AFI FEST 2023 Programmer Picks – American Film Institute

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AFI FEST 2023 Programmer Picks

With an incredible slate of more than 140 films, including 20 International Oscar® submissions, 10 Special Screenings, 7 collections featuring the most unique short films from around the world and more, AFI FEST 2023 is set to be the best festival yet! We asked our dedicated team of AFI FEST programmers to highlight a few of the films from the diverse and eclectic program that surprised, delighted or inspired them. Read about their picks below and buy tickets today. Any sold-out screenings will have a RUSH Line on a first-come, first-served basis, subject to seating availability.

AFI FEST 2023 takes place October 25-October 29 in Los Angeles, CA. To learn more the full festival lineup, browse the program by section in our AFI FEST Film Guide or check out the AFI FEST schedule here.

Todd Hitchcock, Director, AFI FEST and the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

LA CHIMERA

I have enjoyed Alice Rohrwacher’s previous films like CORPO CELESTE, THE WONDERS and HAPPY AS LAZZARO, but for me LA CHIMERA is by far her best film yet. Her approach to the story material – a depressed and seedy English archaeologist slumming around with a gang of small-town Tuscan graverobbers in ‘80s Italy – combines comedy, intrigue, romance, musical interludes and the supernatural. There is a comfort with artifice and formal cinematic shapeshifting that few beyond Wes Anderson would dare. Josh O’Connor gives an affecting performance as Arthur, the broken-hearted, dissolute expat archaeologist, and Isabella Rossellini is in fine form as a local aristocrat. Midway through I found myself wondering when we would see the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher, who has appeared in all of Rohrwacher’s narrative features, as well as 2022’s Oscar®-nominated short film LA PUPILLE (AFI FEST 2022). When she finally makes her appearance late in the film, it’s a doozy, and it takes the story into yet another fun and fascinating direction to explore. But LA CHIMERA is not just a frothy romp…more like a pithy caper? Rohrwacher has given serious thought to the complex gray areas around antiquities collection and trade, and there is real emotional resonance to Arthur’s brokenheartedness. This may be my favorite film of the year. Screening October 28, 6:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

THE UNIVERSAL THEORY (DIE THEORIE VON ALLEM)

Perhaps Timm Kröger’s visionary sci-fi fable THE UNIVERSAL THEORY is less an homage to the filmmakers whose work this film bears comparison to – Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan – and more that this young filmmaker demonstrates such impressive command for suspense, the uncanny and time-slipping narrative devices that the comparisons are inevitable. Still when, strangers meet on a train, or a lady keeps vanishing, as happens here, “Hitchcock homage” will be the default review. And Kröger no doubt appreciates the Master of Suspense’s great British films from the ‘30s, particularly the spy stories. To this he adds his own spin, and post-World War II framing: a group of German physicists attend a conference in the Swiss Alps. The war may only be in the recent past, but the twin new paradigms of both the Cold War and the Atomic Age have decisively reframed reality, leaving the issue of what each conference attendee did or didn’t do during the war an issue not to be dug up. This is the fraught terrain that the young doctoral candidate Leinert (Jan Bülow) enters upon, and all of this is before he meets the mysterious woman who inexplicably knows things about his past, or he finds out about the hidden tunnels beneath the town, or before the first grisly murder has occurred. Visually, the film is a stunner, with artful compositions and impressive camera choreography, filmed in beautiful widescreen black and white by cinematographer Roland Stuprich. This mind-bending thriller is a heady trip, and being only Kröger’s second feature, may herald the arrival of an exciting new talent to watch. Screening October 26, 12:30 p.m. and October 28, 9:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

