The Latino Behind New York Film Festival Bids Farewell After 25 Years, Goes Out With a Bang

This year marks the end of an era for NYFF programming director Richard Peña.

October 1, 2012, 12:26 AM

Oct. 1, 2012— -- The 50th annual New York Film Festival got underway on Sept. 28, marking the golden anniversary of the highly influential series, and the last hurrah for Film Society of Lincoln Center's program director Richard Peña, who is retiring after 25 years at the helm.

Peña, a die-hard New Yorker of Spanish and Puerto Rican descent who experienced his first NYFF at age 12, has been instrumental in furthering – and in some cases, launching -- the careers of many great international filmmakers in the US, chief among them, Pedro Almodóvar.

For his last NYFF, Peña is going out with a bang: 50 films on the Main Slate lineup, a good mix of choice arthouse offerings, foreign language prize winners from Cannes and Berlin, and world premieres of big Hollywood movies, like Ang Lee's big-screen adaptation of the best-seller Life of Pi, in addition to special retrospectives, sidebars and two special series: Cineastes/Cinema of Our Time and Men of Cinema: Pierre Riessent and the Cinema Mac Mahon. Two galas will honor Nicole Kidman and Peña on Oct. 3 and 10, respectively.

Even though he will continue his academic career at Columbia University, where he's taught Film Studies since 2003 (he's been teaching there since 1989, in one capacity or another), Peña is actually looking forward to relaxing and spending more time with his wife, Karen and their three children (24-year-old son Ari, and daughters Maya, 22, and Lita, 15). "There's a general desire to slow down a bit," the 59-year-old cinephile tells me. "It's been a pretty adventurous 25 years."

On the first day of the festival, Peña took time out to give me a call and talk about his tenure, where he sees filmmaking today, as well as what he considers to be great, classic Latin American cinema. Anyone who hasn't seen his Top 5 Latin American Cinema Classics can easily do so on Netflix (I asked him to pick 'accessible' movies).

During our talk, I felt a little bit like a student in one of Peña's classes at Columbia. I actually know a bunch of people who have had him as a professor and they have always raved about him.

Now I get why.

Twenty-five years goes by fast, doesn't it?

Amazingly, it does.

Anything you didn't get to do in that time that you wish you had?

I always felt a little guilty that we didn't do more publishing in that time. We do publish a magazine, Film Comment, which is wonderful, but in terms of putting out more books and film guides, I would've liked to move into that area. We have the new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, and over the years we've talked about starting some sort of satellite program in Brooklyn or in some other community -- we also never got to do that. There's lot of stuff for the people coming in to see if they want to move in those directions.

In all this time, did this become your life? Did it consume you? I think when you love what you do with a passion, there is that tendency.

Looking back, I worked probably more than I should've. But what can I say, I took it on myself. I really wanted to have an academic career alongside my Film Society career and I had to give up a lot of weekends, and I worked late nights. But I happen to have a wonderful wife who herself is a great professional [Director of Adolescent Medicine at Columbia Rush Presbyterian Medical Center], and I think respected my needs and was attentive to them. There's no way I could've done any of this without all of them [my wife and kids]; they were my rock.

How was NY changed as an audience and as a city in those 25 years?

One of the great things is that New York became a much more ethnic city, again, it always has been, but we've had such a large influx of, for example, Mexicans. When I got back to NY in '88, there were still some Mexicans but right now, I think Mexicans are the second largest Latino community here, with wonderful restaurants, great cultural activities, a very active Mexican Fine Arts Center that I'm on the board of. Beyond that, of course all the Asian immigration from South Asia, from many different parts of China, Koreans have become a very important community. As the festival began to spread out and include more work from those countries, they were very supportive.

I read somewhere that you feel your students are becoming increasingly impatient as a film-going audience.

I think that's the result of all those years of television. TV is structured in such a way that you've got to capture the audience in the first 3 minutes because if not, he/she is going to change the channel. With movies, the whole idea is you pay your money, you go in, you sit down, and the filmmaker has time to tell the story, and bring you in. Since most of our students are formed by television long before they're formed by the film narrative, they bring that sort of narrative orientation to them when they're watching movies.

