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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Road to BAMcinemaFest: A Conversation with the Curators

With the sixth annual BAMcinemaFest ready to launch tomorrow, we sat down with the team behind this year's program to discuss the changing face of the festival, the landscape of American independent cinema, and Brooklyn as a destination for filmgoers.

Participants: Gabriele Caroti (Director of BAMcinĂ©matek), Nellie Killian and David Reilly (Programmers), Ryan Werner (Programmer at Large)

How do you think the landscape of independent film has changed since BAMcinemaFest began in 2009?

Gabriele: I think the change has less to do with the films being made than with the state of exhibition. Six years doesn’t feel like a long time, but the rise of streaming has had a huge influence on the way people experience cinema.

David: It makes the experience of seeing a film premiere on the big screen, in a sold out house, feel even more unique and valuable. For so many films that end up with a VOD-only release, there is very little opportunity for audiences to see them on the big screen, the way they were meant to be seen. We’re excited to have so many films in the festival that don’t yet have distribution or may go the non-theatrical route, as this may be New Yorkers' only opportunity to see them in a theatrical setting.

Ryan: Because the cost of production is so much lower now, the independent film landscape can be kind of a mixed bag because you get so many movies being made, including a lot of movies that aren’t very good. But now people can also make very personal films without feeling they have to appeal to a wide audience.

Nellie: It's not only cheaper to make a film, but also because of the Internet, filmmakers can make something with full confidence that at least some people will see it, without fear that there won't be anybody there to unspool the reels. The means exist to get the film out there, it’s just about cultivating an audience.

Have the guidelines or standards used to select the films changed over the years?

Gabriele: Now it’s strictly American work, but when the festival started it wasn’t. We showed Mathieu Amalric’s TournĂ©e, and Weekend by the British filmmaker Andrew Haigh—which, interestingly, premiered at possibly the most American of festivals, SXSW. We've also showed repertory films from all over the world at the festival, from Visconti's The Leopard and Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl, to, most recently, Rossellini's curio The Machine that Kills Bad People. This year, our repertory titles are both American independent productions (and happen to be all shot in New York City). Foreign repertory cinema is our yearly program's bread and butter (and probably our whole staff's deepest love; it's definitely mine), so we have numerous opportunities to showcase that work.

David: The emphasis on American cinema has a lot to do with the growing profile of the festival. When BAMcinemaFest started, there was an identifiable gap in the New York festival scene: it may sound strange, but there wasn’t really a dedicated showcase for the best American independent films coming out of the spring festival circuit. We’ve been able to carve out a niche, and without BAMcinemaFest, many films may not gain the same level of profile that we feel they deserve.

Nellie: We allow the films that are out there to start the conversation. Any good art expands your mind and allows you to see other work in a better light. We’re guided by the films that we're watching instead of coming in with a notion of showing a specific kind of Brooklyn indie, or whatever stereotype people might have about independent film.

Can you talk more about the nuts and bolts of the programming process? When does it actually begin?

David: We’re seeing films all year round and always trying to stay on top of which exciting new projects are on the horizon. The programming process kicks off in earnest at Sundance, which all the members of our team travel to. This year, we were in constant contact throughout Sundance, where everyone was reporting back after every film they saw. You try to cover as many films as possible and have at least one set of eyes on everything in the Sundance lineup. And then as different people reported back on what they liked, other team members would make an effort to see those. Then after the festival we start to make inquiries, a few official invitations.

Ryan: And we also get a ton of submissions. Some of the most interesting films were in none of these festivals.

Anything in particular that really surprised you?

David: For the Plasma. That’s a submission from a very young first-time filmmaking team. We knew nothing about this film when we saw it, and it struck all of us as having a strong, distinct voice.

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan's For the Plasma

Nellie: Something, Anything is another movie that snuck up on us. It’s a genuinely sincere film, and it takes its earnestness to a place beyond where you think it’s going to go, with such sensitivity and feeling for its characters.

Talk a little bit about the repertory component of the festival. What was the inspiration behind programming classic films like Do the Right Thing, Stations of the Elevated, and the work of Les Blank alongside the new films in the main slate?

David: I really love that the tent poles of this year’s festival are films by two titans of American independent film: Richard Linklater and Spike Lee. Many BAMcinemaFest filmmakers grew up watching Linklater and Lee’s films, and they’ve clearly had such an influence on the attitude and style of American filmmakers making their first films today. Les Blank is in a similar vein: he’s a presiding influence on American documentary today, especially the style of nonfiction filmmaking that appeal to us for BAMcinemaFest. Les’ work is so much about sharing, about communal experience, that it’s such a perfect fit for an outdoor screening in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Manfred Kirchheimer's Stations of the Elevated

Nellie: All the repertory filmmakers are ones who have gone their own way in their careers. [Stations of the Elevated director] Manfred Kirchheimer has been making films for decades and is now in his 80s still making these beautiful urban documentaries. Les Blank was an ethnographer who really lived a life that was at one with his art. I think that very specific and personal approach to film language was something that really appealed to us across the entire program, not just the repertory part.

Gabriele: And with both Blank and Kirchheimer, there’s a true adoration of what they’re making and what they’re portraying—in a sense, they are their subjects.

Short films have always been popular at the festival. How did you go about programming them this year?

Nellie: This year we decided not to do a whole shorts program…

David: … not for lack of quality work, but it speaks more to the abundance of incredible feature films and our interest in finding unconventional pairings.

Nellie: I think with shorts programs, no matter how good the films are, they can be difficult to sit through. There’s a low probability that all the shorts will complement each other, and I don’t think it does them any favors to be in discordant programs. There were so many this year that paired nicely with features, in a way that the short and feature reinforced or enhanced each other.

David: I think it’s essential that there’s never an imbalance. The feature and the short it’s paired with should always reflect well upon each other. Generally I think the nature of the film industry has changed a lot in the past six years—the way shorts are made, and how filmmakers get them to be seen, has become so much less reliant on doing the festival circuit or theatrical screenings of any kind. It’s more common for filmmakers to put their work online immediately, and even Sundance posts a portion of their shorts programs on YouTube immediately after they premiere at the festival. It’s just a different model now, and I think it behooves us to be selective with shorts. This year’s selections are all New York or US or world premieres and the filmmakers have not yet put them online, so it’s still an exclusive experience to see them at BAM.

Any thoughts on how Brooklyn has changed as a film destination?

Nellie: With every year Brooklyn is seen as less peripheral to New York than it once was. You’ll find very few people who would say, “I don’t go to Brooklyn.” But six years ago I think people still said that with a straight face.

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