Film Society Program Director and ND/NF Selection Committee Member Richard Peña
Both you and Gavin Smith have told me that Donoma is a film you’re excited about.
The director of Donoma is a rather young man from a Haitian family that moved to Paris when he was young. He began making films, got together with this group and the film started as a short and evolved over time. They kept on adding more and more part and plots. And what was interesting was that once the film opened in Paris in November, they all went around France on a bus tour opening the film with the director, producer, and about half the cast. A kind of grassroots promotion. And it got a very nice, appreciative write-up in Cahiers du Cinéma in November.
And you it encountered at Cannes?
I didn’t see it at Cannes or know anything about it. It was shown in a section there, but nobody I know said anything about it. I think a Cahiers writer caught it somewhere and one thing led to another.
One of the fresher voices I’ve seen coming out of the French cinema in a while.
And that’s one of the great things about New Directors…
I think so. New Directors’ audience is primed for discovery. The difference with the New York Film Festival, and obviously there’s a lot of overlap, is that the audience there comes to see “works” that are conceived and done; they don’t appreciate roughness. They want the work to be fully realized, and they have a right to that. Whereas I think they come to New Directors they come to it with a more generous palate: ‘OK, that film’s not perfect, it may have some rough spots, but I can’t wait to see that director’s next film’. That, I think, is the spirit of New Directors. Now, of course, there are some films that are completely realized. But I think we’re showing this year, as we have done over the years, works there are less than perfect, but enormously promising. That’s the spirit that drives the series.
And you’ve made quite a few discoveries over the years.
I think so. If you look at our track record, New Directors is pretty strong. A lot of new filmmakers who are out there at festivals or who have made it to much greater awareness began at New Directors/New Film. The record is pretty strong there.
Let’s see…Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, Spike Lee, Spielberg…
Were you there for that?
That was way before my time [laughs]. I was still in high school. I went to the second annual New Directors, I didn’t go to the first. I was in the Boston area and the dates didn’t work out. But I made it to the second. I came, and I saw about half the program.
And the audience, what was it like?
It was smaller. It was at MoMA. I remember they had a Brazilian film, All Nudity Shall Be Punished, by Arnaldo Jabor, whose work I liked, but I remember there were no more than about 30 people there. It took a while [to grow], like everything…
Joachim Trier is back this year.
Joachim Trier is back. We sort of have a two-film rule for New Directors. You’re still a new director if you’ve had less than two films either open commercially or have had significant festival play. Like if you’re in Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto. Well, maybe not Toronto because they show so many films, but certainly the first three we treat like a commercial opening. We’re not hard and fast about all this, but I think if you look each year, the vast profile of New Directors is first- or second-time directors.
Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st (2011)
How many screeners do you get?
Probably submissions are in the 1,300-1,400 range—about half of the festival.
How many short films do you take?
R: It depends on how many we see and like. I don’t like shorts programs to be more than 100 minutes. In very long shorts programs, those shown at the end inevitably get the short end of the deal.
Aside from an exclusive shorts program at New Directors, other Film Society festivals have been branching out. For instance, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema now includes Rendez-Vous +…
Yes, well, we now have the great addition of the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, allowing us to realize things we have spoken about for a long time. Rendez-Vous is now on its 17th year. From just about the beginning, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to show more documentaries’. My partners at uniFrance were more interested in the feature film category, and were more geared towards one or two documentaries each year, but they didn’t want to have a documentary section. At first I did actually try a separate French documentary thing, but that didn’t work so well. So with the new Film Center, it seemed only logical that we do a sidebar event like the New York Film Festival has. We had good attendance, especially for the first time and the fact that it was put together at the last minute. I was just with a bunch staff here and our French partners, and everybody seemed committed to making Rendez -Vous+ an even bigger part of what we do. Everyone liked the idea of having a space for short films, documentaries and family films. I keep saying we should be doing video clips, we should be doing publicity—all kinds of things, and really make it a French film and media festival so that you get the whole gamut. Even if you alternate, where some years you do have video clips and some years you don’t…
The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
Rumor has it there is going to be a “surprise screening” during New Directors this year…
Yeah. It’s funny, I was always very reluctant to do that, but we did have a chance to do it last year with what was the world premiere of Hugo. We thought, let’s try it and see what happens. It ended up being a wonderful evening. Everyone loved the film, loved when Marty [Scorsese] came out and spoke about it. Everyone felt very special, and it was great. We weren’t planning to do a surprise for New Directors, but there is a unique situation with this film. So this idea of doing a sneak came up, and having had such success with it initially, we thought we’d do it again.
When do the screeners first start to come in for New Directors?
There’s a certain number of films that come from the New York Film Festival crop; submissions that for whatever reason are not accepted to NYFF. That’s the first group, several of which we obviously like very much. Then, right after Toronto we start to get a lot of submissions.
An entire committee selects these films, but you're the director. Does one draw on different expertises, does one bring one's ideas to the table and then people sit around the table and discuss…
It’s all of it. I've been very lucky over the years to work with a group of people whom I consider not only to be friends but adults. So they realize that when you get into this process, it's not only about you want. It really is about the vision of a program, and as much as you might like something, you're really going to have to convince other people that it's as good as you think. And all of us have a healthy attitude towards the program, and you realize at some point that not all your wishes are going to come true. As long as you get most of what you consider most essential.
Some people might like some films that for some reason don’t speak to me. That’s okay, and I understand why other people like them. It gives a different vision of a program, so I’m perfectly happy with that.
It’s interesting what you say about the vision of a program. Is that something formed while watching the submissions?
It’s not a priori. The benefit of these festivals, the New York Film Festival and New Directors, is that they're small enough to have a vision. Not to cast aspersions, but for something like Toronto, it's very hard to hard to have a vision because you're showing 300-odd films, and the same for several other festivals that are so large. But I think when you're small like we are, I think you can get things to coalesce into a vision that people get to see.