Is there a country in Latin America that you think is producing really interesting films? Mexico and Argentina have always been known to do so, but what are some of the other, more recent players?

I think the last decade, really from 2000, Latin American cinema has really been booming, and for me, it's the best Latin American filmmaking, period, since the 1960s. As you mentioned, Mexico has always been an important source, and Argentina, which is perhaps the place where this current boom kind of started continues to make a lot of interesting work. Chile, which is a country that's had a smaller participation, I think has a good group of 5 or 6 really first-rate filmmakers who are working there now. Colombia is another country with little cinematic tradition, and now is a place where you get to see a lot of fine films. One thing about contemporary Latin American cinema is that you can see films from Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay -- places that we never thought of as being on the cinematic map now very much are.

What are your top 5 Latin American cinema classics? Not too obscure on this one, but for the average cinephile.

I'm kind of an obscure guy, so I have to think hard here. Well, one that I hope most people know is the great Luis Buñuel film, Los Olvidados. I continue to teach it, it has as much of an impact on my students than I think it did when it first came out. From Brazil probably a film like Bye Bye Brazil, which came out in 1980, and it's another film with a very popular life; people continue to enjoy it. A recent Argentine film which I was a great fan of, and actually we were the ones to premiere it, it's called Nine Queens, wonderful film by a director [Fabian Bielinsky] who sadly passed away a few years ago of a heart attack at 49.

Well, from Cuba, obviously Strawberry and Chocolate, a terrific film made by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who I think is the best Cuban filmmaker and a man whose work was really, deeply humanistic and challenging and important. I think for the last classic I'll go with another Brazilian film called Vidas Secas from the early 60s. It picks up a little bit where Los Olvidados left off.

You've talked about how your love for filmmaking was sparked by going to theater with your Castillian grandparents as a young boy. Can you take me back to that time?

There was a movie theater at 8th avenue and 19th street called the Elgin cinema, now it's the Joyce Theater, a theater devoted to dance performance. On Mondays and Tuesdays in the afternoon, they would show Spanish language films. That part of Chelsea has always been a Hispanic neighborhood and a lot of older folks lived there as well, so the movie theater in order to cater to the clientele would do that. So very often my mother would leave me with my grandparents and they would go to the movies and they'd take me along. I remember the idea just that there were other movies, that there weren't only Hollywood movies or American films. It was part of my experience from a very early age.

Any Spanish-language films that you remember in particular?

I was pretty young; it was before I went to school. It's very funny, every now and then I'll see a film and I'll say I bet you I saw that when I was a little kid, there'll be something that just reminds me of whatever that was.

You're credited with helping a lot of international filmmakers break into the US through the festival. Any of them that you're particularly proud of showcasing?

I don't know if I can take total credit because there was already a bit of a cult for his work but I certainly think we launched the career of Pedro Almodóvar to another level. It's not that he was unknown in 1988 but I think after we really picked up his work and began showing it frequently in the festival, he became the most successful, certainly Spanish language, but also foreign language director of the last 25 years.

My first year of the festival we opened with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. This was the first film that crossed him over to a much larger audience and it made far more money than all the other films he had already released in the US put together.

You're known for your impeccable taste in movies, but are there some surprising films that you enjoy, like Fast and the Furious or something?

There are some films that don't fit in the context of the work I do but I still enjoy them for many different reasons. Recently, I've been sort of disappointed by some of Hollywood's big-budget blockbusters but if we went to the past, I'd say a movie like Alien or Close Encounters and I'm a great fan of the work of Steven Spielberg, not all of his films to be are the same great caliber but many are really wonderful, including Jaws.

Are you excited about Lincoln [Spielberg's upcoming film about Abraham Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis]?

Very, very excited. I'm sure it's going to be terrific.

Did you ever harbor any desires to be a filmmaker yourself?

No, I don't really have any talent in that area. I've always been someone who likes to watch, and think about, and write about, and talk about movies. That's really what I like to do.

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