NYFF Director Richard Pena on What the Festival's Gotten Right in His 20 Years

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Richard Pena has many things to celebrate. For starters, it’s his 20th year as program director of the New York Film Festival, a post he took over from Richard Roud in 1987, who himself ran the fest for 25 years. (Some in the staff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center staff like to call Pena “Richard the Second.”) In addition, he has managed to guide the festival through some uncharted waters the past few years — from having to put on the event less than a month after the September 11 attacks, to dealing with the emergence of serious cross-town competition in the Tribeca Film Festival. But at this moment, the greatest thing Pena has to celebrate is that he is presiding over one of the most impressive slates of festival films in recent memory, one which also happens to be uniquely strong in American films, which will no doubt guarantee the fest a lot of exposure in the coming days. It all kicks off tonight with the heavily anticipated North American premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. We spoke with Pena about the past two decades.

First of all, congratulations on your twentieth year doing this. How would you say the festival has changed over the last twenty years?

It’s probably changed a lot less than you might think. People look at the content of the festival, and they say that there are many different kinds of films being shown now. And that’s true to a certain extent, but it’s largely because we have so much more available to us now than we had twenty years ago. Our accessibility to cinema of all kinds from all parts of the world is at a level we couldn’t imagine back then.

As far as distinctive goes, it’s worth noting that the world had significantly fewer film festivals twenty years ago. The explosion of festivals over even the past few years has been unprecedented.

Absolutely. And there used to be significantly fewer film festivals here in New York, too. I was a reader on a graduate thesis in the Columbia Journalism School last year. This student wrote his thesis on film festivals in New York, and he counted 63! That gives you some sense of how much things have changed.

Since we’re on the topic: How has the Tribeca Film Festival affected the New York Film Festival?

I wouldn’t say it has affected us that much. The proliferation of festivals has certainly robbed the sense of the uniqueness of the festival. Once upon a time, when people spoke of “The Festival,” that pretty much meant us. Now there’s literally more than one festival every week. As far as Tribeca goes, I think people recognize that it’s a very different kind of event. They do very different things than we do. So it hasn’t affected us in terms of the films that we get, or in terms of taking away a part of our potential audience, or anything like that. If anything, it’s made our personality and our character clearer to people, because they now have something close at hand with which to compare us.

Have there been any particular films you’ve programmed over the past twenty years that you feel especially vindicated about?

I was very pleased that in 1988 when we showed Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Leigh had principally been a British TV director, and some people had a little bit of knowledge of his work, but the public hadn’t really been exposed to him all that much. We showed the film at the festival, and it did very well, and of course since then we’ve gone on to show a number of other films by Leigh, including Secrets and Lies. We also played some role in the emergence of Pedro Almodovar in the United States. It’s been great to see him grow from a really talented guy to being one of the major figures of international cinema. We feel like we’ve been right there alongside with them.

Are there any films you feel missed the boat on?

Sure, but I’d never tell you! I like to say that it takes about eight years for me to be able to look back and tell how successful or unsuccessful a particular edition of the New York Film Festival was. Sometimes I’ll look back and say, “Why didn’t we take that film? It’s so good. Something must have really gone wrong.” And other times you look back on a film you showed and say, “Wow, we were really onto something. We were really correct to spot that and go with it.” I always like to think of Noah Baumbach. When we showed Kicking & Screaming at the Film Festival in 1995, some people said, “What are you doing? This is just a first film. It’s okay, but do you really think it’s worth making a part of this festival?” But it became clear that there was something really special about this young man, that he was going to go on to make great films, and he’s proven in spades that it was really the right choice.

Are there any areas you wish the New York Film Festival could me more comprehensive?

I’ve had complete liberty to focus on everything I’ve wanted to. One of the things I had hoped when I first joined the staff at Lincoln Center was to see how we could once again pay some attention to avant-garde work. We tried different models. For a while we had a program within the body of the festival. Now we’ve split that off and it’s become a mini-program within the festival that my colleagues run. I’m really proud of that. Views from the Avant Garde has really become the nation’s showcase for that kind of work. That’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing — we’ve become a standard setter. I’m really proud that it’s become part of the festival. I don’t have much to do with it anymore, but that’s fine — I’ve got plenty of other things to keep me busy.

If you could preserve just one moment from your twenty years, what would it be?

The one that immediately leaps to mind is 1994, when we showed a wonderful film called The Silences of the Palace, by a female Tunisian director named Moufida Tlatli. I’d just met Moufida for the first time that night. She was very sweet, and also very nervous about showing the film to a New York audience for the first time. I remember during the film’s screening, she came in towards the end. She sat down in the spotlight box. And at the end, as the credits came up, the most extraordinary roar came from the audience, and about half the audience, who were women, actually started ululating! Moufida was so stunned, she burst into tears. She was crying her eyes out, and the spotlight was on her, and then people in the audience started crying, and they clapped more, and then she cried more. It was extraordinary. It underlined to me just how special the connection between a filmmaker and an audience can be at a place like Alice Tully Hall, and at the New York Film Festival. The appreciation shown to her, in a culturally specific forum like that, was overwhelming. I just felt so proud to be a part of it.
-Bilge Ebiri