The ND/NF Selection Committee members from MoMA: Rajendra Roy, Laurence Kardish & Jytte Jensen.
New Directors/New Films’ six-member selection committee includes Marian Masone, Richard Peña, and Gavin Smith, and from MoMA, Rajendra Roy (RR), Laurence Kardish (LK), and Jytte Jensen (JJ). Last Friday afternoon, the MoMA troika generously agreed to sit down for a conversation about the selection process and to give us an early peek at this year’s potential sleeper hits. What emerged from the interview was the deep passion each programmer has for cinema, the variety of their backgrounds and interests, and the pleasure each takes in their partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For an inside look at how films are selected for New Directors/New Films and for insight into how one gets to become a film programmer, please read on…
Where does film fit into your overall engagement with the arts?
LK: The museum was founded with the idea that film was an art. It was the first museum to take that approach. When Alfred Barr founded the museum in 1929 it was part of the basic principles that film would be collected, studied, enjoyed, and catalogued, exhibited like any other of the arts, like painting and sculpture, so it’s always been an essential part of the enterprise here. It’s been collected since 1933. We founded in 1929, but the museum opened its doors about a month after the stock market crashed, so it took awhile before the finances could be gathered to acquire motion pictures
JJ: So even though as curators in the film department, we can only decide on cinema-related projects, we are very much part of this whole artistic community which the museum represents. So it’s always been a back-and-forth about what art means in the life… of our life, in New York, and film is a major part of what we deal with [at MoMA].
And have you always been in the film world?
JJ: I came to New York from Denmark to study cinema studies, which I had minored in. So I came here specifically because I was interested in film and I was lucky [laughs] and also in the right place at the right time, and I got involved here. And this is the only job I’ve ever had.
LK: [to Jytte] You’ve been an editor too, though. You’re very modest!
JJ: I have been an editor.
JJ: Yes. This was actually my first interest when I came here. I wanted to become an editor, and I thought that you could do both practical filmmaking and cinema studies by taking courses at NYU, but you couldn’t. But I still did editing for a little while until I got this job.
[to Larry] And yourself, were you always a film person?
LK: Well, I always loved movies, but I studied philosophy in college and started a film society on campus to bring American experimental films to Canada, because I studied in Ottawa. At one point I was asked to direct a film seminar—I was barely 20—and I brought in two critics from New York and they said 'Larry if you come down to New York to do graduate studies we’ll find you a job' and they did. So I came down to study Film, Radio, and Television at Columbia, in the graduate program, and I worked for what was then called “the underground” for a couple of years. And after I graduated and saw that the underground was not commercially viable, I applied to many places including MoMA, and I’ve been here ever since.
RR: Well, the typical answer is that you become a curator because you were a failed artist or a failed filmmaker. Not that I ever really had this ultimate goal of being a filmmaker but certainly that was the attempt…and it was through festival programming that I was attempting to find venues not only for my own work but for friends' work. So in that way it was somewhat accidental but then it really became a passion as I discovered that the venues that existed for the kind of work my friends were making—which was experimental—were either not very good or not very open to the way the craft or the art form was moving, so it became very important for me to help my friends who are artists to have the best possible venue for their work. And that just, I guess, translated into a career, but yeah, it definitely started from a very personal kind of passion for platforms, where I was seeing work that I thought was tremendous and it was being either sidelined or completely ignored, and that just kind of built and built. Certainly it was never part of any kind of grand scheme to end up at MoMA; it just came together that way. Honestly when I talk to people, which I do all the time, about how you get to do this, how you get to be a programmer or curator at MoMA, there certainly isn’t any one direct path. Each of us has a very different story, and probably every curator at MoMA has their own distinct story. I think in film programming especially, your relationships and your ability to get in and get your hands dirty with filmmakers, with the industry, with festivals is incredibly important. I don't want to say it's more important than an academic background but it's at least as important if not in some cases more important that you’re really willing to engage with artists directly. And there a lot of ways to do that these days and it's very critical. It's hard to have a distance from the art form, mostly because your audience is so well informed, you know it's different than in say, painting or contemporary art, where it's this step back from the artist and the audience, and the translative job of the curator is much more important. But with film, people are indoctrinated from a very early age about the moving image and have an extreme familiarity with it, so if you can't speak in real terms about it, then there’s just gonna be this huge disconnect between you and your audience. And audiences are very savvy about seeing right through that.
