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The Global Film Village: Interview with AFI Film Festival Artistic Director & Festival Programmer Robert Koehler

by Marla Lewin

I spent almost an hour with Robert Koehler who has gone from a top movie critic for Variety, to Artistic Director, Programmer of the AFI Film Festival and he gave me a look inside how he approached putting together this years festival and where it is going.

Marla: Congratulations,  Robert, this is your second year programming the festival, How different is it from being a critic? How is it going?


Robert: I was at the Los Angeles Times, and started in 94 writing for Variety, working for special sections, the Variety sections,and special themes they still do in weekly editions and on their website.  In 1999, some folks left the review team, they needed  someone out of LA to join, and I had wanted to review, so it worked out well.  Going to festivals, here and abroad, the first few years to Cannes with Variety.

Marla: Do you feel that time you have spent as a critic focusing on festival coverage, has helped prepare you for this job?


Robert: Definitely, I was  participating at festivals as an invited juror, I did panels, and was a guest at a range of festivals here and abroad. All of that time that I attended and I was in contact with many programmers and critics.  It is different on other continents, where many critics also work as programmers.


Marla: Would you say, it all really  about the passion of film, I have known you for many years, and you are one of the most passionate filmgoers that I know.  I have seen you through the years in the press suite and at screenings at AFI,  and I know you were thrilled when Rose joined the team three years ago. When I spoke with her last year, and you had been hired, it seemed you shared the same sensibilities.


Robert: Critics have a different sensibility at work than most people.  Certain critics will bring certain ideas to the program, which might not occur to other folks, it’s just the way their heads are wired. good critics are making connections between periods, they have a collection of so many films they have seen.  I like to be able to program a new film with an older film,  to tie the two films together, and thus show potential influences between them.

If we are programming 100 films, we can do this.  This year we trimmed that number back, for many reasons.


Marla: Such as?


Robert: It is a good time to recalibrate, to focus on essentials, driven by curatorial desires, there are essential films from other festival circuits around the world, that we feel LA audiences should see.  We have a team of programmers who make these decisions. We are a sounding board looking for the selection and approach.  I am actually the most recent hire.


Marla: So would you say you have your own vision of a “Festival of festivals” which has guided the choices.


Robert: AFI was created from the original Filmex, which closed in 1985.

No one knew what shape a new festival would  take, AFI stepped in to take it over.  Filmex was the first film festival, I  ever attended.

I always thought of this festival,  as a template for festivals I liked,  its style was adopted by the Toronto International Film Festival originally. They had traveled here to study Filmex which was very influential. The first few years there were 44 programs.  We had planned that this year, as it turned out by the time we finished we had over 60 films.  That is more then we planned, but it worked out.

The city deserves a festival that brings in a collection of films from the festival circuit and presents them in the best way possible, it makes sense to do that.


Marla: What festivals did you pick films to program from this year.


Robert: Cannes, CineVegas, Berlin, Venice, and Mexico.  I saw one of the most amazing films from Mexico, that I have seen in years.

There is the most significant Mexican director.  He spent years visiting farms in Mexico, following people with his camera in the fields, it is so full of life, and a commentary on the state of things and especially society in Mexico.


The Lake, a French film,  came out of Venice last year.  It is this director’s 3rd feature, an amazing film shot in the French alps.

It’s a bit like Terence Malick, and a bit of Tarkovsky.



This year there were many films from Berlin and Cannes from many different sections.  Berlin, had so many good films.

Rose Kuo went to Berlin this year.  Cannes was also just full of stuff.  We  could have had many more films.  It is more of a challenge cutting them down to fit the program. We need to be selective. We trust our whole team of programmers.


Marla:  So would you say working on a film festival, is like a good production.  If you are doing a good job, it appears seamless.


Robert: Oh yes, it is a production.  There is so much I am learning about all the inner workings of putting together a festival, it gives you real insight to all the work involved, behind the scenes.


Marla:  I am excited about the festival, have you any tips for attendees.  Are all the films already sold out?


Robert: There are many types of badges, there are still patron passes, and other badges for sale.  There have been many free tickets given away to this year’s festival as well.


Marla:  What about awards this year?


Robert: There is a single award this year, and we are not doing repeat screenings, also the theatres are all different sizes, so it would not be fair to do an audience award this year.


Marla:  So will a jury be giving the award?


Robert: The Jury’s president is  Angela Bassett. They will select the award winner from 11 films in the new directors section. We also have  a 13 film documentary section, 28 films from world cinema and 6 alternative cinema films that can’t be categorized.


Marla:How about film history?  You are showing Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.


Robert:  Yes, this is a new digital version, with a new audio track, which is pending a video release.  We have a long lost Ted Kotcheff’s movie, “Wake up in Fright,” thriller/horror, perfect for Halloween.  It was nearly lost forever, the finale negative was a restored and we have a new rescued print.


We have two programs of short films which should also be terrific.  Quite a range of different films.

Marla:  Do you see any trends this year.


Robert:  That is a good question. This year did not serve up any dominate trend, good films this year extended further developments that have been happening around the world in various countries. Very influentual countries this year are China, Belgium, Romania. Last year it was Argentina.


Marla:  Any special styles?


Robert:  Hyper-realism, breaking borders between fiction/non fiction.  All these tendencies continue.


Marla: Any surprises?


Robert: One surprise was good films from the UK.  The Red Riding trilogy.  Made for British TV, they are so good at crime/suspect dramas. They treat this genre with social realism in a very skillful way.  These episodes are  really made for the big screen.  This version is told as a trilogy, and was based on a four part tv series.   It is a key part of our  Halloween Marathon.  With its rich plot, and complex story arcs, lovers of the film say they are had to follow it, ride with it, go with all of the twists and turns. The films cover a period of 13 years in Yorkshire,England involving several serial killer incidents, it is a rich tapestry of the times as well as a police procedural.


Marla:  Sounds like a great festival.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts. See you at the movies.

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October 28th, 2009 | Tags:  | Category:Film Festivals | Edit this post 

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About MarlaLewinGFV

Lewin Marla
(Global Film Village)

Marla is a producer, playwright, screenwriter, publicist and now a journalist. She attends 12 to 20 film festivals per year. She has spoken on filmmaking at many festivals including Cannes and SXSW.


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