This year marks the 40th anniversary of New Directors/New Films. Back in 1972, when the festival began, cinema was a very different landscape. The Sundance Film Festival wasn’t even a twinkle in Robert Redford’s eye, we were decades from the digital revolution that’s changed how movies are projected, shown and distributed, film hadn’t yet shifted into the complex strata of independent, semi-independent and studio. When the Film Society of Lincoln Center first partnered with the Museum of Modern Art to create the program that would become New Directors/New Films, it wasn’t just out of a desire to share curatorial insights — the Film Society didn’t, at the time, actually have a year-round theater. Reporting on that first ND/NF, Vincent Canby at the New York Times wrote “the show is providing some talented young filmmakers with the kind of unhurried presentation not possible at a more or less conventional festival, where the Buñuels, the Bergmans, the Godards and the Olmis occupy the attention (with, I should add, some justification).” Of course, Wim Wenders, whose second film The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick (pictured above) screened in that lineup, would go on to occupy quite a bit of attention, as would many other major filmmakers, from Sally Potter to Steven Spielberg. I spoke to the Film Society’s Joanne Koch and MoMA’s Laurence Kardish, who were there at the beginnings, to put together the following mini oral history of the festival.
Joanne Koch: I came on board in 1971, and at that point we were just doing the New York Film Festival and the program in the parks in the summer. [NYFF director] Richard Roud, who lived in Europe, said it would be good to have a program in the winter and expand what we’re doing. We had a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to show films in the prisons, secured by my predecessor, who was into all sorts of social and political issues. Richard and I felt that that was not a priority for a serious arts organization, so we had a meeting with Willard Van Dyk at MoMA, and we said we’d like to do a program there, we’ll pay the out-of-pocket costs with this grant. At first the program was called New Directions, and then we switched it to New Directors/New Films.
Laurence Kardish: The Film Society had worked with the museum in the past — the first New York Film Festival was actually held in part at MoMA. Joanne used to work here, so she knew all the principals here at the time. She approached the museum to see if we would be interested in hosting, with the Film Society, a program that would be distinct from the New York Film Festival in that it would not focus on masters but on new and upcoming talents — basically, filmmakers who were making their debut in the New York area. It was only about eleven films at the time. Even though we had, in retrospect, an extraordinary group of filmmakers, it took a while for the audiences to build for this program.
JK: There were no definite criteria — we just wanted to show new talent and things that wouldn’t necessarily show in the New York Film Festival, either because of timing, or because they were less polished than things that would typically be in the Festival. As it turned out, a lot of the filmmakers that have been in New Directors ended up in the next year or two in the New York Film Festival.
The first year, Richard Roud did most of the programming from Europe. The committee now has members from both organizations. To me, what’s really interesting about this is that it’s the longest collaboration between two arts organizations that I know of, and it’s been very convivial and worked out beautifully.
LK: Fairly early on the selection was made by a committee, because the Museum felt it wanted an input into the festival — we were not a venue for hire by the Film Society, and the Film Society had no problem with that. It was mutually agreed that everything would be split down the middle — not only the finances, but the selection of the works.
When we began, American independent filmmakers you could count on less than one hand — and they all had a difficult time. People like John Cassavetes, many of whose films didn’t open for years. Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill… There were very few American independent filmmakers. There wasn’t the range of technology that’s available now, so clearly making a feature-length film was an extraordinarily expensive and difficult procedure. As the independent film scene in this country began to expand, I remember the New York State Council on the Arts, one of our funders, though that we were not paying enough attention to American independent filmmakers. That’s when we became a lot more active on the New York scene.
JK: Over the years, the scope and the range of the countries that are represented has become much wider. In the beginning, it was very much focused on Europe. It changed with the direction of the people who are programming, who travel much further afield. The trend has been to find a wider scope, internationally, and, recently, more American films. We had a hard time in the beginning finding American independent films that we wanted to show, but now there are many of them every year.
LK: We see hundreds if not thousands of films a year. We all travel a great deal and share our expertise with one another, and I think it makes for a very strong program. It’s a broad selection, we each have our own particular aesthetic and view of cinema, so the program is a fairly comprehensive survey of what we think are some of the stronger works made by filmmakers who are new to New York.
JK: The list [of filmmakers who've come through the festival] is mind-boggling. The first year we had Alain Tanner and Wim Wenders. We had Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodóvar, John Sayles. We showed Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge before anybody heard of Ken Burns. Guillermo del Toro — we showed Cronos, Todd Solondz, Neil La Bute, Atom Egoyan — quite a roster!
Wayne Wang, Chan is Missing — that was a particular favorite of mine. And Spike Lee, when he came to us, he was completely unknown. He was so delighted and happy to be in the program — that’s one of the things that I remember fondly. Pedro, I adore, and we showed two of his films in New Directors — What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Law of Desire. And there was also Chen Kaige with Yellow Earth, the first Chinese films came through New Directors.
LK: Spike Lee stands out in particular to me because I was on a panel for Channel 13 and saw this student film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, and said this guy, we really should put his film in New Directors, and everyone agreed. We had no idea that Spike would become as celebrated as he has — and I’m glad he has, because we recognized his talent very early on. The same thing with Christopher Nolan — we had Following, which was as different from Inception in terms of technology as a film could be, but you can trace his interests and his style from Following easily to Inception. And there are other filmmakers I’m sorry we haven’t seen more of.
Visit newdirectors.org for info on ND/NF 2011.