Are there stories from past years at New Directors/New Films you are especially proud of? I know that a few years ago, Once was a film screened at ND/NF that won an Academy Award for its music, am I right?
LK: We really go back. I was on a panel many years ago of student films and saw a film by a young African-American filmmaker called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. We showed it to the [ND/NF] committee, because it’s always been a committee, and everyone really liked it, but it was only 40 minutes, and we wanted to put it in. But we had another film by one of the most famous Italian screenwriters who’d been part of the leaders and pioneers of neorealism: [Cesare] Zavattini. He made his first film which we programmed, which was only an hour, called La Veritàaaa (The Truth), so we were able to show Spike Lee and Zavattini together. It was a great program. Way back when, even before She’s Gotta Have It. So, we had the old and the new but they were both youthful. And of course, then in our second year we had Steven Spielberg with The Sugarland Express.
Steven Spielberg directs Goldie Hawn & William Atherton in The Sugarland Express (1974). Image courtesy of Universal / The Kobal Collection.
My colleagues and I had seen Duel which had not been released here theatrically but we had heard from friends in Brazil that here was a young American director we should really take a look at, because Duel, I think, was only shown on TV here. We saw The Sugarland Express and thought it was an extraordinarily accomplished narrative feature. So we do have a history, and we’re proud of it.
JJ: Talking about Once, I’m just reminded that I was at Sundance where I saw it at a screening where after a few minutes something happened to the film, and we couldn’t screen it, so [the main actors, who are musicians] started playing, and singing, and it was so great that when they brought another print, and started to put the film on, everybody said “We want to hear more music!”
Would you talk about your partnership with the Film Society, what each of you brings to the table, how you compliment one another’s strengths?
LK: Well, it’s six different viewpoints, and the program is basically an agreement among the six of us, and we really do talk it out very thoroughly, so this program is not the reflection of any one person, and we are very much all equal individuals—we don’t vote by institution.
JJ: But not only that. Also because we all do have varied and different interests, we all bring different films in, so in that sense it’s a very large cross-section of what’s out there. Because we all really go different places and have different contacts and different materials. It really is a total collaboration. We truly vote across party lines!
Is that how it tends to be, that each individual has a few films they are really enthusiastic about, and then you bring it to the committee and you all talk it out?
JJ: Yeah, and then there’s a lot of films sent in, and we certainly treat them with as much respect as the ones that already have a committee member speaking on their behalf.
Song Chuan's Huan Huan (2011)
I was going to ask about Huan Huan…
JJ: Actually that came in over the transom, and I found it very fresh and different and was really engaged by it. And I asked my colleagues to look at it and they felt it was a find. But that really is one that came in over the transom. I don’t know how many submissions we got this year, but we always find great stuff.
And Donoma. That’s a first-time filmmaker, is that correct?
LK: Yes, and I think this is a film Richard [Peña] encouraged us to look at. He’d been in Paris, and the film, I think, had just opened. It has an interesting backstory. It was made for something like 200 Euro.
JJ: …over a long stretch of time, several years.
Are there any other films you’d like to highlight that seem to be under the radar, have a first-time director or are otherwise extremely promising?
RR: I’ll toss out Now, Forager. It did premiere at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival so it’s not completely under the radar. But it’s one of these American independents that reminded me of decades past in its simplicity and quiet nature. It doesn’t aim to excite or shock, it really aims just to tell its story on its own terms. And it’s in a way a very peaceful story—I mean there’s conflicts in terms of the inner politics the lead character has, his relationship to commerce and making a living on his own terms, and just slow food in general. But for me it was incredibly refreshing and was just one of those films that could easily evaporate in the marketplace; it points to the importance of the festival circuit in general, and specifically to festivals like New Directors that embrace individual voices and talent versus the film’s potential in the marketplace. Although I do have to say there’s a huge group of people out there who are interested in culinary cinema in general, and political cinema in particular that plugs into kind of, real issues. It’s a kind of real take on this movement to retake or grab back our lives from these multinational corporations or the banking industry, or whatever the menace is out there, and bring it back, literally to the earth. And I’m very proud that film made it into the festival.
It’s funny, I just saw it last night, and I wasn’t expecting what it eventually became.
RR: Right, yes.
