Redefining Cinema: An interview with Richard Peña, former director of the New York Film Festival

September 2, 2013

Richard Peña, a renowned film studies professor and film curator, was in Amman last week for a five-day course on film studies at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center and a series of screenings of classical Latin American films at the Royal Film Commission.

After leading the prestigious New York Film Festival for 25 years, Peña became a major figure in independent cinema. He is a full-time Professor of Professional Practice at the film department at Columbia University, and had taught at both Berkeley and Princeton.

7iber sat down with Peña for a Q&A on festival films, reclaiming cinema as an art rather than an industry, expanding audiences’ horizons and his view on the emergence of Arab cinema.

Interview by Doa Ali. Photos by Hussam Da’ana


Your experience with the New York Film Festival was successful in opening audiences’ horizons and introducing them to different cinemas in the world…

I tried.

Do you think that that’s what festivals are for? Or at least should be?

At least I think that’s what the New York Film Festival was for. Festivals to me are very site specific. I think that wherever your festival is, you have to figure out what the role and purpose of the festival is there.

In the 25 years that I was there, I felt that a part of my mission was to open up that festival, and that obviously reflects a lot of my own interests and my own attitude. As we were entering the digital age, many more things became available for me to show. And cinema was changing. The focus of cinema was to a certain extent moving away from Europe and may be more to Asia or Latin America. It was just opening up. I think as the New York Film Festival has prided itself on being a place that was somewhat cutting-edge, it was always following where things were happening, and they just happened to be going on in places outside of Europe.

Do you think that film festivals around the world could play the role of changing preferences?

Ideally, they should. I always joke that the world of cinema is offering us a banquet and most people are content eating McDonald’s. It’s a shame that there are so many wonderful films out there from so many different places and yet, most people are content to have the same thing over and over again. And I think audiences are more open and receptive than we imagine they are, but if you’re told again and again that you don’t want to see anything different, that you won’t like it, that you’ll only be lost, eventually it drills into your head that the only thing you want to see is the sixteenth remake of the film that you’ve already seen. That’s what I think sets up the commercial cinema we have today, unfortunately. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with commercial movies, but it’s a shame when you’re told that’s the only thing that exists, and that’s the only thing you want to see. We’d be in a much healthier environment if we had lots of options to choose from.

What would you say was a permanent priority in your choices in the selection process for the New York Film Festival?

It’s hard to say. I don’t know if there was ever one thing that was a permanent priority. I always like to think that film-going should be an adventure. When I became a “serious film-goer”, I loved going to the movies and feeling a bit lost. I don’t think that’s a bad thing to give to an audience. It’s just a challenge for them to figure things out. So for me, it was always important that what we showed were things that will not simply confirm to the audience what they knew about the world, but perhaps question that, so that they would leave the festival somewhat expanded.

Having said that, of course you’d want that to occur within films that are semantically relevant and well made. I don’t think you can ever make an excuse for a film that’s not good.

Since you were exposed to unique film experiences around the world, what did you find was a common denominator between them?

I really don’t think there is anything in common. It’s a great thing that as new cinemas emerge, they force us to readjust our static clocks. When Iranian cinema first emerged, suddenly we were watching movies about little kids! And I thought “I didn’t know I can enjoy a film about a kid who lost his notebook so much.” And then when the Argentinian cinema came out, suddenly we were seeing films about distracted 20-year-olds. And then Korean cinema was offering you something else. So what’s exciting for me is precisely the fact that they don’t have a common denominator, the fact that they’re always challenging you to discover what’s interesting about them. You have to go to them. They don’t come to you. Hopefully that’s what audiences will do.

Arab filmmakers were pretty much dependent on Europe and that brought with it problems. 

What do you think of the emergence of Arab cinema?

