Richard Pena: World cinema’s high priest
Richard Peña has shaped the discourse around cinema for three decades. We caught up with him in Mumbai
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In 2012, Richard Peña stepped down as head of the New York Film Festival (NYFF). He had been the chairman of its selection committee for almost 25 years, taking over from Richard Roud in 1988, and championed key works by directors like Jia Zhangke and Olivier Assayas. Equally important was his long stint as programme director of New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. By organizing retrospectives and becoming an early promoter of directors largely unknown to US audiences—including heavyweights such as Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodóvar and Hou Hsiao-hsien—Peña helped shape the critical discourse around cinema in the US and around the world.
Peña, who’s of Spanish and Puerto Rican descent, was in Mumbai last week for “A Panorama of Latin American Cinema”, a lecture series organized by the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and Columbia Global Center. The talks he gave before each screening offered a glimpse of his formidable knowledge of, and palpable enthusiasm for, cinema. His evocation of Latin American culture, history and politics made for an uncommonly rich viewing experience; for instance, his clarification that the word “entranced” in Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth indicates violent convulsion, not a dream-like state, completely altered one’s understanding of the film.
We caught up with Peña between screenings and asked him about his curatorial career and the state of cinephilia. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You discussed how the idea of Third Cinema—a developing world cinema proposed as an alternative to the dominant US-Euro-centric cinema—gained traction in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Do you think this is valid any more?
The whole idea of film industries has come under such a challenge because, with digital production, there are so many mini-cinemas out there. I think the idea in Latin America at the time, certainly in Brazil, was to create this very strident national cinema that would turn its back on Hollywood. No one actually believes that can happen, or that it’s even necessary nowadays, because now you can make your films without that.
I don’t think that Third Cinema ever really happened, nor will it happen. There was a moment when there was going to be this alternative cinema—the 1960s were a very heady time—but it didn’t pan out.
Of the many directors and national cinemas you promoted, were there any you were particularly proud to bring to wider notice?
I was very proud of my association with Abbas Kiarostami. When we took a chance on him, he was really unknown. Jia Zhangke, the great Chinese director, was another person we really brought along. Then there were the non-Asian directors—Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Catherine Breillat. I sometimes say it’s like playing the stock market: You buy stock, and you see if it grows.
Any stock that grew more than you’d have expected?
I was amazed how high and fast Iranian cinema grew. In 1991-92, when we began to show it, it was really unknown—no one had any idea Iran made movies, let alone that they were very good. And then, by 1997, there were five Iranian films that were released commercially in New York City. That year at NYFF, we sold out the Iranian screenings very quickly. Seeing that happen was very gratifying.
Has the nature of cinephilia changed in the last few years, from being something you share with other people to something you acquire on your own?
I think it has. Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have written about this. Earlier, people came together to see films because they wanted to see what the films were about. Now, there’s a certain kind of cinephilia that’s more like collecting—people don’t have a real commitment to what they’re seeing. “I’ve seen 88 of the 115 Jess Franco movies”—so, who cares? But some people care a lot.
Bhau Daji Lad Museum is one of the few places in Mumbai that hosts discussion-led screenings. There’s no dedicated repertory house in the city. Do many of these still exist in the US?
Not any more. Most of the action has been taken over by non-profits like the Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Forum, and by home video. There used to be dozens of houses in New York. Boston, where I lived, had a great repertory scene; now there’s only one—The Brattle Theatre.
As you alluded, I think we’re going through a transition from collective viewing to individual viewing. I don’t think that’s a good development. There was something in the nature of cinema that created a collectivity, and I think that was a really interesting and important part of the cinematic experience.
Are there any new national cinemas you’re watching keenly?
There hasn’t been a national cinema that’s really risen for me in the last few years. I guess I was lucky to have seen the Iranians, the new Argentine cinema, South Korea. Israel has some wonderful film-makers, so does Palestine. But I don’t think there has been another meteor.
Latin America continues to be good. After about 1975-76, it became less interesting for me. Then, around 2000, a wave of films started coming from Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile. Curiously, Brazil hasn’t been part of this wave, maybe because television is so strong there.