Dear to New Yorkers for its long-standing tradition
of provoking audiences with spellbinding films from top-notch, international
auteurs, over its 38-year history the New York Film Festival has
been responsible for introducing the likes of Godard, Bertolucci,
Fassbinder, and Scorsese to American audiences. “If you look
at the history of the NYFF since 1963,” says chairman of the
festival’s selection committee, Richard Peña, “you’ll
find that it was a great engine around the appreciation of French
New Wave and Czech New Wave in the 1960s, or New German Cinema in
Mr. Peña’s 1988 appointment to the post of Program
Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center marked the festival’s
cinematic expansion well beyond European borders to include, most
notably, Latin American and Asian cinemas. In the process, Peña
was able to usher in such world-class talent as Zhang Yimou, Chen
Kaige, Pedro Almodovar, and Abbas Kiarostami. The 2000 New York
Festival was no different when it came to representing some of the
best in world cinema. When he’s not helping to launch the careers
of international moviemakers, Peña hosts the monthly Conversations
in World Cinema, which airs on the Sundance Channel. In a conversation
with MovieMaker, Peña talks about working at one of the world’s
most famed festivals and world trends in filmmaking.
MovieMaker: A lot of the films in
the program of this year’s New York Film Festival were previously
screened at Cannes, Locarno, and Venice. What guided your selection?
Richard Peña: The selections are made
by myself and by my four colleagues on the selection committee (which
this year included Kathleen Murphy, critic Dave Kehr, Newsday Chief Critic John Anderson and L.A. Weekly Film Editor Manohla
Dargis). It’s a process somewhat arbitrary. There are no assumptions
or requirements, or hopefully no agendas, that any of us are trying
MM: One can’t help but notice
that there were hardly any American independent films in the program
this year. Is there any particular reason as to why the lack of
RP: The selection depends on what’s
out there any given year, and what appeals to us. Last year we didn’t
have any Chinese films, this year we have four. Last year it was
an especially strong year with American independent film and we
were proud to include those films.
MM: In your opinion, do you
think there is a reason why there were very few American independents
out there to choose from?
RP: It is very hard to make any general
statements. Everyone is feeling that something big is about to happen
around digital [technology]. No one knows quite what that is, but
they all feel that somehow digital is going to change things.
MM: And when, if at all, this digital
explosion occurs, how will the New York Film Festival react to that?
Will you begin screening digital films immediately?
RP: Then it becomes a technical issue,
something we are extremely aware of, and are doing our best to address.
Right now we can’t give filmmakers the option of projecting their
work digitally, but maybe we will have to include it in a few years.
MM: On the other side of the technological
equation, there are all these Asian films, that are visually ravishing,
yet often set as period pieces. What are your thoughts on this tendency
toward tradition, as opposed to the modernity that technology is
introducing in American film?
RP: When you’re dealing with filmmakers
from Asian countries, including Iran, you’re dealing with filmmakers
from civilizations that are four or five thousand years old, so
they have lot of history to draw on, lots of tradition and culture.
It seems natural to me that those filmmakers have drawn on those
images, stories and themes in their work. But these films are very
modern. They are films for the year 2000, and not at all a throwback
to some earlier kind of filmmaking.
MM: According to Ang Lee, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon was made with the thought of becoming a
blockbuster in China. Many of the producers of the foreign films
that screened at the NYFF are anticipating quick release dates.
Will most of this product be able to reach mainstream audiences?
RP: In the late ’80s and early
’90s, we reached a low point in terms of foreign film availability
and appreciation in the U.S. I’m seeing a much greater interest
in international cinema than 10 years ago. These films richly deserve
and could have, wide audiences. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially, is a film that could have a very wide audience.
Whether or not that happens depends on a number of variables that
are difficult to control: marketing strategies and a lot of different
things outside of the purview of film, per se. Certainly there’s
an audience that is eager for something different, new and extremely
well made. I don’t think Hollywood has necessarily any interest
in promoting foreign films. What happens, though, now that these
companies are such enormous, global corporate conglomerates, is
that it becomes a more natural for them to get involved in international
cinema. Maybe they have an interest in a cable company in Sweden,
so suddenly that gives them an interest in this kind of product.
MM: The NYFF has always been dedicated
to the art of making films, rather than to their commercial side.
Is this a mission you intend to continue?
RP: It’s always been the mission
of the NYFF to celebrate and promote the art of film, understood
as broadly, stylistically and geographically as possible. The role
of the festival has always been to be on top of world trends and
really provide a platform for introducing this work into the United
States. We are not blind to the fact that films have to exist in
the marketplace, and we might play a role in helping them expand