the kidnapper, or just another disaffected member of Beijing’s claustrophobic sprawl? We want our hero to find his man, but even if his gets the girl back she will just return to a life of prostitution. What can be called justice here?

All this happens in Hong-jin Na’s The Chaser, an intriguing and often disturbing South Korean take on the thriller genre which screened during the annual AFI Fest that wrapped up after the first week of November. A keen and incisive take on current world cinema is really the hallmark of the annual Los Angeles based festival. The 11 day event, thrown by the American Film Institute, had special sidebars this year on recent films from such far flung places as Argentina and Kazakhstan, as well as a look at the recent production from 6th generation Chinese auteur Jia Ziang Ke’s company XStream. Internationalism is also felt in AFI main competitions, where Uruguian Frederico Veiroj's Acne and the Ugandan shot Kassim the Dream won the jury prizes for narrative and documentary features, respectively.

In addition to the diverse world cinema programming, AFI screened some of the year’s best American independent films. A real highlight was writer/director Mike Gibbiser’s moving Finally, Lillian and Dan. In an American indie scene dominated by the solipsistic bent of mumblecore, Gibbiser’s small tale of love between the two most awkward people in the world aims for a lyricism and feeling far beyond the character dramas that litter the festival world. Shot on gorgeous and grainy 16mm, and understanding brilliantly the use of silence, Finally, Lillian and Dan marks an auspicious debut from a director still in his 20s.

afi fest
Filmmaker Trevor Anderson, Sundance programming coordinator Landon Zakheim, and AFI Fest's Associate Director for Programming Shaz Bennett. Photo shamelessly ripped from Shaz Bennett's Facebook album.

Another facet of AFI Fest greatly beneficial to their filmmakers is the Connect program. Now in its 8th year, AFI sets a one-on-one meetings between its filmmakers and over 100 industry professionals, in addition to a series of more informal cocktail hours and gatherings. This invaluable face time and advice is a fantastic bonus for any filmmaker, especially due to the caliber of industry participants the AFI is able to attract.

Overall, 2008 was an incredibly strong year for AFI Fest. From bold programming to a fun and friendly community, it is one of the real gems in the fall festival calendar.