LA’s diverse film festivals gear up for city’s lights, cameras and action
Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the country. It’s also the home of the world’s most popular film industry. So it’s kind of natural that both those facts will be celebrated over the next month by a slew of film festivals that focus on nations, regions and ethnicities from around the globe.
It starts Wednesday when the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles begins its five-day run at the Regal L.A. LIVE multiplex Downtown. Things kick into high gear the last full week of April with the COLCOA French Film Festival settling in for eight days at the Directors Guild of America Theaters on Sunset Blvd., starting the 23rd; The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival hits venues throughout L.A. County from April 25 to May 2; and the South East European Film Festival in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood goes from April 26 to May 3. Then, just in time for Asian Pacific Heritage Month, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival goes from May 3 to 12 at various sites around the city.
The people who put on these festivals all share a love for cinema, obviously. And while their goals are similar too, how they came to operating these showcases is as varied as the movies they present.
IFFLA founder and chair Christina Marouda grew up loving Indian films – in her native Greece. After moving to Los Angeles and interning at the big AFI Fest, she began noticing that the world’s top festivals programmed few if any movies from the subcontinent. Bollywood, India’s massive, Mumbai-based popular cinema, didn’t make the kinds of movies art-minded programmers went for, and navigating the more indie-style, local language productions made throughout India — which IFFLA showcases — was a daunting challenge.
But Marouda figured it out, and her festival is now in its 16th year.
“Look, this is L.A.,” she told skeptical Indian producers about why they should show their wares here. “This is not a small town. There will be attention, we can bring the filmmakers here, they can create a buzz, meet producers, agents, everything starts here and we’re going to take advantage of our proximity to Hollywood. That was a convincer.”
Marouda said that IFFLA’s audience now runs about 65 percent from Southern California’s spread-out South Asian community and 35 percent industry people, cineastes, film students and the like.
“We also show films from the Indian diaspora, so a lot of local alumni are at the festival, and second- and third-generation Indian Americans can embrace it,” she added.
Among this year’s highlights are a rare, 2K print of “Chadni,” a 1989 feature starring the beloved actress Sridevi, who passed away earlier this year; a master class in crossing over with India-born “Big Bang Theory” star Kunal Nayyar; and opening and closing night galas, the psychological thriller “In the Shadows” and “Village Rockstars,” about a 10-year-old girl’s dreams of being a guitar god.
COLCOA (that originally stood for City of Light, City of Angels) was created 22 years ago by the Franco-American Cultural Fund, an alliance of professional film organizations in the U.S. and France. Though it has strong classic movie and television programs, COLCOA’s main purpose is to give Hollywood an overview of the preceding year in French cinema.
Executive producer and artistic director Francois Truffart is a former French diplomat who programed a high school movie club when he was a teenager in Paris. He joined COLCOA as a programmer in 2004 and became the fest’s executive producer in 2007.
“So I think it’s in my DNA, in a way,” he said of his current job. “We are the largest film festival in the world dedicated to French film. Cannes is bigger, of course, but it’s an international festival.
“We are very much committed to promote French film among producers and distributors,” Truffart said while also acknowledging that just about every Francophone and Francophile in So Cal packs the DGA building throughout the eight-day fete (where, naturally, French wine and cheese can also be found in abundance). “There is always the possibility for a film to be bought after the festival by a U.S. distributor, and for the talent, we have a lot of agents coming. And there’s the possibility of American remakes.”
This year’s COLCOA is dedicated to women filmmakers – tres relevant – with several days and programs committed to the female gaze. Among the 86 movies and shows on display, Truffart flagged the comedy “Naked Normandy,” the noirish family break-up drama “Custody” and the opening night gala “Promise at Dawn,” based on the acclaimed writer Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as his problematic mom.
2018 marks the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival’s 13th year.
“So we’re celebrating our Bar Mitzvah year,” cracked Hilary Helstein, a documentary filmmaker and the event’s executive director and co-founder. “We joke around, but it is. So we’re trying to show some things that are a little bit lighter and different and engaging. But this year we have a lot of films about activists and women’s rights and the #MeToo movement and Never Again and all that kind of stuff. We also have films that are celebrating Israel at 70.”
