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In Defense of The New York Film Festival

In Defense of The New York Film Festival

While everyone else is in Cannes, news from Stu over at The Reeler that J. Hoberman and Scott Foundas, two alt-weekly legends, have replaced John Powers and Philip Lopate on the New York Film Festival selection committee. I think this is great news for cinephiles as I know both Hoberman and Foundas are both incredibly passionate advocates for challenging, engaging international films. As much as I admire Powers and Lopate (whose Totally, Tenderly, Tragically is my all-time favorite film book), I am very much looking forward to seeing what changes and sensibilities the new committee members bring to the program this year. The New York Film Festival, following on the heels of the delirious, six-film-a-day gluttonous marathon that is Toronto, is a wonderful tradition for me; Each year, the festival unspools two films per day while New York City makes the leisurely turn to autumn. The seasonal attributes are no small thing; I consider The New York Film Festival to have a palpable, physical presence for me, a combination of a daily pilgrimage to the Upper West Side, the scent of autumn in the city, the sounds of conversation and opinion rippling among friends and colleagues; It’s just fucking lovely.

In reading Stu’s article, he quotes an unnamed “critic from a national weekly” as saying

“Oh, goodie: Two white men replace two white men on [the] prestigious NY Film Festival selection committee. How absolutely avant-garde!”

Hmmm. Not many “national weeklies” left out there. Wonder who it could be? That said, this is a tired argument. While Hoberman and Foundas’ tastes seem to fit comfortably within the boundaries of the NYFF’s mission to bring the best international filmmaking to the festival, I am wondering why a) the choice must be mocked? The haughty ‘how absolutely avant-garde’ is pure snark … and b) why the race/gender card? Which critical/programming minds would you have suggested that were overlooked and are more qualified than Hoberman and Foundas? It’s easy to take cheap shots, but I would love to hear the names of people better qualified for the committee. Again, why not make an argument for a qualified candidate who you believe would deliver better programming choices and more diverse selection? No offense, but the NYFF’s commitment to world cinema has always embraced people of color and women, so I am curious to know what people think about this issue. And before you level any “spoken like a true white male” criticisms at me, please have a candidate handy who you feel was interested in the position and was overlooked. Let’s play fair.

Regardless, this type of snarky criticism is just the type of thing the NYFF seemingly always has to endure; Playing the role of stodgy, conservative institution ripe for overthrow in constant juxtaposition with TriBeCa. Again, from The Reeler:

“Backing that up, Voice critic Nathan Lee got even more specific. ‘I’d like to see (Tribeca) shake up the New York Film Festival,’ he told me. ‘And they clearly are, at least internally….Don’t get me wrong, I love the New York Film Festival. I’m into their quality control, I adore the Walter Reade, there are some very smart people involved — the whole thing. But there are ways they could shake it up. I think the whole sensibility could be ballsier, take bigger risks. I definitely think the selection committees could use some fresh blood. When was the last time they had someone under 40? I’d love to see the program reach out beyond their uptown subscriber base. … Ultimately, I’d like to see them move toward each other — for Tribeca’s quality to get better and to be a little more focused and disciplined and forward-thinking. And for New York to move toward Tribeca: Be a little looser. Sprawl a bit. Get funky.'”

What I find most troubling about this quote and this misperception is that somehow, the NYFF should change for the sake of being more like TriBeCa. No offense to Nathan Lee, but the last thing in the world the NYFF needs to do is bring a sprawling, loose approach to its programming. Ballsier and bigger risks? Again, name the film. What title was overlooked that would signify a ballsier, bigger risk? What does that even mean in the context of a film program? Do you mean younger, American independent filmmakers? Go to Gen Art. Or TriBeCa. Or Brooklyn Underground. Or Brooklyn International. Or Rooftop Films. Or Coney Island. Or New Fest. How about New Directors/New Films? ResFest? New York Independent Film and Video Festival? IFM? The New York Video Festival, then? No city in the country showcases as much American independent cinema as New York. Who among them is showcasing emerging foreign directors like Barbara Albert, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Tahani Rached, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Emmanuel Bourdieu, Hong Sang-soo and Bong Joon-ho? That list was just from NYFF 2006; I am sure any of the other festivals in the city would have killed to have shown these films (with the directors and actors in attendance, no less). That criticism makes no sense to me. What is a bigger risk than showing These Girls in a 2000 seat theater?

As for the idea that the NYFF needs to get funky, well, someone isn’t paying attention; The festival’s annual Views From The Avant-Garde selection is one of the most important avant-garde programs in the nation and the festival’s annual retrospective this past year featured the films of El Topo director Alejandro Jodorowsky and this year will showcase Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. I’m not sure what Nathan means by “funky,” but I think that might be the worst idea I’ve read in a long time. More parties, perhaps? Yawn. If anything, the NYFF should redouble its commitment to providing a serious platform to the best in international cinema because, as the premiere showcase for foreign film in the United States (again, name a festival that does a better job…), cinema needs the NYFF more than ever. I certainly have my own criticisms (The NYFF should work harder to include more non-fiction filmmaking, having missed the boat on films like Into Great Silence, Herzog’s non-fiction explosion and Ghosts of The Cité Soliel in the past few years, to name just a few), but all in all, it is a tremendous festival and one of which we should be proud to call our own. The idea that the festival should take movies less seriously is a terrible misconception; What we need is more seriousness.

With the appointment of Foundas and Hoberman to the selection committee, not only are the tradition and legacy of the festival program in excellent, well-qualified hands, but their passionate support for and commitment to international cinema (along with their understanding of film history) leads me to believe that the NYFF is doing the right thing; They’re taking the long view. The festival is celebrating 45 years this fall (minus the home turf of Alice Tully Hall, which should be interesting) and I expect another tremendous event. How about some congratulations and thank yous?

Doubts? Let’s talk in the comments below. I am really interested to hear reasoned arguments on this subject.

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