This year’s AFI Dallas International Film Festival features more than 170 features and shorts. That’s a lot of films to wade through, and for every one that is chosen, dozens of others are rejected. So who decides what stays and what goes? Meet James Faust, AFI Dallas senior programmer. This is the third year that Faust has programmed the festival, working closely with fellow senior programmer Sarah Harris and AFI Dallas artistic director Michael Cain. During a recent interview at the AFI Dallas offices, he walked us through the planning that went into this year’s event as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A.
Art&Seek: This is the third festival you’ve programmed now for AFI Dallas. What have you learned along the way?
James Faust: The biggest thing I’ve learned in three years of this festival is getting started earlier. Especially when we’re such an international festival. When you’re trying to book films from all over the world, they book a lot quicker than they would in the states, with the exception of the Big Three, as I like to call them: Tribeca, Sundance and AFI Fest (in Los Angeles). … That’s why we had such a doubling almost after the first year – we may have added 80 films, but we also added time to get foreign films.
A&S: How many festivals did you go to since last year’s AFI Dallas?
J.F.: Oh wow, since ’08? 1,2, 3 … 4,5 … 6,7,8 … 9,10 … 11,12 … 12 or 13.
A&S: And what’s your rough estimate of how many films you’ve watched in preparation for this year’s festival?
J.F.: 900-1,100 films. Features and shorts.
A&S: You share programming duties with Sarah Harris and Michael Cain. How does it work when you disagree on a film?
J.F.: [Laughs] It’s fun. … This year, Sarah, Michael and I always talk about what we’re concentrating on. And what I’ll concentrate on usually are the feature narratives and world cinema and some of the premiere categories and some of the competitions. And Sarah is always the shorts, and when she was elevated to senior programmer this year, she took over quite a few duties on programming documentaries, so she probably saw way more documentaries than I did this year. When we do argue, there’s three of us, and sometimes we’ll throw it out to Michael and say, “Here’s the deal …” If we do argue, it’s heated. It’s not quite malicious, but we love what we love or don’t love about a film. It will take a while, but we’re all intelligent people and all friends and we just sort of hammer it out as to why it is or why it isn’t in. That happened this year more than ever – we had more entries this year than ever … in the end, we just hammer it out over, it could be hours, it actually can be months. There was one film that was actually months. It was round and round and round and round, and eventually it worked out.
A&S: Was that a film you were advocating for?
J.F.: I’m not going to say who, but two of the three of us were advocating. … And ironically, the film had to pull out.
A&S: Is there a particular theme or idea running through this year’s lineup?
J.F.: There’s this feel among festivals that a film is international because it comes from China, but a lot of the filmmakers who come in are from America – they just happened to make a Chinese film. So what I was looking for this year was films made by Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Asian Americans from all countries, African Americans actually from Africa telling their stories in America. They may be nationalized citizens, they may have just immigrated within the last year, but they have a dedicated story that’s part of the great American tale, but it happens to be their tale from their culture. That’s something I was looking for.
A&S: On the other side of the spectrum, what kind of importance do you place on programming films by Texas filmmakers?
J.F.: We have to support filmmaking in the state – it’s part of our mantra. Our mission is to support Texas – Texas audiences and Texas filmmakers. We’ve always had a Texas category, we show some of our Texas shorts before other films. The state’s sort of compartmentalized in a way – you’re an Austin filmmaker, you’re a Dallas filmmaker, you’re a Houston filmmaker. We just want to show Texas filmmakers. … It’s just important to support the local state, because Texas has so much to offer as far as shooting in the state itself. … They’re shooting 40 movies a year in Texas. It’s crazy, I don’t know why people leave … I hope we can get them to stay, make more, and then all the sudden those great artists who feel they have to go to L.A. or New York to make it stay here and make great Texas films and we build this thing, this sort of art community.
A&S: So now that the festival is all programmed, you get to just sit back and relax, right?
J.F.: Programming sort of is never done. There are holes in our schedule that are at sort of off times, but you never know if someone great like a William H. Macy comes up and says, “I’d love to show my film,” and you go, “Let’s see if we can make that happen.”
A&S: So after Texas Day wraps up the festival on April 3, what are your plans for the day after that?
J.F.: We always come in the next day – the day after the festival you come in. But the day after, it’s kind of an AFI tradition to not come in the day after the day after the festival to take a break.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.