March 26, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes, Film, Viewpoints
Ask the Curator: Raj Roy Responds

Chief Curator of Film Rajendra Roy

Last week we asked you to submit your burning questions about the New Directors/New Films Festival or about MoMA’s film program in general. In addition to quite a few inquiries about how to get your film into MoMA’s collection (don’t worry I answered one of those), your curiosity covered quite a range of subjects, so I’ve done my best to answer five of your questions—as well as one irresistible bonus question—as selected by the MoMA blog editors. Thank you all for your interest!

1. What criteria do you employ in choosing films for the festival? Political, artistic, plot, cultural, etc.? [from Jules Margalit]

The essential, and perhaps only, unifying criterion for a film in New Directors/New Films is that it be innovative. This of course can manifest in many ways; often it is structurally, but my no means universally so. Our opening film, Bill Cunningham New York, is a traditional portrait doc. It is the subject himself that is sui generis. Director Richard Press has the presence of mind to allow his film to exist as an open road for Cunningham to navigate (on his Schwinn). Alexei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer, for example, is formally as well as narratively innovative, immersing us in a landscape that is brand new.

2.  What new, emerging, or shifting narratives are emerging in twenty-first-century film? [from Nettrice]

It’s still a little early to tell what the century will bring (although buying stock in 3-D technology is a sure bet). One thing the committee did remark on this year was the return of family-centric (particularly patriarchal) dramas. We’ve included one of the best and most emblematic, I Am Love, as well as a few that hang their narratives on a similar pillar (The Father of My Children, Night Catches Us, and The Man Next Door). There was some discussion that the recession ushered in a new era of Family=Stability conservatism, but the fact is that these films were conceived of before the recession. Perhaps it’s just anecdotal…

One thing is clear: women’s narratives are flourishing. From Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men to Myriam Aziza’s Evening Dress, some of the most compelling films in the festival inhabit the world of women (and girls).

3. I’m a recent video film arts graduate. How can I get my short film art creations shown at MoMA and other prestigious places? On what basis does a curator chose a work of a starting artist and how can a newcomer present his work to him/her? [from A Ben]

The most amazing things happen through open submissions. One of my “breakthrough” moments as a curator came when I found the film Open Water in the pile of submissions that came in while I was programming The Hamptons Film Festival. That tiny film went on to make over one hundred times its production budget after premiering at the fest, so take a chance and submit to festivals (we scout many throughout the year). At MoMA we accept submissions for our Doc Fortnight and New Directors festivals via the Web.

If your work skews more “art world,” then the best approach is to go through galleries and alternative cinema spaces (Anthology Film Archives, Rooftop Films, etc.), and then inform curators about upcoming screenings. MoMA doesn’t accept unsolicited films for its other film programs. The volume would just be too great.

4. What’s the most interesting piece that you were nervous about showing, and why? [from Marti Glass]

I’m never really nervous about showing “scandalous” films (sex, violence, politics). What does gives me butterflies is the more delicate films that I fall in love with—films that could either soar or flop depending on how the audience responds. It’s always important for me to create the right context for a film. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being talked into giving a filmmaker a slot that seems like “the best” to them (opening night, competition, gala, etc.) but was much too intense a spotlight for their film. I take full responsibility in those cases, but it is also important for a filmmaker to know what they have made, who will respond to it best, and who will nurture it into perhaps broader audiences.

5.  Many films which are successful at festivals do not get commercial distribution. Are you interested in doing anything to address this problem? [from Jonathan Milenko]

We are in fact actively addressing this at MoMA through our MoMA Presents initiative, which gives weeklong theatrical runs to independent and international films. These films are regularly reviewed by the major New York publications and find intelligent, invested audiences at the Museum. There are benefits for both the filmmakers and the Museum in this scenario; with several opportunities to see a film, we can develop word of mouth and tap into audiences that may be too busy to catch a film that only has one or two screenings. It’s win-win all around. Next up—direct from the Berlin Film Festival—is the international premiere of the restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, which has only ever screened once in the U.S. (at MoMA during our 1997 Fassbinder retrospective), and never had a theatrical run.

Bonus: Why don’t you show my movie called ”I lived 30 days in my bathtub”? It’s a movie about a plastic penguin who loves to swim in a bathtub. [from Christophe]

Have you seen Batman Returns? No more penguins for me! Too scary.