In September 1963, the first ever New York Film Festival was held in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, and it counted as something of an experiment, an early test case as to whether the sort of serious, artistically inclined fests that were quickly becoming established in Europe could find real purchase stateside. The inaugural lineup included Luis Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel,” Roman Polanski’s debut, “Knife in the Water,” and Yasujirō Ozu’s swan song “An Autumn Afternoon.” According to a Film Comment report at the time, the inaugural fest sold more than 20,000 tickets before a single film had unspooled. Not bad for a first time out.
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As the New York Film Festival approaches its 60th annual iteration, taking place from Sept. 30-Oct. 16, plenty has changed, but core elements of the institution remain in place six decades later.
The festival still calls Lincoln Center its home base, although it has recently expanded into pop-up screenings in the remaining four boroughs of the city. It still primarily consists of a carefully curated selection of highlights from the year’s past festivals making their New York debuts, though it’s also studded with several world premieres — Maria Schrader’s “She Said” (starring Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan as the New York Times reporters who brought down Harvey Weinstein) and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till” (featuring Danielle Deadwyler as the mother of Emmett Till) will both take their maiden voyages in front of audiences.
Fest artistic director Dennis Lim says he often looks back at the NYFF’s programming from years and decades past, to take note of both “what we showed, and also what we missed, to be honest,” and to remind himself of the festival’s philosophical underpinnings.
“With a festival like this — even more than most festivals, because we’re drawing on the whole year in cinema — I think of every year’s program as a statement, an argument,” Lim says. “It’s a summary of the state of the art. We are really asking ourselves every year, if our job is to make a case for cinema as an enduring, important, exciting art form, which films do we select? Which films do we present as evidence? And I think that question has been at the heart of this festival’s programming process from the beginning.”
Eugene Hernandez, the NYFF festival director recently tapped to lead the Sundance Film Festival, echoes several of Lim’s sentiments.
“New York is the capital of film culture in our country, and one of the great film culture communities in the world,” Hernandez says. “And what connects back to the history of the festival is that that richness in the city even predates our festival. One of our festival founders, Amos Vogel, started [film society] Cinema 16 in the ’40s. So having this specific film audience as part of New York’s broader arts culture has been a factor for decades, since the ’40s. There’s always been this strong bond here between artists and audiences; it both predates our festival and was actually part of the founding of the festival.”
After the 58th NYFF was forced into virtual screenings and drive-in engagements thanks to the pandemic — and the 59th was forced to tread lightly given unpredictable developments in 2021 — this year’s edition could be thought of as the fest’s first full return to “normal,” though elements from those past two editions have remained. Most notably, NYFF will hold satellite screenings all over the city, broadening the fest’s reach beyond the Lincoln Center confines.
That move brings with it a number of benefits, chief among them strengthening NYFF’s identity as what Lim calls “a local festival.” Noting that all of the festival’s gala screenings are either by New York filmmakers or else take place in the city, Lim stresses the importance of retaining the same serious, adventurous-minded spirit that powered the festival’s early days.
“There’s a large press and industry presence in New York, and obviously we consider that an important part of the audience — it’s not like we’re an audience-only festival,” he says. “We have a robust P&I presence precisely because we’re in New York. But the local aspect is important. I think these are the audiences that are not just the most knowledgeable and passionate about movies, but also the most open to discover new experiences. And we program with that audience in mind.”
The festival’s main slate contains no shortage of wave-making films from earlier 2022 fests, including Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” (Ruben Östlund) and Grand Prix winner “Stars at Noon” (Claire Denis); Berlin Golden Bear winner “Alcarràs” (Carla Simón); and Sundance grand jury prizewinner “All That Breathes,” from Shaunak Sen. As usual, the program is also heavy on filmmakers who are NYFF veterans, with Todd Field (“Tár”), Pietro Marcello (“Scarlet”), Mia Hansen-Løve (“One Fine Morning”), Cristian Mungiu (“R.M.N.”), Joanna Hogg (“The Eternal Daughter”) and Jafar Panahi (“No Bears”) among those making a return.
“It would be disingenuous to say we don’t have favorites,” Lim says with a laugh. “I think we do, and I think the programmers and audiences do as well. But I’m especially excited this year by the numbers of newcomers to the festival. Whether it’s first-time filmmakers or people showing here for the first time, I think there’s a higher percentage than most years.”
Among those, Hernandez points to the likes of Davy Chou (“Return to Seoul”), Alice Diop (“Saint Omer”), Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”) and Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka (“Stonewalling”) as newcomers of particular note. “There are quite a lot of filmmakers who might be new to New York audiences, who are one, two or three films into their career, and we’re really excited to be able to give them this sort of platform with their films,” he says.
Thinking back to the festival’s early days in the 1960s, it’s hard to imagine its founders would have predicted how propitious its timing would prove to be. NYFF’s position as an early fall festival, falling right after the Toronto-Telluride-Venice trifecta, means it’s long been looked to as a strategic Oscar momentum-maker, and this year sees no shortage of films pegged as Oscar hopefuls, from opening-night film “White Noise” (Noah Baumbach) to closer “Armageddon Time” (James Gray). Rarely, however, does the festival seem over-eager to position itself as merely an awards season campaign stop, and its heavy emphasis on international and independent film — as well as the more experimental fare in its Current section — helps keep the festival’s artistic bona fides intact.
So too does its awareness of history. Appropriately for a festival that can boast of its early support for then-nascent filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Hou HsiaoHsien and Krzysztof Kieślowski throughout its history, NYFF takes its revival screenings more seriously than most. The 2022 festival includes rarely screened films such as Glauber Rocha’s “Black God, White Devil,” Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” and Cauleen Smith’s “Drylongso,” all presented in new restorations.
“I think it’s important for all festivals to not just be encapsulating the moment, but also looking back at the history of cinema,” Hernandez says. “And this is a section we’ve given a lot of thought to in the last few years: to not just celebrate and repeat the canon, but to challenge it and expand it.”
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