AFI FEST director Jacqueline Lyanga talks to Jeremy Kay about the festival ahead of the closing night gala.

AFI FEST director Jacqueline Lyanga talks to Jeremy Kay about the festival’s strengths on the eve of the closing night gala world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The festival opened with the world premiere of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock and runs from Nov 1-8 in Hollywood.

When does the programming team start its work?

Jacqueline Lyanga: We start looking at our films at the start of the year. For the galas and awards contender we start looking in the spring and talk to the studios and agencies. This year is perfect because we were able to bookend the festival with two biographical films. Hitchcock is meaningful because Alfred Hitchcock was an AFI Lifetime Achievement recipient, while Steven Spielberg is on the AFI board.

How does the festival’s end of year slot impact on its identity?

JL: We can showcase films in a different way. We can’t get premieres for all the films we show because of the calendar, but our role is to showcase the best of the year and if the timing is right we can premiere some of the later releases, as we have done with our opening and closing night galas. This year the programming team did a lot more travel to international festivals and that really enabled us to bring the cream of the crop including international films from what has been a very strong year in cinema. We got 12 of the foreign language Oscar submissions and we were able to bring movies that screened fairly recently in Venice, Toronto and Locarno. Kim Ki-Duk brought Pieta, which won the Golden Lion in Venice and he was one of close to 200 filmmakers who attended the festival and was able to send time with emerging filmmakers. We also hosted filmmakers like Cristian Mungiu, Sally Potter, Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Dustin Hoffman, Juan Antonio Bayona, Ken Burns and Sacha Gervasi.

Kim Ki-Duk enjoyed hanging out with a few emerging filmmakers, I hear

JL: Yes he was. There’s been a lot of interaction between the new and established filmmakers and that’s something we try to foster in an informal way through networking events, brunches and the like. It’s been wonderful to see how we have been able to bring them together.

Championing emerging filmmakers is reflected in the festival programme isn’t it?

JL: Yes we place great importance on nurturing and championing emerging filmmakers and take pride in our Young Americans section featuring Rebecca Thomas’ Electrick Children, Sean Baker’s Starlet and many others. We also have Breakthrough, where we showed David Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life, only the second Kenyan film ever to be submitted for Academy Awards consideration. World cinema is also well represented as I said before. [Michael Haneke’s Amour, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills screened, to name a few]

The festival still gives out free tickets. Why?

JL: For the fourth year in a row tickets have been free. Free tickets have been available for all screenings including galas. Sponsors want to be associated with a free festival. We’re still in a struggling economy and we’re a lean operation but we remain committed to keeping the festival free because it’s a great way to build cinephiles. We’re fortunate to have presenting sponsor Audi, as well as premium sponsors AT&T, Coca-Cola and HP, official sponsors American Airlines, Chinese Theatres, Levi’s and Stella Artois as well as all of our other supporters [Screen International is an official media sponsor of the festival.]

For the first time this year, the AFI FEST screening programme took place at the AFM. What was that about?

JL: We’re doing everything we can to help filmmakers with their current project and next project. We hope we can be a part of exposing their work to a wider audience. We chose three projects without sales agents and thought this might be a way to increase their exposure to the industry. They screened on Tuesday [6] and the movies were Here And There (Aqui Y Alla), Nairobi Half-Life and Starlet. We hope to grow this initiative in the years to come.