The Latino behind New York Film Festival bids farewell after 25 Years, goes out with a bang


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 has 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.

To read the rest of this story, visit Fusion (ABC/Univision), where it was originally published. 

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