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Why New Directors/New Films Has Changed a Lot… and Very Little

Why New Directors/New Films Has Changed a Lot... and Very Little

In some ways, little has changed since New Directors/New Films launched in 1972. The Film Society had settled into new leadership (Amos Vogel jumped ship in 1969, replaced by Richard Roud) that wanted to lure new audiences by blending popular fare with “esoteric” selections. That year proved to be the first time the New York Film Festival sold out in its decade-long history. However, the New York Times noted that the NYFF also faced “a certain tension between the necessity of discovery… and the necessity of attraction.”

In other words, there was the clash of mainstream and obscure movies programmed side-by-side. That tension led the Film Society to team with the Museum of Modern Art to create ND/NF. And while those artist-vs.-populist conversations continue to this day, ND/NF has done much to debut new voices from both camps.

New Directors/New Films begins today with a celebration of its 40th year.
(At the Film Society’s website, Alison Wilmore rounds up some of the festival founders’ favorite memories.) The initial lineup of 10 films included Alain Tanner’s “La Salamandre” and Wim Wenders’s “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.”

ND/NF’s reputation quickly solidified as a haven for nascent cinematic talent. “The Kurosawas and Godards of Tomorrow?” read the Times headline in 1973. Maybe if the references were a little more commercial, they wouldn’t have been too far off-base: The 1974 edition brought 26-year-old Steven Spielberg and his sophomore feature, “The Sugarland Express.” A year later, “Jaws” invented the blockbuster.

Nevertheless, the characteristically prickly critic Vincent Canby remained skeptical of the festival’s purpose. “Film festivals are as locked into annual models as Detroit,” he wrote, panning the 1977 ND/NF program. “Some years it might be better to pass — to admit that the festival material simply wasn’t there.”

Still, ND/NF built a respectable track record for highlighting filmmakers with serious potential. In 1981, George Miller unveiled “The Road Warrior,” his acclaimed sequel to “Mad Max.”  Spike Lee screened his student film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” in 1982; the decade concluded with a program containing Whit Stillman’s landmark debutante portrait “Metropolitan” in 1989. The young people were just as chatty and confused, but a little scrappier, in Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” which played in 1991.

In 1994, the festival’s program was crowded with topical voices still audible today. Boaz Yakin debuted “Fresh” and Ben Stiller concluded that “Reality Bites.” Most significantly, an unapologetically vulgar and geeky Gen-X showcase, “Clerks,” arrived from 23-year-old newcomer Kevin Smith. “It’s like ‘Slacker’ on speed,” Donald Lyons wrote in Film Comment at the time, “with tonic dashes of feminist ‘True Love’ to open windows into the film’s crotch-and-sneaker centeredness.”

It also bears noting, if a bit self-servingly, that 1994 was the festival edition attended by a recent West Coast transplant named Eugene Hernandez. Just a few years out of college, the future indieWIRE co-founder arrived in New York in March, just in time for ND/NF to become his first local festival experience. Says Hernandez, “I really felt like we’d found a festival that was New York’s outpost for what we were trying to do.”

Coupled with his 1993 inaugural trip to the Sundance Film Festival, Hernandez found the inspiration he and his cohorts needed to launch a new-media venture exclusively devoted to independent film. To bring it all full circle, he now serves as the Film Society’s director of digital strategy for the Film Society.

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On the set of “Clerks.” Image courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center.

When iW was born in 1996, ND/NF celebrated its 25th year and Sundance its 12th. Each of the American directors in the ND/NF program arrived fresh from Park City. Sundance prize-winner Todd Solondz came back east with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” while Nicole Holofcener screened her debut, “Walking and Talking.” Other selections that year included Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” and Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol.”

Also there: Kirby Dick’s documentary “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,” which found distribution during the festival. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Classics snatched up Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” right before the festival, even though the movie scared off the industry at Sundance. (“This is Neil’s vision,” wrote Andrea Meyer for iW. “And he’s not apologizing for it.”) 

The next year announced the arrival of two directors about to carve out very separate paths: Tom Tykwer, with the cult hit “Run Lola Run,” and Christopher Nolan with “Following.” The latter title landed on iW’s list of favorite undistributed movies just a few months ahead of ND/NF. Other ND/NF selections would wind up on later editions, including Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy” in 2000 and “Hybrid” in 2001.

“As a corrective to American insularity and insensitivity, the 32nd New Directors/New Films film series should be required viewing for our nation’s leaders,” wrote Anthony Kaufman in 2003, a year that included works from Iran (“Black Tape”) and Palestine (“Ticket to Jerusalem”), along with Jose Padilha’s “Bus 174” from Brazil and one of the major U.S. indie hits of the year, “Raising Victor Vargas.”

That international outlook continues to be a staple of ND/NF, as 2006 demonstrated by featuring “13 Tzameti” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy.” Fascinatingly contemplative with a minimalist narrative that bordered on the avant-garde, “Old Joy” was also furiously anti-commercial. Its presence at ND/NF suggested the festival was less oriented toward heralding “new” filmmakers and more toward distinctive storytellers whose work ran the risk of becoming buried by the Hollywood machine.

Other festivals adopt a similar curatorial strategy with sidebars such as Sundance’s NEXT section, SXSW’s Emerging Visions and Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. However, ND/NF pulls its program away from the larger events and gives them space to stand alone.

The current program opens with the star-studded “Margin Call,” a tale of global financial collapse almost entirely set in an office building; it closes with “Circumstance,” an Iranian family drama about two children working against societal demands. Unsurprisingly, both movies played at Sundance. They weren’t the best of the latest crop, but the directors prove their capacity to tell complex, layered stories with stirring immediacy. That assessment could apply to a number of the 28 features selected from 27 countries. Many of them have already been covered in this space; others will probably find their way here soon enough.

New Directors/New Films runs March 23 – April 3 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Go here for the schedule and ticket information.

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