LITTLE GIRL BLUE

What for many would be an unthinkable, unspeakable tragedy – the suicide of one’s parent – is instead given thoughtful, thorough and caring examination by filmmaker Mona Achache, who unpacks (sometimes literally) her mother Carole Achache’s entire, unconventional life and work. The filmmaker’s grandmother, Monique Lange, was a prominent editor and writer for the publisher Gallimard, whose clients and friends included many of 1950s France’s leading intellectuals – some of whom would become abusers of her teenage daughter Carole. Swept up in the revolutionary fervor of May 1968, Carole then leads a hedonistic, precarious and drug-fueled life for the next decade before settling down with a husband, kids, a steady job and her own writing career in the 1980s. Drawing on her mother’s voluminous diaries, photographs and personal effects, the filmmaker has rich material to work with in telling the story, but her masterstroke is in casting actress Marion Cotillard to enact the role of Carole Achache. Eschewing conventional form, LITTLE GIRL BLUE instead becomes a one-of-a-kind hybrid documentary/psychodrama, foregrounding its theatricality as the filmmaker directs Cotillard on camera on a magnificent Parisian apartment set that’s a triumph of production design, shifting walls and décor as needed scene to scene. Cotillard gives a brilliant performance in this metanarrative, in what for the filmmaker must have been a story she felt she had to tell – and could only have told in this way. Screening October 29, 6:40 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Abbie Algar, Director, Programming, AFI FEST and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

INSHALLAH A BOY (INSHALLAH WALAD)

U.S. Premiere

Jordan’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

You know you’ve happened upon something truly special when you’re on the edge of your seat, sometimes seething with anger, sometimes on the verge of tears, always fully invested and learning. I’m excited that AFI FEST audiences will have an opportunity to experience this with Jordan’s official Oscar® submission INSHALLAH A BOY. Palestinian actor Mouna Hawa gives an astonishing performance as Nawal, a young widow faced with losing her home, her car, her job, even her young daughter under Jordan’s patriarchal inheritance laws – unless she can quickly conceive and give birth to a son who can legally receive her inheritance in her stead. This might sound like an outlandish logline for a high concept thriller, but everything about this film is grounded in an astute social realism, sensitively handled by Jordanian filmmaker Amjad Al Rasheed, who based the film’s central character on the lived experiences of women in his circle. It’s a condemnation of Jordan’s Kafkaesque, decidedly misogynistic legal system and of the society it represents, but it’s also a tribute to the resilience, ingenuity and adaptability of women everywhere living under laws and societal norms that deny their worth as autonomous beings. I’m also amazed that this is Al Rasheed’s first feature – and the first feature from Jordan ever to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. And AFI FEST will be the first place in the U.S. you can see it! Screening October 25, 8:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

TÓTEM

Mexico’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature
I’ve been a big fan of Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés since her 2018 feature debut THE CHAMBERMAID, which felt so viscerally real and relatable to me – despite how far the protagonist’s experiences were from my own – that I’ve been eagerly anticipating what Avilés would do next ever since. With TÓTEM, which debuted at this year’s Berlinale, I wasn’t disappointed. Where THE CHAMBERMAID takes place in a large luxury hotel in Mexico City over the course of a single workday, TÓTEM shifts to a fully domestic setting, nestling in with an extended family over the course of day from the perspective of seven-year-old Sol, as the household prepares a birthday party for her father – probably his last. A young child about to lose a parent to terminal illness is the stuff of tragedy, but in Avilés hands it becomes a soulful, intimate and at times humorous meditation on life’s complex fabric of experiences, emotions and relationships. There is no melodrama, no sentimentality, but rather a focus on lived moments – the gift of a song, the baking of a cake, the sharing of a meal – framed by Avilés’ intimate handheld camerawork. Bring tissues and be ready for the sort of emotional catharsis only cinema can inspire. Screening October 26, 3:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

