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LA Film Festival 2015: Finding its voice by focusing on women, people of color and Los Angeles

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If you want to see the latest movies made outside the studio system, you head to Sundance. The Los Angeles Film Festival remains one that's yet to be fully defined.

The Los Angeles Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday, runs through June 18 in downtown L.A. It's a film festival that has yet to fully define its own distinct identity.

If you want to see the latest  movies made outside the studio system, you head to Sundance. Fans of the best work in international cinema might visit the Cannes Film Festival. And the Telluride Film Festival lineup will be well-curated and probably have a couple of future Oscar winners.

We met with Stephanie Allain, the festival’s director, and Roya Rastegar, the festival’s associate director of film programming, to find out what the L.A. Film Festival is all about.

Finding the festival's voice

Roya - programmer at Sundance, Tribeca. LA Film Festival. Movies tend to favor, movies tend to avoid?

"One of the things that we were really focusing on this year is to find talent. Because the city of L.A. is full of new talent that is waiting to break out, and it's full of industry professionals that are looking for new talent," Rastegar says.

Of the festival's films, 80 percent are directed by first- or second-time directors, Rastegar says. They also have 45 world premieres, which Rastegar says is a lot for the festival.

"The way that we really found those films was by digging deep into the films that are being submitted. I think often there is the sense that there are only really a few good films made every year, or that maybe women aren't making films, or that people of color aren't making films, but actually, they are making films. Curators just need to be able to make space for them," Rastegar says.

Giving a voice to women, people of color

That search for new talent was at the front of the staff's mind, Rastegar says. Half of the festival's shorts were directed by women. People of color also directed half of the films.

A recent study by USC, co-commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film, showed that half of film school students are women, but that the number of women in festivals goes down by half. Then, when it comes to big studio films, that number drops again to just 3 or 4 percent.

The L.A. Film Festival is trying to change that, but Allain says they aren't putting their hand on the scale to tip things in favor of women.

"I don't have to put my hand on the scale, because those women directors are out there, they're making these movies, and our job was just to find them," Allain says.

She says they're bringing those movies to audiences through the festival. Of the movies in competition, 40 percent were directed by women.

"That is a beautiful, beautiful number. It's not even the perfect number, which would be 50 — 51, actually, 51 percent. But either way, it's a big step forward," Allain says.

There are significant barriers to entry in Hollywood. To get hired to make a feature film, you have to have already made a feature film before. Bringing these women directors to a larger audience could help people in the audience be more inclined to hire them in the future.

"This year we opened an industry office with the sole desire to connect these first- and second-time filmmakers with new jobs, with people who can see their films, who can offer them gigs, who can pay them to write, pay them to direct," Allain says. "Hollywood is here, the industry is here. It is a great opportunity to make that connection."

Featuring movies that embody Los Angeles

The festival also has a subset of films called L.A. Muse, focused on films specific to the city.

"L.A. Muse is really looking at how the city of Los Angeles has been a muse to filmmakers and artists around the world. It's also about how artists and filmmakers in L.A. are continually inspired by the city," Rastegar says.

Allain says that she began to conceive of the idea due to how many of the films submitted to the festival are set in L.A. and made my local filmmakers.

"I think six out of eight of the fiction films in that section sold. I think the most high-profile was David Oyelowo's 'Nightingale,'" Allain says.

"Nightingale," directed by Elliott Lester, had its world premiere at last year's L.A. Muse before making a big splash on HBO, Allain says.

"This is a film that had been submitted to every single festival, and so the idea that L.A. Muse can be a beacon for L.A. films is really exciting," Allain says. "This year, we got it right even more, because I think last year we were just sort of figuring out how these films fit in, but this year I think every single film in this section is emblematic of that inspirational Los Angeles vibe."

Allain says L.A. Muse is set to be a staple of the festival.

"There's a lot of films that are about creative practice," Rastegar says.

L.A. Muse highlights

She highlighted some of the films featured in L.A. Muse this year:

  • "Flock of Dudes": The movie features a lot of members of L.A.'s improv comedy scene

  • "A Beautiful Now": The story of a ballet dancer in L.A. trying to reckon with getting older

  • Zoe Cassavetes's “Day Out of Days": A new drama about an actress who’s about to hit that advanced age when you’re considered too old to matter in Hollywood. And that age... would be 40

  • "Weepah Way For Now": A movie set in Laurel Canyon starring the Michalka sisters, who you might know as Disney Channel musicians

"[The Michalka sisters] also financed and produced the film, and it's really about women and the kind of voice that young women in the city now are having," Rastegar says.

She also highlighted two documentaries:

  • "Can You Dig This": A doc about the gangster gardner in Compton

  • "No Más Bebés": A documentary about the landmark case involving the sterilization of Mexican-American women by L.A. County and the USC Medical Center, as well as the Chicana lawyer and Chicana women who fought against it, Rastegar says

"You have this incredibly diverse city, not only in terms of ethnically, and racially, and across nationalities, but you also have a city in which creative practice is something that people have been constantly thinking about, around how do we tell stories, and how do we create things that are beautiful? And also, how do we create movements — revolutionary movements?"

Rastegar says those ideas are reflected throughout the L.A. Muse films.

Why the L.A. Film Festival matters

When it comes to how the L.A. Film Festival is going to earn its place among the high-profile festivals, Allain joked that the Frame was already mentioning them in the same company.

"Listen. Los Angeles is the most creative city in the world. It has the most creative jobs in the world. And we've been here for a while, we're going to stay here. Right now we're stationed downtown, which is the renaissance of the city for the last 20 years. We've been part of that renaissance, if you haven't been there for the last six years. And seeing downtown spring up around us has just been, with all kinds of artists — it's film, it's theater, it's visual art. The restaurants, the museums. I mean, L.A. is a major player, and the Los Angeles Film Festival is a part of that scene."

Whether it can be a part of the larger worldwide festival scene remains to be seen, but you can check out the festival to see yourself starting this Wednesday, June 10, running through Thursday, June 18.

More films from the L.A. Film Festival:

  • My Love, Don't Cross That RIver: Kang Kye-Yeol and Cho Byeong-Man share the last moments of their 76-year-long marriage in rural Korea:

  • Three women put their health at risk to carry on with everyday life in their ancestral homeland in Holly Morris and Anne Bogart's "The Babushkas of Chernobyl":

  • Two half brothers are reunited after their father's death as they embark on a trip to Colombia to discover each other and their heritage in A.D. Freese's "Bastards y Diablos":

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