I think there’s a lot of work happening. In the last 10 years, the emergence of new institutes from the Gulf has been a great potential help. For a long time, one of the problems for Arabic language filmmakers has been continuous production. There’s very little money in the Arab national film institutes. No country is really funding films. The one commercial industry that existed, Egypt, was hopeless in many ways. Because of all that, Arab filmmakers were pretty much dependent on Europe and that brought with it problems. So the emergence of film institutes in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai has been very important, because it’s allowed for there to be sources of funding within the Arab world. I think we’ve seen a lot of interesting production emerging with that support.

In recent years, I think the Palestinian and Lebanese cinemas seem to be the two places where the most interesting energy is. I think a lot of really great films are coming from those places and I think it’s because those filmmakers were working on the experience of exile and diaspora, which seem to be two of the most salient topics for young filmmakers these days.

Can one say that festivals are taking the mission of reclaiming cinema as an art rather than an industry?

I think it has always been that way. Festivals have always been oppositional. Over time, they sort of made peace with the industry, even tried to draw the industry in. But overall, I think the very notion of festivals from the beginning was a space that was set up for a kind of cinema, to get an attention that the industry wouldn’t give it.

What you have now is a lot of specialized festivals. Students of mine have counted 69 annual film festivals in New York. Every weekend, there’s far too much to see and things cancel each other out to a certain extent. So festivals have become an alternative form of distribution and exhibition. There’s now something called “the Festival Film”; the film that only exists in the film festival circuit. It never imagines it will ever be in a movie theater. They can be very interesting, but they’ll never have enough of an audience, even for an art house.

Do you think that’s dangerous on the long term?

I think it’s just a factor. I think that movies have developed in way that you now have very specialized audiences. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There are specialized audiences for many different arts, so why shouldn’t there be one for cinema, as long as one can find a way to make it financially viable? And with internet now there seem to be ways of doing that.

I have a friend from Spain who made this wonderful film called “Bullet in the Head” and it was a very difficult film in its way. What he did was that he put the film on a platform on the internet and he said “I’m doing two shows a day, at four o’clock and eight o’clock and I’m only allowing 40 people at a time to watch it,” and he charged people something like five euros to see it. It ran for months on that format! It seemed like a fantastic way to market your film.

We have the means now to gather audiences from enormously disparate corners of the world. 

As time goes on, I think filmmakers are going to have to come up with their own individual and innovative strategies, because they can’t rely on the theatrical model or the cable model. There just isn’t a place there for this kind of work, but I believe there are audiences. You just have to find them. We have the means now to gather audiences from enormously disparate corners of the world. It could be that for one of my friend’s sessions, he might have had three people in Japan, four in the United States, two in Jordan, five in Brazil and they all could have been watching the film at the same time. That’s an exciting prospect; that you can draw an audience from all these different places.

IMG_2913How can academia help with that? With bringing cinema back as an art?

Well, it has never gone away. If anything, we just have to fight against the propaganda that is constantly telling us that if any person in the entire world doesn’t like your film, then there’s something wrong with it, that the only way to make films is the way that Hollywood makes films. This was never true, it’s less true now than ever, but there’s this idea that in the same way the US has won the cold war, it has won the cinema war and that all these crazy Europeans have bitten the dust, whereas Hollywood is still standing. It’s crazy! But that doesn’t mean art has left cinema and has to come back. It’s always been there.

What has gone away though is curiosity. I think that’s the result of an educational and cultural system that has dissuaded people from wanting to know more than what was immediately in front of them. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when we had a different America, where you could actually get money if you went to college and studied a foreign language, where you had an American president whose wife spoke fluent French, where you had different things that gave a different appeal. It was before Reagan and Bush closed down America in lots of ways, very much mentally. I don’t know if we recovered from that yet. I can’t tell you how often I had students who come to Columbia tell me they’ve never seen a film with subtitles. You’re now going to become a graduate filmmaker and you haven’t seen a film with subtitles? Where have you been?! That’s the America I live in. Of course, you don’t yell at that person, you don’t make fun of them. You tell them “well, now is your chance. Now you live in New York, you can make up for lost time.” Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but you have to realize that we’re living in a country that isn’t really geared towards expanding people’s horizons.

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