Jason Cortlund & Julia Halperin's Now, Forager (2012)
On a lighter note, how heated can it get? I mean, do you guys like head upstairs [to the galleries] and throw Picassos around or….
LK: It gets heated…
JJ: Yes [laughs]
LK: …but in the end we’re a team so….
RR: I have to say as the new… well, I’m not new anymore, but after five years on the committee, I was expecting a lot more intense fights and arguments. We’re remarkably like-minded when it comes to quality, I have to say. There might be individual disagreements on certain films but it has never been a real smackdown of “over my dead body” which in a way is kind of disappointing [everyone laughs]. These are really—the six people on this committee have always been incredibly opinionated and I guess it’s just a testament to the nature of the films that are being considered.
JJ: But I think maybe it’s also because we all get to argue for our own films, or make an argument for….you know, everybody speaks on every film in this very vast pool, at the end when we make the selections. And I think that we all have respect for each other’s argumentation for the films, and even if a film is really not something for you—and there is one this year that I really don’t care for [all laugh]—I still understand why it’s there and why it should be there, because of my colleagues’ arguments for it. I think it comes from mutual respect.
LK: I think every year there are films I would like to be in that don’t make it and there are films that do get in that I’m not so enthusiastic about, and that’s true of all of us. But we have to reach a consensus and as Jytte says, we all do respect each other’s judgment even though we can agree to disagree, and in the end we all have to put a program together.
JJ: And in the end I think we are all very realistic about, that it should be a program that has a wide variety of films. They should be good films, but there should be a variety of styles, approaches, certainly we want it to be very international.
LK: A film that doesn’t have distribution that I think is quite strong: Twilight Portrait, from Russia, which gives quite an acerbic view of life in Putin’s Russia and really does turn the question of gender and sexuality on its head. A very strong and very independent, independent film, and I hope it finds—well, I hope every one finds a distributor, but this I think is quite a discovery.
Angelina Nikonova's Twilight Portrait (2011)
JJ: Not that they are probably going to find distribution, but I also want to give a shout-out to something that is new for us this year: the short films programs [1 & 2]. I think there is a lot of talent there, and what has happened a lot over the years at New Directors—we have always had short films, but we have not programmed them together quite the way we are doing this year. Very often we would have a short filmmaker come one year and then a couple of years later they would have expanded that film or come with a new feature. So I think for those looking to spot new talent or those to keep an eye on, the short film programs are really very excellent this year. One of the films that is probably one of the best embodiments of how the economic catastrophe is impacting real people’s lives is Revolution Reykjavik, since Iceland was one of the first countries having a total economic breakdown. It’s very interesting to see how that now has been absorbed and what can now begin to come out of that situation. Of course, there are other really excellent shorts, but it is really amazing to see a short film that can grapple with that problematic so well.
LK : I’ve had already a number of queries which surprised and pleased me about the short films program by young filmmakers, mostly from Brooklyn, who want to come and see one of the programs because they have a friend featured in it or otherwise know somebody, so I think that program is going to be quite successful.
And there are venues, New Directors has venues for filmmakers to mix and talk—the brunch, for example, and cocktail parties…
JJ: Absolutely, yes, very important. We have a filmmakers’ brunch, we have several films every night and there are dinners; both organizations manage to organize dinners after the films, and so at night filmmakers can talk to each other and get to know one another. In fact, we know of several great friendships that have been forged during New Directors, and this is one of the things that I think a lot of the filmmakers really look forward to, which is going to see one another's films, and really getting to—because sometimes they have already been in a festival and they have heard about one another's films, of the existence of this or that filmmaker, but here they get the chance to watch one another’s films and also interact personally, and it's really an important part…
RR: I also want to make a plug for the New Directors lounge which will be here at MoMA during screenings, which is a place where the filmmakers and the public will be able to mingle. I mean, primarily it's for filmmakers who can come and have a drink, before or during screenings, but it's also open to the public at these times, so we encourage people to take advantage of that. Something we started last year, and it was quite successful so we brought it back this year.
RR: Yes, we've revamped all the lobby areas here, which is launching with ND/NF, although not specific to it, so it'll be a lot more interactive and engaging, so we're hoping people will come take advantage.
You work closely together, the three of you, throughout the year. Do you find yourselves influencing one another’s tastes?
