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This year’s AFI Fest is virtual and open to all. Here’s what you need to know

Rachel Brosnahan in "I'm Your Woman," which has its world premiere as the opening-night selection of AFI Fest 2020.
(Amazon Studios)

The AFI Fest has become a cornerstone of the Los Angeles moviegoing calendar, bringing audiences a mix of festival favorites from throughout the year, fresh discoveries and a dash of awards season hopefuls. But in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the entire festival ecosystem turned upside down, AFI Fest is going virtual.

As much as that might seem like a big change for an event that typically unfolds in Hollywood theaters including the TCL Chinese and the Egyptian, organizers hope that what defines the fest stays the same.

“We’re still looking for the best stories, new voices, the things that we think are really interesting and that we think our audience will really enjoy,” said Sarah Harris, in her first year as director of programming for AFI festivals. “That’s still at the heart of it.”

AFI Fest has an advantage over other festivals that have had to transition to post-pandemic virtual events: many on staff have already done it. The AFI Docs festival, which involves much of the same team, put on a virtual event in June, and dealt with many of the technical and logistical issues potentially in store for AFI Fest.

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“We were able to pull from our experience on AFI Docs,” said Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI festivals. “This one is different in a lot of ways, but knowing the production schedule, knowing how a virtual festival gets produced, we knew the questions that had to be asked. Like if we’re going to add another film in a theater it’s like, ‘It can only show at 9 a.m. or 11 p.m. if we add it at this point,’ whereas in the virtual world that question kind of doesn’t exist.”

The festival opens Thursday night with the world premiere of “I’m Your Woman.” Directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the script with her husband/producer Jordan Horowitz, the film stars “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” Rachel Brosnahan as a criminal’s wife forced to go on the run with her infant child.

Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno” and Mohammad Rasoulof’s “There Is No Evil” are among the films our critic recommends from this year’s Oct. 15-22 event.

Hart’s previous film, the Disney+ release “Stargirl,” had its world premiere at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood on March 10, just as things were shutting down from the pandemic. She acknowledged feeling grateful to simply be working and have another film coming out this year.

“Getting to have our world premiere be the opening night of AFI Fest is such an honor and so exciting,” said Hart. “And I’m trying to just focus on that, instead of being sad that we don’t get to ... celebrate together and have our movie show in a big theater. I just think given the state of the world, it’s important to focus on the positives.”

Back in March, the South by Southwest Film Festival was one of the first major cultural events to be canceled due to the pandemic. Two films that had been set to premiere at SXSW — Angel Kristi Williams’ “Really Love” and Kelly Oxford‘s “Pink Skies Ahead” — are now among the AFI Fest world premieres. Like Hart, Williams acknowledged she has mixed feelings about having her debut feature film premiere virtually.

“I’ve been going back and forth with this in my mind,” said Williams. “Obviously my dream for the film was for people to be able to see it in theaters on a screen. I currently don’t see a world where that’s going to happen anytime soon.

“To be honest, I just really want people to be able to access the movie,” she said. “And I think there comes a point where we can’t keep waiting to give it to the audience that we made it for.”

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Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing and Kofi Siriboe in "Really Love," directed by Angel Kristi Williams
Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing and Kofi Siriboe in “Really Love,” directed by Angel Kristi Williams.
(courtesy of AFI Fest)

Other world premieres include the documentaries “My Psychedelic Love Story,” directed by Errol Morris and “The Reagans,” directed by Matt Tyrnauer.

Of the 125 titles in the this year’s AFI Fest lineup, including 54 features, 53% are directed by women, 39% are directed by BIPOC and 17% are directed by LBGTQ+ filmmakers.

“It is important for us to be representing diverse voices and that’s always been kind of at the core of what we do,” said Harris. “We’re mindful of it when we discuss films. But there is no reason why we can’t get to that number.

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“I’m proud of that 53%,” said Harris. “These films are being made out there, we gotta go looking for them. That’s what we’re here for.”

With its female-focused crime story, Hart’s “I’m Your Woman,” which is being released by Amazon Studios, explores a new side to a familiar genre.

Hart points to crime films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as “The Godfather,” “Thief,” “Straight Time” and “The Getaway,” many of which featured strong performances from actresses such as Diane Keaton, Tuesday Weld and Ali MacGraw in supporting roles. But at some point those female characters were pushed to the background.

“And I always felt like, ‘I want to see that movie. Where is she going? What’s going to happen to her? Is she going to be OK? Is she going to get wrapped up in this?’” said Hart. “And as exciting as it always was to watch the male protagonist go kick ass, I always wanted to see where the woman went. ... Since that movie didn’t exist, I just decided to make it.”

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I always felt like, I want to see that movie... Since that movie didn’t exist, I just decided to make it.