THE END WE START FROM

U.S. Premiere

I love a good dystopian survival thriller, so I was excited to hear that BAFTA Award-winning British director Mahalia Belo (known for her TV work in the UK) had teamed up with UK playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch (NORMAL PEOPLE) to adapt Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel THE END WE START FROM. The narrative takes place following devastating flooding that has swept the UK and left much of the low-lying areas of the country uninhabitable. Having given birth just as the first wave of flooding submerged her London home, a new mother (Jodie Comer, KILLING EVE, also seen in THE BIKERIDERS in this year’s festival) is forced to flee with her partner and baby for higher ground. Because what could be scarier and more high stakes than surviving a near-apocalyptic climate event? Surviving one with a newborn baby in tow, having also just survived childbirth. I love British post-apocalyptic classics like CHILDREN OF MEN, 28 DAYS LATER and THREADS (the G.O.A.T) and really admire the way in which Belo and Birch draw on those to craft something very different, ultimately more grounded in the terrifying reality of climate change, but also more hopeful. This role also confirms Jodie Comer as one of our brightest young actors. She is onscreen 100% of the time – most of the time acting with an infant – and she is a force to be reckoned with. Also watch for Katherine Waterston and Benedict Cumberbatch (who produced the film – a vote of confidence there) in stellar supporting roles. Screening October 29, 6:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Malin Kan, Senior Programmer, AFI FEST

MENUS PLAISIRS – LES TROISGROS
I really am aware that you don’t need me to tell you to go see legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s latest film about delicious food… but I just can’t stop talking about it. There are so many incredible details and insights in this multi-layered look into the Michelin-starred Troisgros restaurant (also featured in CHEF’S TABLE) but, while Wiseman has always understood that we want information, he also knows that we want to see how something functions, whether it functions, what are the structures in place, and who are the personalities making it all happen. No one turns a system into poetry like Wiseman! Screening October 29, 1:45 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

ORLANDO, MY POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY (ORLANDO, MA BIOGRAPHIE POLITIQUE)

Paul Preciado’s debut is a more off-the-beaten-path documentary, a personal essay inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography,” and if you’re like me and have always intended to read it, have no fear, the connection is more abstract than that. Instead, it invokes the universal feeling of stumbling across something so special and rare, that represents your experience, being so grateful for its existence and perhaps a little angry that it doesn’t represent every facet of that experience. For Preciado, the nearly 100-year-old novel is an early documentation of transness, and only a starting point, to leap from century to century, across vibrance, beauty and sadness, and everything that transness could possibly contain. This is such a lovely film and truly unique filmmaking. Screening October 27, 6:45 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

MILISUTHANDO
Screening to be followed by a conversation with director Milisuthando Bongela.
Another personal documentary! With this stunning debut, filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela revisits the historic time and place in which she was raised – an unrecognized South African state, supposedly free from apartheid – but she also revisits the narrative that she was raised to believe, delicately prompting us to do the same. Propelling the personal into the profound, Bongela’s remarkable documentary calls out the pervasive and destructive power of colonialism and racism, not just of apartheid-era South Africa, but today, in ourselves and each other. Screening October 28, 11:00 a.m. – BUY TICKETS

Julia Kipnis, Associate Programmer, AFI FEST

THE SUMMER WITH CARMEN (TO KALOKAIRI TIS KARMEN)

North American Premiere

Screening on Oct. 29 to be followed by a conversation with director Zacharias Mavroeidis

It may be fall in Los Angeles, but in Greek filmmaker Zacharias Mavroeidis’ playful fourth feature, it’s the height of summer on an Athens queer nude beach. Best friends, actors and writing partners Demos and Nikitas spend the day together (barechested of course) amidst bronzed bodies soaking in the summer sun. The two glistening besties brainstorm a script based on the lively events of last summer in which Demos’ ex, Panos, adopts a stray dog (the eponymous Carmen) that lures Demos back into his life. Arranged as a film-within-a-film, Mavroeidis joyfully prods at the “golden rules of screenwriting” in this metatextual delight that leaves Greek Weird Wave in the dust as the “Greek Queer Wave” reigns supreme. Screening October 26, 12:00 p.m. and October 29, 9:05 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

