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New York Film Festival Correspondences #1: A New Festival in a New Era

New York's premier film festival opens with a refreshed team and a new programming organization, but compromised by the pandemic.
Daniel Kasman
The Notebook is covering the NYFF with an on-going correspondence between critic Doug Dibbern and editor Daniel Kasman.
Above: Lovers Rock
Dear Doug,
I’m very happy to be corresponding with you about the New York Film Festival, but I must admit it feels very strange indeed to pick up the keyboard to write again about film. I haven’t done so since March, writing from True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri. The subsequent festivals at Cannes and Locarno were canceled; the film world is in complete disarray. I greatly miss going to the movie theaters—not just for the huge screen, but for the community encountered before, during, and after. Normally at this time of year, I would be seeing you at the Walter Reade to attend the press screenings for the NYFF. This—a communal art of shared experience— is what makes cinema, and part of what makes a film festival—as an intensified version of this experience—so essential to culture. The world outside the movie theater has been turned upside down in the meantime, with a descent into so much suffering and chaos, while at nearly the same time there have been truly breathtaking steps taken to make wide, urgent society-wide changes. The vitality of cinema seems far and away from most people’s minds, except those grievously impacted, as many are, by the extreme and continuing economic disruption of the industry. But film as an art of expressing and exploring human experience, and the cinema as a meeting place for people to share this art, rejoice in it or reject it but always passionately engage with it, is absolutely vital to this moment and to the future. Just because there are fewer movies out there, and so many closed cinemas, and so many disrupted festivals does not mean film and cinema are less important than they once were. It’s possible, in their scarcity and preciousness, that they might have even more. 
That’s my hope for this year’s New York Film Festival. It represents a refresh of this renowned event, with a rebuilt team, headed by Eugene Hernandez, and a reorganized and much more clear program than in previous editions. Gone is the baffling divide between the Main Slate and documentaries, and the more aesthetically and formally bold Projections sidebar has been expanded to include features and renamed Currents. This kind of program re-think is common when a new team (or in this case, partially new, as Dennis Lim is leading the programming and some of the selection committee have also been carried over) heads a festival: We saw it in Berlin this year, and will see it in Rotterdam next year, both festivals having exciting new leadership. It is too early to tell what effect this will have on the NYFF, especially given that this first year with the new team is happening under extremely compromised circumstances, but it couldn’t come at a better time: The New York Film Festival, whether it knows it or not, is having an identity crisis.
This festival used to serve as a gateway for the best of international art cinema to enter into the United States. In most recent editions, however, partially due to the surprising health of specialized distribution in this country and partially due to the way films are now premiered and bought at international festivals, many of the films selected by the festival came to New York with American distribution secured. No longer was the festival making a statement about what films should be seen more widely by an American audience; increasingly, the festival served primarily as a prestigious promotional waypoint for a film’s theatrical release. The chance that an audience member would attend the festival and see a film that was already scheduled to show at a New York theater within the next six months was high. What this means is that the festival, whether desirous of it or not, was serving an industry purpose for commerce more so than a curatorial one for the audience, as much of its program would have reached the same exact people regardless of whether the festival played the film or not. On a very basic level, this is why the Sundance and Toronto festivals are more exciting for the public attendees than NYFF has been, despite their higher crap-to-quality ratio: The encounter of an audience with a movie before its commercial fate has been decided. 
I have the sense that the Currents selection, like the not dissimilar Encounters section newly launched at Berlin this year, is intended to assuage this kind of criticism. In sheer quantity, it makes a statement: There are 25 films in the Main Slate, with hitmakers (in the artistic sense) like Tsai Ming-liang, Frederick Wiseman, and Chloé Zhao, and 13 features in Currents, alongside 8 programs of shorts. In terms of pure runtime, there are nearly as many films in this artier, more experimental and audience-demanding section as in the Main Slate. Along with a pointed emphasis on diversity across the 2020 festival, it is this remarkable effort to balance the big films (to generalize) and small (to generalize) that strikes me this year. As always with such festival divisions, the lines between these categories are a bit blurry. It’s admirable for the Main Slate to include Tsai’s extremely modest and deeply meditative Days, Victor Kossakovsky’s immersively bestial Gunda, and Cristi Puiu’s crushingly intellectual Malmkrog, three films many audiences might consider in the experimental corner of cinema. It is also great to see exciting new voices showcased there, like the thrillingly unclassifiable American film Slow Machine and the debut of Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, Beginning. Yes, a number of these films already have distribution, but the Currents sections provide a rich outlet for audience members looking for something unique to the festival. 