Julia Hart, director and co-writer of ‘I’m Your Woman’

“Really Love” is a romantic drama starring Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing and “Queen Sugar’s” Kofi Siriboe as two people who meet at the wrong time, their lives never quite synching up to the powerful connection between them. Williams’ inspirations include “In the Mood For Love,” “Love Jones,” “Love & Basketball” and “Nothing but a Man,” for the film financed and produced by MACRO, the company behind such films as “Sorry To Bother You,” “Just Mercy” and the upcoming “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Williams often attended AFI Fest as an audience member, and after seeing “I Am Not a Witch” at the festival in 2017 she reached out to production designer Nathan Parker. He went on to work on “Really Love.”

“It’s kind of the full circle moment, I was inspired by so many films from all around the world at AFI Fest,” said Williams.

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And while “Really Love” did not play at SXSW, the film did pick up the special jury prize for acting for Siriboe and Wong-Loi-Sing.

In the time since, protests have erupted around the country following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others at the hands of police. For Williams, seeing the nationwide racial reckoning hasn’t changed her film, but it has made it seem more charged.

“The movie doesn’t feel different to me. It’s the same movie that would have premiered in March, but I definitely think that the urgency has ramped up,” she said. “When I made the film, we knew we were making it because it was something that we needed to see — I yearned to see this type of story on-screen and I love seeing us on this scale and in this way. It’s just very unapologetically Black and there’s no trauma. It’s two Black people worthy of their own story, literally about two Black people in love.

“I definitely think that it’s coming at the right time,” said Williams.

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Among the notable titles coming to AFI Fest after previous festival debuts are “Jumbo,” starring Noémie Merlant, “Nine Days,” starring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, “Shadow In the Cloud,” starring Chloë Grace Moretz, “Wander Darkly,” starring Sienna Miller and Diego Luna, “The Father,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman and “Sound of Metal,” starring Riz Ahmed.

As well as the latest work from filmmakers Heidi Ewing (“I Carry You With Me”), Michael Franco (“New Order”), R.J. Cutler (“Belushi”) and Hao Wu (“76 Days”). Regina King’s “One Night in Miami...” will play at a special drive-in event at the Rose Bowl.

Fans of Dennis Hopper can see both “Hopper/Welles,” a record of a 1970 conversation between Hopper and Orson Welles, as well as the new restoration of 1980’s “Out of the Blue,” directed by and starring Hopper along with Linda Manz.

Linda Manz in Dennis Hopper's "Out of the Blue."
(courtesy of AFI Fest)

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Curated by Racquel Gates, the festival’s Cinema’s Legacy program will include free presentations of Allen and Albert Hughes’s “Dead Presidents,” Leslie Harris’ “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse” and Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman.”

Tribute events to Sofia Coppola, Kirby Dick, Rita Moreno and Mira Nair will also be free.

Carly Rose Moser, director of production and operations for the festival, would normally be concerned with tracking numbers and print traffic to get films to a theater; this year she is worried about upload links and reliable internet connections. Additionally, most of this year’s post-screening filmmaker Q&As are being pre-taped, which brings an additional layer of production concerns, but also means that nearly all filmmakers will be participating.

“We wanted to make sure films were comfortable putting their content online,” Moser said. “That is something that is very different from when [the festival was] in-person. That’s a known factor, how many people are in a theater, it’s only those people in the theater. It feels less risky to people. That is something that is majorly changed in the process is how we talk to the filmmakers and distributors about playing at the festival because this is still very new. And we really want to make sure everyone in this scenario — us, the filmmakers, the distributors — feels comfortable with it.”

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Another unique feature of virtual festivals: In years past, audiences had to make their way to a theater in Hollywood to be a part of the event. This year, people in the most remote parts of the country can take part.

“I do think it’ll give some opportunity for people [to participate], which is really great,” said Harris. “And with AFI itself, there is this national image that I think it’s really exciting for people across the country to engage with. While we’re still at heart a very L.A.-based group and industry-based group, I think there’s the potential to reach young film fans, especially. There’s a really great chance to tap into the next generation.”

Even without crowded theaters or glamorous red carpets, organizers are confident that the central values of the festival will still take center stage.

“The goal is bringing forth independent film to audiences and film lovers and being able to create dialogues,” said Moser. “It’s exciting that in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still able to do that. We could have easily just decided to say, ‘Well, we can’t do that in person, guess we’re not happening.’ But instead we decided to tackle going virtual, and still bring films to audiences. It’s why we do this.”

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AFI Fest 2020

Where: Online

When: Oct. 15-22

Tickets: $8 for regular screenings; $15 for special screenings; $100 for film pass ($75 for AFI members); $140 for film pass and summit ($105 for AFI members)

Info: fest.afi.com


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