AFI Fest Has a Massive Weekend

FishbowlLA was all over AFI Fest this weekend. And we’re happy to report it was one of the best cinematic experiences we’ve ever had. Although it didn’t start off that way. Unlike the LA Film Festival, which had armies of volunteers guiding your every movement, AFI Fest can get a bit confusing. Friday was a zoo, with some sidewalks shut off for the red carpet and virtually no staff presence to help guide confused festival-goers to their destinations. But by Saturday we had it figured out–and we’re certainly glad we gave it a chance. If any of you had a similar experience, don’t be discouraged. It all makes sense after your third or fourth film.

The big news of the weekend was undoubtedly the surprise premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s new film Haywire. We were unable to attend, as it was a friggin’ mad house. But we admired the clever way the film was rolled out. AFI Fest had been promising a “special screening” for weeks. But it wasn’t until Saturday night that the announcement came it would be Haywire.

Yesterday also saw the festival premiere of Werner Herzog’s new film Into the Abyss–about the execution of Texas convicted murderer Michael Perry and the lives of those involved in his crime–which we were able to see. Herzog was in attendance at the Egyptian Theater and was sure to explain prior to the screening that his personal position was firmly anti-death penalty. His film, however, is far more complicated than an advocacy piece. Herzog speaks with a woman whose mother and brother were killed by Perry–over a car. When she tells Herzog that Perry’s death brought her the first true peace she’d had since the murders, it’s a difficult thing to argue with.

Amazingly, Herzog told the audience he only shot eight hours of footage to make the documentary. A miraculous achievement for a film with so much emotional depth and complex interpersonal layers.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that we attended Wim Wenders 3-D modern dance flick Pina. Any film that can get a native-Bostonian sports-and-beer type like myself to sit through two hours of esoteric German beetle dances (or whatever) is a serious achievement.

Arguably the best film we saw over the weekend, however, was Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film. Panahi is a legendary director currently under house arrest in his home country–facing six years in prison and banned for 20 years from making films or being interviewed. Ah, but thinks he has found a loophole. There are no provisions against him acting in a film. So he reads his most recent screenplay to the camera. He also takes it onto the porch with him to smoke cigarettes; into the bedroom; while he eats breakfast and talks to his lawyer on the phone; while he speaks with the custodian.

Is it real? Is it staged? The answer is probably both. Panahi is clearly testing the limits of what he’s allowed to get away with. What follows is both a fascinating study of a man banned from pursuing his craft, and a political statement aimed at provoking the repressive Iranian government. A brilliant film that will, sadly, probably land Panahi a few extra years of prison time.

Overall, a wonderful weekend of programming. We were shocked to attend several screenings that weren’t full. Some of the world cinema films were half empty. On a rainy day no less! Come on LA, these films are free. Get out and see some real movies.