SLOW

Lithuania’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

If you’re looking for a sensual, tantalizing love story from Lithuania, look no further! SLOW is filmmaker Marija Kavtaradzė’s sophomore feature and quite a discovery indeed. Kavtaradzė intimately observes the meet cute between sex positive dancer/serial dater Elena and the soft-spoken, yet expressive sign language interpreter Dovyda. As the two personable lovebirds gradually build an intense connection, their newly formed relationship is threatened when Dovyda reveals to Elena that he is asexual. Despite open conversations and attempts at understanding, their smoldering relationship gets tangled. An excellent film choice for those moviegoers looking for a candid and rare look into a complex romance, diverse sexuality and the wonders of human connection. Screening October 26, 3:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

TERRESTRIAL VERSES (AYEH HAYE ZAMINI)

Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami’s boldly intrepid film stands out in this year’s World Cinema section as a fierce critique of Iran’s suffocating society. With wry humor and galvanizing performances from its ensemble cast, the film perfectly centers (literally and figuratively) the constraints average Iranians face daily, as well as, paradoxically, the pains of making an acceptable film by government standards. Since its international premiere, much like many Iranian filmmakers as of late, Asgari has been banned from traveling or making movies. Thus it is no coincidence that in the film’s radical final act, Asgari and Khatami envision a liberated Tehran that breaks free from the old regime. This is must-see anti-establishment filmmaking that isn’t just punk rock, it’s hardcore. Screening October 26, 9:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Anna Li, Associate Programmer, AFI FEST

SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD

Estonia’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

Screening to be followed by a conversation with director Anna Hints and producer Marianne Ostrat

Anna Hints’ mesmerizing debut offers us a feminine vision of possibility, solidarity and sisterhood. Within the walls of a smoke sauna tucked away in a southern Estonian forest, Võro women engage in a traditional practice of sauna cleansing while sharing their innermost secrets. Framed in intimate closeups, the film invites us to be a part of this protected ritual, to celebrate the feminine form as we bear witness to these women’s testimonies, free from the confines of patriarchal structures. The joy and love these women have for one another is infectious and will make you believe in the radical power of such a community. Screening October 26, 6:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

HERE
Traversing from the quiet side streets of urban Brussels to the lush mossy forest in the outskirts of town, HERE takes its time to develop a discursive, gently burgeoning friendship between two migrants – one a Romanian construction worker, the other a Belgian-Chinese botanist studying moss. Concerned with tangential stories, like the various characters one would meet when bringing a pot of soup to a mechanic, or the conversations that may arise during a long bus ride, the film allows us to appreciate the simplicity of life as a delicate, drifting journey of chance encounters. Screening October 26, 3:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

TIGER STRIPES

Malaysia’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

Amanda Nell Eu’s debut feature bursts onto the scene as an electrifying addition to the Monstrous-Feminine coming-of-age canon. Featuring an audacious slate of newcomers (one need not look further than their pink and black coordinated outfits on the Cannes red carpet to get a sense of their chemistry), 12-year-old Zaffan and her girl gang must navigate their rebellious adolescent years, strict religious school and hallway cat fights, all while Zaffan discovers horrifying changes to her body. Fearlessly feminist in spirit and endearingly playful with its practical effects, TIGER STRIPES is a perfect entry for seasoned genre fans and beginners alike. Screening October 26, 9:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Nichole Young, Associate Programmer, Short Films, AFI FEST

THE MIRACLE

North American Premiere 

Forty-year-old Irma discovers her own holiday paradise in an all-inclusive resort mainly catered to young families. There, she’s constantly reminded of everything absent from her life. Floating babies, a lobster dinner refusal and a night of skinny-dipping spearhead her journey to joyful solitude. Nienke Deutz’s sublime mixed use of hand-drawn animation and stop motion art make a dazzling pairing while inspiring a much-needed conversation around the perception of childless women. Simultaneously endearing, and melancholic, THE MIRACLE’s ability to delicately share Irma’s self-discovery is nothing short of a miracle. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: ANIMATION 1. Screening October 28, 1:45 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