I’m happy to report that on the first day of the festival, I’ve already found something unique. While the bulk of the NYFF this year is taking place “virtually” online, many films are screening at drive-in theaters in the boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. This gesture isn’t only one for the big screen, but to make this truly a New York festival, and not Manhattan-centric. I caught the opening night film, Lovers Rock, at the Queens Drive-In, where the NYFF is in-residence at this MoMI, Rooftop Films, New York Hall of Science venture. In the car-equivalent of front row, seat reclined way back for the perfect view, window down on a the humid night, we joined dozens of other cars to watch the first part of director Steve McQueen’s five-film series, Small Axe, made for the BBC and distributed by Amazon in the US. A project made for streaming chosen to headline the festival is another kind of gesture, one which seeks to embrace cinema in all its forms—though the fact the NYFF is showing only three of the five films raises some questions that we won’t have answers for until the other films screen. Lovers Rock, despite lacking big stars or a grandiose vision, the hallmarks of typical red carpet gala fare, in fact turned out to be the ideal opening night event: It is truly a party film.
Set in 1980 during a house party among West Indian Londoners, its lean and mean sub-90 minute runtime, spartan dramatics—a few ladies, a few men, some squabbles and some very wonderful, woozy flirtation—and nearly wall-to-wall reggae soundtrack made for an evening of celebrating the kind of communal party that couldn’t be held these last months of the pandemic. While I strongly suspect Small Axe as a project will reach beyond the deliberately limited confines of this party, seeing Lovers Rock in isolation made for a wonderful—if pointedly fragile—utopia of Black vitality and happiness, created by the velvety, sensual photography of Shabier Kirchner and McQueen and Chris Dickens’s dance-transfixed editing. The evening was a hymn to good times, good music, beautiful people wearing their very best clothes, and the wonderful pocket universe that can be a good party, where partygoers can convince themselves that the outside world and all its troubles barely exist. There was obviously no opening night party of the festival this year, and McQueen’s film, with its two exquisitely drawn out, ecstatic centerpiece dance sequences set to the Revolutionaries’s “Kunta Kinte” and especially a slinky, sexy, dizzyingly romantic group rendition of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” felt like the next best thing. Each in our own cars, we may have been cordoned off from the other audience members, but the electricity was palpable—and not only because horns were honked at the exhaustive climax. I only wish the festival had encouraged us all to turn up our radios, tuned to the film’s soundtrack, so that we could share the music together.
There’s much more to come, some virtually, and some with such big-screen options for that strange breed of city-dweller that also owns (or, for the ambitious cinephile, rents) an automobile. Based on what we’ve seen premiere throughout this year, audiences will find something special. Since we’ve seen a number of films in the NYFF’s program at other festivals this year, and I can personally highly recommend to readers Days, The Salt of Tears, Time, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Undine, The Woman Who Ran, and Slow Machine. Films recommended by Notebook contributors include The Disciple, City Hall, Malmkrog, Notturno, and Hopper/Welles. Several of these I remember vividly seeing earlier this year in big theaters with a real community: Garrett Bradley’s Time, at True/False in Columbia, which took the whole audience’s breath away, and Days, a screening at which several audience members realized that Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-sheng was quietly smoking in the back of the room. Experiences like these are why I’m so eager to return to the cinema, and to return to festivals proper. I, like so many people these days, attend my own film festival at home each night, choosing the most alluring or compelling film among a slate that I have access to through the services to which I subscribe. I count myself lucky to have such access, but I cannot deny that I want more: A bigger screen, large, engaged audiences, navigating schedules and theaters to cram as many great-sounding movies as possible, and hearing about something special that is off-the-beaten-path and re-arranging everything in my day to see that movie. Attending an event whose constituent parts will never again be repeated. Driving to Queens yesterday evening to my the first movie since March with any semblance of a community was a moment both giddy and surreal—almost what I craved, but not quite what I remembered. What was missing, of course, was encountering friends and colleagues throughout the experience, people with whom to share the passion and ideas generated by a vibrant, condensed encounter with dozens of films. I am eager indeed to watch some of the year’s most anticipated movies during these weeks of the NYFF, but I cannot but admit that the prospect underlines just how much I miss traditional film festivals.
Whether holed up on my couch or behind the windows of my car, it's unlikely I'll physically see you this year, Doug. But however you're watching movies, I wish you a good NYFF, and look forward to reading your impressions of both the films and this strange new viewing experience.
Best,
Danny

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