Behind the Screens: New Directors/New Films Festival Could Find the Next Big Thing

Since 1972, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA shone a spotlight on the future of cinema with New Directors/New Films Festival.

The world may be full of film festivals these days, ranging from Sundance to Busan to Rotterdam, but the New Directors/New Films Festival remains a unique entity in the cinematic landscape. Since 1972, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA, two of the most legendary and influential organizations in film history, have teamed up to shine a spotlight on the future of cinema. This is not hyperbole. Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express), Spike Lee (Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads), Richard Linklater (Slacker), and Wong Kar Wai (Days of Being Wild), among many others, had their coming-out parties at ND/NF, and movies have never been the same. It’s too early to tell if any of the directors featured in the 46th edition of New Directors/New Films will one day reach the level of the aforementioned auteurs, but that’s kind of the point. At the very least, there is a full slate of fascinating films from around the world, including Patti Cake$, a comedy about a white, teen girl rapper from New Jersey; the New York-set Person to Person, which boasts an impossibly hip cast featuring Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, and Tavi Gevinson; Strong Island, a documentary that investigates the race-based murder of the filmmaker’s brother; and The Summer Is Gone, an Edward Yang-esque look at a family falling apart in 1990s China.

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To learn more about the philosophy behind the programming such an ambitious and august festival, we spoke to Rajendra Roy (Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film at MoMA) and Dennis Lim (Director of Programming at FSLC).

This is the 46th edition of a festival that has influenced so much of the cinematic landscape. Do you two feel any pressure to conform to the traditional style of New Directors/New Films? Is there room for individuality or idiosyncrasy in the programming?

Rajendra Roy: Idiosyncratic is not a problem for us. It kind of comes naturally. I’ve been doing New Directors now for 10 years at MoMA and the exciting thing, in all honesty, is that it’s a true reflection of the tastes, the impulses, the insights of the programmers. I have never experienced a meeting or a conversation where we overburden ourselves with history. It’s all about filtering what we’re observing in the field and the films that we’re able to consider in the context of what’s happening now. Of course, the amazing track record of the festival is always in the back of my mind, but there’s never the idea of, “Here’s the next Almodóvar or Spielberg or whatever.” It’s very much about the here and now.

Dennis Lim: I think upholding tradition is ignoring tradition in a way because the festival is uniquely premised on discovery, on new names. We’re very much about looking for the new voices and filmmakers that represent the present, and to a certain extent, the future, as well. Not very many festivals have this luxury. A lot of festivals have to keep in mind the idea of a pantheon or a vanguard. The point is, we’re bringing you new names that were new to us, as well.

Does the festival have specific requirements for what constitutes a “new director?” 

DL: It’s something we discuss a lot. Our rule is that we never show a filmmaker who has had more than two theatrical releases in the U.S., and I don’t recall making any exceptions to that rule. We tend to focus on first- and second-time filmmakers, but there are always inevitably filmmakers in the mix who have made more work, but are unusually unrecognized or under-appreciated in the US.

RR: I think when we include somebody who is more established in the field but not recognized based on the parameters that we’ve set out, which are two theatrical releases in the U.S. and awareness with U.S. audiences, it is a giant exclamation point because it’s different than someone who’s coming straight out of film school with their first feature. This year, we have Angela Schanelec, who is a leading figure, in many ways, in Europe, but just has no profile with U.S. audiences. We’re hoping that this can be a bit of a corrective.

How did the partnership between FSLC and MoMA begin 46 years ago? Why does it continue?

RR: Historically, “New Directors” was meant to be a nurturing ground for the New York Film Festival. The New York Film Festival has always been a product of the minds at the Film Society, the curators who originated the festival, but MoMA was actually the first venue for that festival. So MoMA and the Film Society have a partnership going back decades, and “New Directors” was conceived of as cementing that partnership. In terms of why MoMA continues to co-produce the festival, our motives are partially collection-based. We’re a collecting institution, so forming relationships with artists early on in their careers, as we’re able to do with New Directors, is a critical part of building those relationships. Our ability to do a retrospective of a filmmaker who started out in “New Directors,” whether that’s Wim Wenders or Pedro Almodóvar, is critically important.

How does your partnership work? How is it different from how you’d normally program during the year? 

RR: It’s so much more fun. For me, it’s always been a huge badge of honor to be able to continue this partnership between the two leading film organizations in the city. It is as much a testament to our two organizations’ commitment to emerging talent as it is a commitment to collaboration between institutions and curators. I think where there are differences, where there are clashes of taste or general appreciation for a given work, those conversations add to the mix in the way that very few other organizations actually force themselves to do. And again, it enriches the New York cinematic landscape for basically two generations now of curators. Warts and all, battle scars and triumph, it’s an important part of the cityscape.

Unlike some film festivals that have venues very close to one another, MoMA isn’t particularly close to Lincoln Center. Does that affect how you program the films?

