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Free for All: AFI Fest Comps LA

By Tom White

The festival circuit plays out for festival programmers like a grand chessboard, with a prime spot in the calendar as the key positioning strategy. The AFI Fest, which has seen some changes at the helm in recent years, has had the unenviable spot of the end of the calendar, on the brink of awards season, when the discoveries from the beginning months of the year are lining up for their accolades and kudos at year's end. So, as artistic director Rose Kuo told soon-to-be-former LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas, "When Bob [director of programming Robert Koehler] came on, we just decided we should become a festival of festivals. It's what Toronto used to be, but they've now become more of a market festival that debuts new product. Especially in Los Angeles, it makes sense that we would be a yearbook of the year prior."

And in a shrewd, and in some quarters, questionable audience development strategy, AFI Fest opted to comp all screenings, banking on sponsorship revenue to pull this off. On the expense side, this meant scaling back on the number of films and the number of screenings, so the buzz factor that fuels a film through its festival run elsewhere couldn't take hold here. What's more, competitions in most categories were eliminated, save for the "New Lights" strand of first- or second-time filmmakers-no doc makers here, though.

The AFI Fest showcased 13 documentaries in all, each screening just once, sometimes after 10:00 p.m., on a weeknight when the dawn patrollers among us start fading, sometimes in the wee small hours of a weekend morning, when the night owls are still arousing, and sometimes programmed against each other, in the same time slot.

This economy-sized fest also cut out panels, presentations and discussions, save for AFI DigiFest, whose doc-oriented projects included David Lynch's Interview Project, L.M. Kit Carson's mobile-driven Africa Story, and ITVS' cross-platform microseries. For my colleague Tamara Krinsky's report on that strand, click here.. Otherwise, one had to drive cross-town to AFI's partner organization, American Film Market, which included an IDA-sponsored panel on "The DIY Disyribution Playbook. For my report on that program, click here.

But the films I managed to see were generally winners, beginning with Frederick Wiseman's exquisite La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. Classical ballet is my least favorite art form, but a formidable master like Wiseman can render the dullest of institutions into the most vibrant echelons of drama and poetry. In his nearly half a century of filmmaking, he has managed to be unobtrusive to the point of subliminal, and quietly insistent in mining the deepest truths of the human experience. In La Danse, while it's certainly to his advantage to capture the thrill, mystery and rigor of the creative process-both in the rehearsal studios and on stage-he also pulls back, taking us to the rooftop of the Paris Opera, where a beekeeper, of all people, is absorbed in his trade; to the basement, where exotic fish swim in puddles formed by leaks from pipes; and to Paris itself, which hurtles along as a contrapuntal conceit to the goings-on within the Opera House. These seeming incongruities actually make sense in the rhythm and rhyme of the film. For someone who eschews soundtrack music in his work--other than what's actually there--Wiseman shapes his films with a strong musical sensibility.


From Frederick Wiseman's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Prods.: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Francoise Gazio)



I also thought of Robert Altman in watching this film, in that there's something played out in every room, and everything is more or less connected. And the grand connector here, other than Wiseman, of course, seems to be the company's artistic director, Brigitte Le Fevre, whom we see in many roles-as artist, as administrator, as manager, as spokesperson, as fundraiser, as de facto mother. In one scene, she evokes Maurice Bejart in noting that a ballet dancer is "half nun, half boxer...the race car and the driver...the horse and the rider." This, in a oblique way, is an indirect challenge to Wiseman and his art--a challenge he meets and engages with both grace and passion.

Wiseman's imprimatur is apparent in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash's stunning observational documentary Sweetgrass, about sheepherding in Montana. Not exactly the kind of subject to chew your cud on, but the filmmakers, who bill themselves as "recordists," seized me from the very first scene--a tight close-up of a sheep eating grass. We hear the steady chomping, along with gentle tinkle of the bell around the neck. And then the sheep looks directly at the camera--and stops chewing, and the bell stops ringing too. And from that point forward, the recordists take us through the epic sweep of a sheep drive through the mountains, valleys and streams of Montana, as two shepherds struggle to corral thousands of sheep and protect them against the elements-bears, rain, etc. No, this isn't a real-life Brokeback Mountain. We learn in the credits that Castaing-Taylor and Barbash captured the last sheep drive of this particular family, which had been in the business for a hundred years. "We were bearing witness to the end of a chapter in the story of the American West," noted Castaing-Taylor after the screening. And for much of the film, you feel like you're in the 19th century--aside from one poignant scene of one of the shepherds talking to his mother by cell phone from the top of the mountain, crying in frustration over the near futility of his task. And there's the last scene, right out of The Last Picture Show, with the two shepherds--one older, Ben Johnson type, one younger, Jeff Bridges type-driving home in a pickup truck talking ruefully about the last sheep drive and the uncertainty that lies ahead.


From Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash's Sweetgrass.



Castaing-Taylor and Barbash spent two years filming Sweetgrass, and the sheep drive itself took place six years ago. Zhou Liang spent a decade filming Petition, in which he documented Chinese citizens petitioning the government about various injustices that have caused many of them to lose their homes and their jobs. They trek hundreds of miles to set up a "Petitioners Village" outside of Beijing, as the city and country ready themselves for the global stage that is the Summer Olympic Games. Zhao is right there with the petitioners, often with a hidden camera, capturing the valor and quiet dignity of these citizens, who risk their lives and livelihoods for justice, as their country tries to put its best face forward.

Another David-and-Goliath story of sorts is Don Argott's The Art of the Steal, which pits the citizens of Merion, Pennsylvania--home of the magnificent Barnes Collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern paintings--against the power conglomerate of Philadelphia and Pennsylviania government officials, museum trustees and foundation heads in a struggle for control of the Collection. Argott manages to secure players from both sides of the conflict to talk on camera, as well as critics, curators, journalists and artists who taught at the school that Dr. Albert Barnes had built for the study of his collection. While Barnes was prescient enough in his tastes to answer the question, Who gets to call it art?, when the Philadelphia tastemakers declined to do so 80 years ago, it's the Philly power block that insists on declaring who gets to see art today.


Dr. Albert Barnes and his famous collection, the subjects of Don Argott's The Art of the Steal( Prod.: Sheena M. Joyce).



All screenings that I attended at AFI Fest were nearly sold out, no matter what hour of the day. Whether the festival will repeat this free-for-all experiment next year is obviously contingent on many factors, but more screenings per film--if not more films--helps build the audience, expand the festival brand, and keep the filmmaker's work out there.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.