The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY. Photo: Erik Luers

All films arrive with a distinct personal history, and so too do the film festivals that feature them. This past Tuesday, September 10, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jacob Burns Film Center, a non-profit cinema and media arts lab located in Pleasantville, NY, commemorated the 50-year history of the New York Film Festival with a panel of three of the festival's most notable contributors: Richard Peña, NYFF Director of Programming from 1988-2012, Kent Jones, current NYFF Director of Programming, and Joanne Koch, Executive Director of the Film Society from 1971-2003. Consistently informative and engaging, the discussion was moderated by Steve Apkon, founder and Executive Director of the Jacob Burns Film Center.

Used as a guideline for the evening's conversation was New York Film Festival Gold (now on sale), an extensive, 300-plus page book featuring in-depth looks at the festival's storied history from the influential minds who shaped its point of view. For all those who ever wondered what it would feel like to be on the NYFF selection committee of five, New York Film Festival Gold features play-by-plays and recollections of impassioned war stories; critical heavyweights and former selection members such as J. Hoberman, Richard Corliss, David Thomson and Molly Haskell weigh in with personal essays. Opening with an introduction by festival mainstay Pedro Almodóvar, the book is a real treat for budding programmers and cinephiles alike.

Richard Peña, Kent Jones, and Joanne Koch. Photo: Erik Luers

It goes without saying that the New York Film Festival is a tightly curated two-and-a-half weeks of noteworthy screenings. Early into the evening's discussion, Peña thus found himself reflecting on how films received the honor of selection. “In the end,” Peña began, “the only way to choose them is to see them. You have to really just sit down and spend very, very long days looking at films and really relying on your own instincts. In the end, there really is no science to it. You just have to stay with the film long enough to decide whether or not you really think there's any chance that this film is going to be in the final group of films that you're going to be looking at.”

A democratic process through and through, one of the highlights of the evening (and of the book) was learning about the intense discussions and occasional disagreements that occurred on the brink of a potential film's exclusion. Peña reiterated that “you not only have to have your opinions, but you have to explain your positions and defend your positions to four other really bright and really knowledgeable people. As you're doing that, sometimes your opinions seem really strong and really interesting and really clever, and sometimes they simply don't.”

Our beautiful NYFF Gold book. Photo: Erik Luers

Solidarity is key, or at the very least, respect for the drive of your peers. “The important thing,” Peña continued, “that I think all of us have to do—and of course we can't—is try as much as you can to leave your ego at the door. What we're really trying to do is create a program. And it's not a Richard Peña program or a Kent Jones program. It's a program of five people.”

The discussion was divided up by clips from previous NYFF-featured films. Roger & Me, This Is Not a Film and Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (featuring a NYFF post-screening Q&A with said comedian, who had broken a rib hours earlier, serving as a personal favorite for Kent Jones) were some of the highlights. Joanne Koch, whose chapter in New York Film Festival Gold focuses primarily on screening provocative films in the face of looming censorship, chose scenes from In The Realm of the Senses and the 1972 closing night film, Last Tango in Paris—a screening which Pauline Kael memorably believed “should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history.”

Jones, Koch, and Peña discussing the history of the festival. Photo: Erik Luers

How much time has to pass before one can evaluate the selections of a particular year? “It would take a few years to really figure out how well you did,” Peña confessed. “I think it's very hard that year or even the next year to know exactly how good a festival was. It takes a few years to really look back and see exactly what the overall impact of those films that you selected really has been.”

Now New York Film Festival Gold allows you the chance to judge for yourself: the book features a complete listing of each of the first 50 years' selections along with some strikingly beautiful images on display. It serves as the complete history, in pictures and in words, of the New York Film Festival's never-ending perserverance. On September 27, another chapter begins…