Helstein had also worked with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. She found it odd that a city with such a strong Jewish tradition and presence as L.A. didn’t have a film festival for that demographic, and decided to do something about it.
“I’d been working with a local organization and we came up with an idea to start a Jewish film festival in L.A.,” she said. “There had not been one that was sustainable, and there are 70 Jewish film festivals around the world. It seemed preposterous that L.A. did not have one. So we started this out of the West Valley, but I said this was something that had to be citywide. There are 600,000 Jews in the city, and we had to make a program available to engage them in whatever neighborhood they live in.
“We’ve also expanded our scope of what’s considered Jewish,” Helstein added. “So there’s Jewish and then there’s Jew-ish.”
The opening night film, “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” documents the life of one of show business’ most celebrated Jewish converts. Closing night’s “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” looks at such nonagenarian funnymen as Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. In between there’s everything from a film about American baseball players on the Israeli national team (“Heading Home”) to “Rising Sons,” a film about combating rape in Africa.
Vera Mijojlic was a journalist and worked for visiting film productions in her native Bosnia before the bloody Yugoslav Wars. She started the South East European Film Festival 13 years ago to help bring together the many different groups from that contentious region.
“We are very rigorous about curating the festival,” Mijojlic said. “We have respectfully presented as many sides to the story, excluding of course pure propaganda films, that on merit and on quality are relevant. I think this is a valuable thing to do in our country as it is today, and we have been able to do that.”
SEEFest shows films from and about Austria and Hungary on south through the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey and the Southern Caucasus. But they’re not all about ethnic conflict and the oppression of old empires. Some of them are actually pretty funny, like this year’s Bulgarian World War I farce “Enemies” or “The Other Side of Everything,” about a Serbian democracy advocate with a great sense of humor regarding how thoroughly she’s failed.
Mijojlic figures SEEFest attendees split about evenly between Angelenos who want to see films about their former homelands and a more general audience of movie and international politics junkies.
“If you want to do arthouse, which every young filmmaker aspires to do, then you look to Eastern Europe because Eastern Europeans are crazy,” Mijojlic half-joked. “When they’re good, they’re the best and they get government funding to do films that nobody else would be able to do anywhere else in the world.”
Visual Communications, the non-profit community arts organization created by L.A. Asian-Americans, is a few years shy of its golden anniversary, and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival it puts on starts its 34th edition May 3.
Francis Cullado is executive director of both. A Filipino-American raised in Long Beach, he switched his focus from electrical engineering to ethnic studies and art after a life-changing summer internship with the Getty organization. The 37-year-old began working at the LAAPFF eight years ago, and this will be his fourth time running the show – which will be well over 100 features and shorts from across Asia, the Pacific, Europe and America.
“This is a political time when we see Los Angeles as diverse but also still segregated,” Cullado observed. “There’s probably a film festival that can happen here every day that’s based on race and ethnicity. One of the wonderful aspects of it is that we have so many groups of people here in Los Angeles – like IFFLA, COLCOA,the Pan-African Film Festival, Latino film festivals – that are bringing stories not only from outside of L.A., but also resonating with the communities of Los Angeles.”
Beside natural venues in Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Chinatown, Cullado says LAAPFF is “bringing the mountain to Mohammed” this year with additional programming at the DGA, Sunset 5 and L.A. LIVE. Among the hot tickets will be the John Cho-starring, Sundance award-winning missing child thriller “Searching”; the Cambodian family saga co-directed by Long Beach’s own Caylee So “In the Life of Music”; and “Waru,” a compilation of eight single-shot narratives by female Maori directors.
“We’re always looking at inter-diversity as well as intra-diversity.” Cullado said of his event, but that could just as well apply to L.A. and its rich assortment of film festivals. For tickets and further information on each, got to:
South East European: http://seefilmla.org/
Asian Pacific: festival.vconline.org