Spotlight Interview on AFI Programmer Todd Hitchcock – American Film Institute

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Spotlight Interview on AFI Programmer Todd Hitchcock

Dovetailing with National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFI Latin American Film Festival will take place September 23-October 13 at the historic AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD. The annual festival marks the culmination of many months of work for Todd Hitchcock, the Director of Programming and Associate Director of the AFI Silver Theatre, and his dedicated team of programmers.

AFI spoke with Hitchcock about what he loves about programming, the reopening of the AFI Silver this spring and what audiences can expect from 32nd edition of the Latin American Film Festival.

AFI: Tell us a little about your programming background and what inspired you to work at AFI? 

Todd: I worked on the inaugural edition of Silverdocs (now AFI DOCS) in the spring of 2003, and then began working for AFI Silver’s programming team later that year. Things moved incredibly fast, and I went from a junior position to the head programmer after a few years. Maybe I should say that on the one hand things moved fast, and on the other it was a long time coming.

In terms of background, before I was a film programmer, I was an avid filmgoer. Ever since I moved to Washington, DC, in the mid-90s after college, I was a regular attendee at the predecessor of the AFI Silver, the AFI National Theater that operated at the Kennedy Center. The programming at that time featured many deep-dive retrospectives of Hollywood and world cinema. I remember an Ingmar Bergman retrospective with something like 30 titles, and I made an effort to see all of them. It just struck me as such a wonderful opportunity to give yourself a film education. So after about 10 years of steady filmgoing at AFI and other great repertory programs on offer here in the DC area, like the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress and now long-gone arthouse theaters like the Biograph and the Key, I guess I was ready to turn pro.

AFI: What do your responsibilities entail as Director of Programming and Associate Director of the AFI Silver Theatre? And what are your favorite aspects of the job?

Todd: Along with my fellow programmers, we plan out the theatre’s year-round program – the new releases, series and retrospectives, special events and film festivals. So that’s everything except AFI DOCS, which is a larger, standalone event with its own dedicated staff. Aside from enjoying watching films, and getting to read, write, think and talk about them, I enjoy the planning process, the initial moment of conceiving a series or festival, doing the necessary research and then assembling the ultimate lineup of titles. It’s a bit like a puzzle to figure out.

AFI: The AFI Latin American Film Festival is celebrating its 32nd year this fall. How did you go about selecting films that capture the multiplicity of languages, nations and cultures that have gone into this year’s lineup and what can audiences look forward to?

Todd: The AFI Latin American Film Festival and the AFI European Union Film Showcase are the two events hosted at AFI Silver with the longest track records, going back to our Kennedy Center days. But both of these festivals have grown tremendously since we moved to the Silver in 2003. Along with my fellow programmers Abbie Algar and Ben Delgado, we viewed hundreds of films over the past year featured at major film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. Ordinarily we would attend these festivals in person, but during the pandemic this needed to take the form of online/virtual festival viewing.

And beyond what was featured at these major film festivals, our contacts with international sales agents and producers brought other promising titles from Latin American countries to our attention, which we then viewed for consideration. This is what we do throughout the year, and then having made a pretty thorough assessment of what’s out there, we try to book all of the very best films possible. I think this year’s festival is going to be amazing. We will have nearly 50 titles representing almost every country within the Latin American sphere, as well as Spain and Portugal which we traditionally include for their Ibero-American historical and cultural connections to the region.

AFI: What have been some of your favorite films from past LAFF editions?  

Todd: A few of my personal favorite films that we’ve screened in past editions of the festival include:

MUSEO, a quirky and inventive subversion of the heist film genre from Mexico’s Alonso Ruizpalacios, which we screened in 2018. Our opening night film, A COP MOVIE, this year is also written and directed by Ruizpalacios. Another favorite is Claudia Llosa’s THE MILK OF SORROW, from Peru, which won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2009. I also really love her debut film MADEINUSA, which screened here in 2006, and we’ll feature her latest film, FEVER DREAM, in this year’s lineup.

Another great film we programmed was MISS BALA in 2011, which was directed by Gerardo Naranjo (AFI Class of 2001). Naranjo presented the film in person and was a great guest, you can see clips of our conversation on our YouTube channel. And he’s also an alum of the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, which is a wonderful connection for us! We also screened his films I’M GONNA EXPLODE in 2008 and KOKOLOKO in our online edition in 2020.

And then even though I could list another 10 or 12 more that I love and cherish, I’m going to have to go with our 2016 screening of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s AQUARIUS starring Sônia Braga, who presented the film in person. She was very fun and interesting in conversation, and one of the best guests we’ve ever had at the theatre.

AFI: What do you think would surprise people about the work you and the rest of the programming team at the AFI Silver do?

Todd: How many hours we put in! And how much the job of programming an arthouse theatre depends on things like shipping and payment paperwork, which is completely separate from our intellectual, cinephile endeavors.

AFI: What is it like to have the AFI Silver Theatre finally reopened? How has your job – including scouting for films and working with distributors, sales agents and filmmakers – evolved in light of COVID?

Todd: I think I speak for everyone at the AFI Silver when I say that re-opening the theatre after 15 months of closure was a true joy, and based on what I’ve heard from our audience members, it brought a lot of joy to them too. There have been some improvisational and make-it-work aspects, to be sure, and we’ve all become much more reliant upon online communications. But since re-opening the AFI Silver in late May, we’re focused on re-establishing the theatrical experience for people. I think we’ve made great strides over the past few months, but we’ve still got a ways to go. So in that context, this year’s return to a full-size, in-person Latin American Film Festival is a big milestone for us.

AFI: How can AFI members and anyone else who loves film support the historic AFI Silver to ensure it will be around for the next generation?

Todd: The best way to support the AFI Silver is to attend a screening and be a part of what we do –really, the most important part, the audience! There are, of course, ways to provide additional financial support through higher tiers of membership and donations, including the opportunity to sponsor a seat in our historic theatre with your name on a plaque. But attending our screenings and helping to spread the word about our film programs to other people in your community is a simple yet incredibly important way to support our efforts and help us thrive.

The full lineup of the Latin American Film Festival will be released Thursday, September 2. Festival passes are now available. Learn more about sponsoring a seat in the historic AFI Silver Theatre and follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Photo above courtesy of Bruce Guthrie.

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