RR: We're very good at avoiding groupthink, that's for sure [all laugh], but I certainly learn a lot every day, you know, from working with my colleagues, so I would say yes, if that's influencing…
In a good way…
JJ: I also think we've become good at predicting each other's tastes, saying 'you're not gonna like this but I want you to take a look at it', and I think that's what's wonderful about working with these guys: they will completely surprise you, because we also try to be very open, but it's interesting to second-guess or to assume and then be wrong, because we have worked together for some time.
Have you had the experience where you change your mind completely on a film? You watch the screener, you bring it before the committee, and suddenly, you're like 'I cannot understand why I would have liked this thing.'
LK: Oh absolutely. One case in point is this film Twilight Portrait which I saw originally as a member of the jury at Thessaloniki, and the film really bothered me. And then about 24 hours later I thought, 'Wow this is something'…
JJ: When I first saw it, I was like, 'well, hmm, ummm—no, I really don’t like this film’, and then I thought I needed to see it again, and the second time around I really got it, and I really, really like it a lot. But I think that there are films that stick with you somehow. And it's wonderful to be wrong, to have something bother you so much that you need to rethink it. I don’t know if it has been the same for films that I at first loved and then became less enthusiastic once it came down to it—it has happened, but not to the same degree where I was like 'I really don't like this film now!'.
RR: It happened to me this year actually, where there was a film I found very moving, that it was really a miracle how it was captured. The access the director had was incredible. And then I came to work the next day and looked it up and realized that the lead protagonist was also the director and then it just totally flipped around for me and become like the most manipulated thing ever [laughter] and completely bogus. So it depends on what you know about the film as well, and that can change your opinion, so watching it cold in this case, it really worked, but watching it again, it kind of completely changed for me.
Is there an overall trajectory or theme for the festival, does it come together as a kind of oeuvre at the end, or is it entirely about the individual films?
LK: Well it is about the individual films, about discovery, but I think each of us, working as a committee, we try to put together a program that, as Jytte says, is diverse, so we want to represent various parts of the world…
RR: But I think there is also a cohesiveness to the program, at least the past five years, organically—obviously not every part fits, but I think there are global themes that these films are tackling and sometimes tackling together, or at least it's really in the air, and we try to pay attention to that. We certainly don't work against it. You know, I've seen some programmers try to set a course that can seem somehow oppositional to what the art is dealing with, and maybe thinking that that somehow makes it more creative, and I don’t…New Directors is not resistant to what artists want to deal with and what they want to address, but certainly the individual voice of the filmmaker always comes first.
JJ: But I think that sometimes—it is true what you say that universally it seems like some themes come through—but sometimes also when we read about the festival afterwards, and people find trends, they are not things that we worked on having there, but it is something that organically happens and then people read into it that this was our big idea, but really it's just that we react to what's out there and try to be very open about it.
Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds (2012)
JJ: Yes, it’s very interesting. I do a Brazilian series every summer here at MoMA—it’s the tenth year this year—so I’ve seen a lot of Brazilian films, and there were a lot of Brazilian films submitted to New Directors this year, and two were accepted into the festival. Two very different films, and both indeed very different from most of what is being made in Brazil. And as you had said, Jon, there really is a director there. In the way Neighboring Sounds is framed and edited, the suspense of the story just grows organically out of all the encounters you have; where you think that all the details might get lost. There is really a filmmaker there. It’s a very impressive debut.
LK: That and Crulic are two films that I think had unanimity from the word go. I think both come from very talented filmmakers. And Crulic is one of two animated films this year. The first animated Romanian film we’re showing at ND/NF, although we’ve shown many Romanian films in the past. But it is animation at the service of a very interesting biography, and I think what impressed us was the various techniques and the panoply of modes of animation that are used in the film in a very integrated and organic way.
JJ: It’s also interesting that it’s one of five or six or maybe even seven documentaries all with a really distinct style, and all really pushing the [boundaries] for what is a documentary and what is docu-fiction, etc. And this is an unusual project to use animation for such a story, but it really is very well done, and maybe even more emotionally involving than it would have been [were] it not animated.
LK: And this is also the first year we’re doing a midnight movie, too. The Raid: Redemption.
And then there is also a surprise closing film.
RR: It’s our 41st year of New Directors, so we have a bunch of firsts [all laugh].