The gig: Director of AFI Fest, the American Film Institute’s annual film festival. In the two years that she’s served as head of the event, Jacqueline Lyanga has traveled around the world to various festivals and screened hundreds of movies in an effort to hunt down the year’s cream of the crop. She is busy presiding over this year’s AFI festival, which kicked off last week with a screening of Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” and concludes Thursday with Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”
Lessons from a peripatetic: As the daughter of a college professor father and nurse mother, Lyanga was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Her family later moved to England, Toronto, Montreal and New York at various points throughout her teenager years. Learning how to adapt to new environments early on helped her later in her career in Hollywood, she said. “It was great training for the job I do now, because it forces you to meet a lot of new, different kinds of people and find a way to engage with anyone, regardless of their background. It’s helped me to embrace discovering new films and being open to new ideas.”
Late-night inspiration: Although Lyanga enjoyed going to the cinema as a kid, she discovered her love for film while watching late-night television. “When I was growing up in Canada, on CBC they would always have the best movies on late at night,” she recalled. One such film, John Cassavetes’ “Shadows,” had a particular effect on her. “I was immediately smitten. It was a different kind of cinema from anything I’d ever seen before. After that captivated me, I kept going back to the channel and sneaking out of bed late at night. It was my cinema training ground — that’s where I discovered Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner.’”
Training ground: Lyanga further explored her passion for film in high school in Canada, when she turned in short stop-motion animation films she shot in the place of essays in her history class. Later, at the University of Toronto, she wrote film criticism for the college paper while completing a double major in art history and cinema studies. After graduating in 1994, she landed her first job as a production assistant to a Canadian producer. “I did everything from arranging travel to payroll to assisting a production designer with tracking down an antique prison stamp to stamp a prison uniform with,” she recalled.
Moving on up: After a brief stint in the world of independent film distribution, Lyanga decided to go back to school. She headed across the country from New York to Los Angeles, where she got her master of fine arts degree in screenwriting from AFI. While in the school’s program, she began popping her head into AFI Fest’s office. By 2005, she had been hired as one of the festival’s programmers. She continued to work for the festival in various capacities — including as a special projects manager and liaison to the American Film Market — until being promoted to director in 2009.
Not all glitz: Now that she’s director of the festival, Lyanga says her job still isn’t as glamorous as some might imagine, even when she’s traveling to events like the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France to scope out possible AFI Festival selections. “Cannes is very glamorous and romantic, with women coming from the galas in their gowns. But the reality of it is that I’m usually watching that and then walking back home tired after a long day of screenings and meetings on the half-hour.”
Screening rituals: Lyanga estimates that she watches more than 600 films a year, beginning with the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January and ending with the Toronto International Film Festival in September. At this point in her career, she’s able to tell a good picture from a bad one relatively quickly, she said. “I’ll make notes about films I see at the end of each day, whether I’m at a festival or screening something in my house or at my office. And the staff really encourages each other to see films again if we’re not sure we liked them. Great art isn’t about everyone agreeing the film is great.”
Festival tip: Want to get your film into AFI Fest? Lyanga says to first show it to those you trust before submitting it to the festival. “Find people who will be honest with you … not someone who worked on the film with you, or your mother or father.”
Career advice: “Having a passion for art and working with artists is necessary for this job. I’d encourage someone to work at an art gallery or a festival to make sure that this is something they want to do.” The best way to do that? Volunteer. “It’s a great way to see films and see what’s happening behind the scenes.”
Free time: Lyanga, who lives in Eagle Rock with her husband — a writer — said she actually still enjoys going to movie theaters in her spare time. “I love sitting in the theater,” she said, citing “Some Like It Hot,” “Annie Hall” and “L’Avventura” as some of her all-time favorite pictures. “Just enjoying the spectacle of it is one of the joys of film.”