DL: It’s pretty straightforward. We have approximately about thirty features and shorts programs in the festival, and everything gets played at MoMA and at Film Society. Basically, we show everything twice, and you have the option, depending on schedule, of where to see each film.

RR: That should build in the possibility of seeing every film or program in the festival. That’s more our goal, I would say, than thematic or retrospective-type programming, where you want to create connections between films. If that happens, that’s fabulous, but the bigger point is, this is a festival where you should actually be able to see everything if you choose to, unlike Tribeca or some more sprawling events where that is literally impossible.

What makes a film a good fit for an Opening Night slot? Are you looking for similar qualities in a Closing Night film?

RR: I’m very hot on making sure that the film is the right fit for the platform. And the platform can sometimes undo even the best film, right? There is intense scrutiny on both opening and closing and our centerpiece films. Opening has the additional pressure of the being the first out of the box, and the one that has an audience that’s maybe different than a typical screening during the run of a festival. Maybe you have more industry people or more donors or whatever. You have to keep that on the mind and not undermine the power of a film. Even if we might all be in agreement about the quality of a film, the platform itself might be an undermining factor. If it’s a truly delicate film and you have all this energy in the room and the audience’s attention span isn’t what it should be, it should probably have a different spot in the festival. Those are things we put in versus being somewhere and saying “Oh, this is an opening film.” It’s more like, “Is this the right platform for this film?”

DL: This year, our opening, closing, and centerpiece films are American titles and also local films, in a sense. We try to do that to celebrate local talent in one of those spots, if possible.

When putting together the lineup, how actively do you balance factors like genre and country of origin? 

DL: I don’t think we start off with a checklist of things to hit necessarily, but I should point out that we program through the year. We start with films at Cannes and another round of titles around the fall festivals. We’re always keeping an eye on a balance, which can be any number of things: type of film, country of origin, gender balance of the filmmakers. But I’m very pleased that our geographic diversity is especially impressive this year. We’re taking films from Latin America and Africa and the Arab world and South Asia and East Asia, more countries that aren’t often represented at film festivals of this size. I mean, to have thirty titles and to have such geographic reach, I think we didn’t necessarily set out to do it, but we were so struck by films from places like Nepal and Cambodia.

RR: I would hope people take a chance on a film from an area of the world that they have never visited or witnessed in a cinematic context before. That is always the most exciting thing, I think. We love our local filmmakers, of course, and getting the hometown crowd and celebrating them is super important for us here in New York, but if you’ve never seen a film from Central Africa, give that a chance. Expand your horizons. We have great French films, but go outside of your safety zone. I think you’ll be excited.

Is there a political value to helping people expand their horizons through film?

RR: I don’t know if it’s political; it’s about understanding diverse experiences and that, interestingly, doesn’t even involve going that far. For instance, we have The Menashe, a comedic film set in a Hasidic community here in Williamsburg, and Wùlu, a gangster film from Central Africa. Wùlu is way more familiar cinematically than the world that’s being displayed in a film that’s set, literally, across the river. I don’t think it requires the idea of migrating yourself to foreign lands or whatever; it’s about being open to the diversity of experience that New Directors has always celebrated. Again, if it was just about the familiar, we would be a very different festival.

Have there been any especially memorable screenings that you’ve been a part of at ND/NF? 

RR: I’ve definitely had a bunch. One that I particularly loved was the New York premiere of Pariah, Dee Rees’s first film. So many women showed up for that screening to celebrate Dee’s emergence. Nobody knew who this person was, but these women were going to get behind a woman, cheer her on, and see her thrive. Now, Dee is literally somebody who could make any movie. She could work for any studio, and I’m just so glad I was in the room when people got to know her.

DL: What really impresses and energizes me about working on a program like “New Directors” is just the openness of the audience. People come to these films because they’re open to films that surprise and challenge them in some way. We did a fairly recent Closing Night film a few years ago with Entertainment, a really singular but also fairly abrasive film, and that was, to me, one of our most exciting screenings. To see that many people so in tune with a film. It’s really impressive that we have this audience that approaches films without any expectations.

Are there any under-the-radar films that you’d like to spotlight?

DL: What I will say is that in the process of putting the festival together, it struck me that it was a really, really strong year for foreign cinema. I would call special attention to two films from Brazil called Pendular and Arábia. I think there’s a really exciting generation of filmmakers coming from Brazil.

RR: I’ll give a shout out to a film that actually just won the top prize at Rotterdam. It’s a film from India called Sexy Durga, and it’s kind of a slow burn, but if you let yourself give into it, it’s probably one of the most terrifying experiences you’re going to have this year.

The New Directors/New Films Festival runs from March 15 – March 26 at the Film Society of the Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Behind the Screens: New Directors/New Films Festival Could Find the Next Big Thing