ALPHA KINGS

An unassuming mansion in rural Texas houses a group of young men selling hyperbolic, domineering versions of themselves online. The documentary is a fascinating exploration into the provocative power complexes between these teens and their ever-growing OnlyFans following, while capitalizing on a newfound deviant market. The world of sex work continues to evolve, opening new avenues for pleasure, access and income that simply did not exist a decade ago. Shirtless vids and foot pics bring in a quarter of a million dollars each, yet we’re left wondering what happens once our youth fades and the isolating world off-cam remains. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: DOCUMENTARY 1. Screening October 27, 7:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

MADDEN

North American Premiere

Teenage Madden lives on a remote farm with her parents and younger sister, yearning of a life outside the estate. Her opulent dreams and humbling reality are constantly at odds with each other; whether it be her kitten heels in the mud, neon mini skirt hurdling through the thick forest or abandoning her babysitting duties for a night of liberation. The lives of both Madden and her herd of cows parallel each other as their brief moment of freedom is cut short, summoning them back into the farm’s perimeter. Madden’s conflicting identities portray the evocative ebb and flows of girlhood in this soul-stirring coming-of-age short. An utterly mesmerizing film whose chilling final sequence will stay with you long after screening. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: LIVE ACTION 2. Screening October 27, 4:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Javier Chavez, Associate Programmer, AFI FEST and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

ALL DIRT ROADS TASTE OF SALT

Screening to be followed by a conversation with director Raven Jackson

Raven Jackson’s lyrical directorial debut is a showcase for many of her talents, but the most affecting one is her knack for capturing the intimacy of human touch. Chalk it up to living through a turbulent period when physical contact could be a death sentence, but Jackson’s lingering close-ups of her characters’ hands wrapped in an embrace is so palpable that you could almost reach out into the screen and grasp them. It’s all in service of a story about growing up and the love we have for the people and places that shaped us. Screening October 28, 9:15 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

COPA ‘71

Screening to be followed by a conversation with directors Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine.

Women’s soccer has been gaining ground over the past several years and this year’s Women’s World Cup was a phenomenal tournament. The degree to which women have struggled in this sport, however, must not be understated, and directors Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s dazzling and emotional documentary explores the plight of women’s soccer by focusing on a long-forgotten tournament held in 1971. The fervor around those games was extraordinary, resulting in a final between Mexico and Denmark watched by over 100,000 spectators. The directors weave together the stunning archival footage they unearthed to create an educational, yet thrilling documentary that will make you feel like one of the thousands watching that game – while reminding us that we are all winners when there are no barriers to sports. Screening October 25, 8:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

MIDWIVES (SAGES-FEMMES)

North American Premiere

Screening to be followed by a conversation with director Léa Fehner

I can’t count the number of times I’ve cried at the end of a film, but MIDWIVES is pretty much the only one in which I’ve effectively cried during the entire runtime. Credit for that goes to director Léa Fehner, whose meticulous research and documentary-like approach – she shot actual deliveries on camera then asked the parents to return to “reenact” the birth of their child – resulted in an emotionally stirring film about parenthood, the selflessness of caregivers and the systemic failures that harm us from the moment we’re born. Screening October 29, 5:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Josh Gardner, Associate Programmer, AFI FEST and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

CITY OF WIND (SER SER SALHI)

U.S. Premiere

Mongolia’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

A true discovery at the festival, we’re so excited to present the U.S. premiere of CITY OF WIND, a remarkable portrait of a 17-year-old Mongolian shaman named Ze. Like many teens before him, he falls hard for a crush, an infectious romance that has him wrestling with his faith, desires and duties. Sumptuously shot, filmmaker Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir crafts an alluring feature debut, deftly exploring both rural mountain villages and pulsating nightclubs as Ze straddles the line between tradition and modernity. Screening October 29, 1:45 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

IN WATER (MUL-AN-E-SEO)
Yes, this is prolific Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s new film that is shot entirely out of focus. And yes, you need to see it all blurry on the big screen. It’s quite a revelatory way to watch a film, one that challenges our traditional notions of filmmaking in a story that’s all about the artistic process. It’s a melancholy little gem and you’ll get bonus points from me if you catch Hong’s other delightful film playing in the lineup, IN OUR DAY. Screening October 27, 4:45 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

PICTURES OF GHOSTS (RETRATOS FANTASMAS)

Brazil’s Oscar® submission for Best International Feature

Screening to be followed by a conversation with director Kleber Mondonça Filho

Film critic turned filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho is one of the preeminent voices of contemporary Latin American cinema and this charming personal essay is his love letter to his hometown of Recife and cinemagoing itself. He melds magical realism with archival footage, ghost stories, city planning and home movies into a joyous must-watch for anyone who’s spent time in a dark auditorium, watching a movie with a crowd. Screening October 26, 6:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Eli Prysant, Assistant Programmer, AFI FEST and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

BASRI & SALMA IN A NEVER-ENDING COMEDY

North American Premiere

Sex looms large over Basri and Salma’s lives – a blackmail scam(?) threatening to leak a sex tape of Basri’s brother, government confiscation of condoms on the news, family dinners where they’re openly questioned if their lack of kids means they’re not having sex at all, and the constant reminder of the pressure for offspring in the face of the young customers they look to entertain with their traveling carnival. Featuring the best earworm of a pro-procreation musical number you’ll hear all year, BASRI & SALMA IN A NEVER-ENDING COMEDY is darkly comedic look at the societal expectations regarding what constitutes a “successful” marriage. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: LIVE ACTION 1. Screening October 26, 7:00 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

A KIND OF TESTAMENT (UN GENRE DE TESTAMENT)

U.S. Premiere

With the scorecard currently standing at 4 for 4, at this point in time I must admit that I am an utter sucker for Haruki Murakami short story adaptations. While A KIND OF TESTAMENT is not an adaptation of his work, I found myself enamored for many of the same reasons that I’ve enjoyed Murakami’s – the capture of that hazy shape where the longer we stare at and try to understand someone else, the more their outline seems to blur and twist from what we first perceived. A ghost story of bodysnatching for the digital age, I love how this short comfortably slips into the liminal space between the ability to transcend death through photographic record and the lives lived outside of the frame that the outsider can only imagine. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: ANIMATION 2. Screening October 28, 4:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

THE WAITING

North American Premiere

I love the absolutely hypnotic nature of this short. Drawing from a two-hour recording session, researcher Karen Lips narrates a haunting tale of ecological loss that’s complimented by the meditative score of Hannes Schulze and brought to life visually by the stunning animation of director Volker Schlecht. I was immediately entranced by Volker’s approach – each drawing morphs into the next, from a monkey’s tail shifting into a slithering worm which next evolves into a vine for further plants to spring forth from. This is a short I could just watch over and over to utterly marvel at the fluidity of the animation every time. Screens as part of SHORTS PROGRAM: ANIMATION 2. Screening October 28, 4:30 p.m. – BUY TICKETS

Now in its 37th year, AFI FEST is a world-class event, showcasing the best films from across the globe. This year’s edition takes place in Los Angeles from October 25-29, 2023. With an innovative slate of programming, the five-day festival presents screenings, panels and conversations, featuring both master filmmakers and new cinematic voices. AFI FEST includes high-profile films with Q&As featuring the films’ cast and crew and a robust lineup of fiction and nonfiction features and shorts, providing a one-of-a-kind experience for movie fans. Additional information about AFI FEST is available FEST.AFI.com. Connect with AFI FEST at Facebook.com/AFIFESTTwitter.com/AFIFESTInstagram/AmericanFilmInstituteTikTok/@AmericanFilmInstitute and YouTube.com/AFI.

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