Interview with Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University Richard Peña

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Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

From 1988 to 2012, he was the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival. A frequent lecturer on film internationally, in 2014-2015 he was a Visiting Professor in Brazilian Studies at Princeton, and in 2015-2016 a Visiting Professor in Film Studies at Harvard. In May, 2016, he was the recipient of the “Cathedra Bergman” at the UNAM in Mexico City, He currently hosts WNET/Channel 13’s weekly Reel 13.

What’s the story behind your interest in films? Was it a childhood dream to carve a career in this field?

I grew up in NYC, which was even a better city for cinephiles back then than it is now. By the time I was in college I knew that whatever I did, it would involve cinema, and indeed a childhood dream was achieved when I was asked to work at the NYFF.

Richard Peña, the former programmer of the New York Film Festival, successfully opened audiences’ horizons and introduced them to different cinemas in the world such as African, Taiwanese, South Korean, Polish, Hungarian, Romania, Arab, Cuban and Argentine

Image from the movie "The Goddess"
Image from the movie “The Goddess” © 1934 Lianhua Film Company − All right reserved.

You helped make New York’s film culture more cosmopolitan and multicultural. You have organized retrospectives on internationally acclaimed directors including major film series devoted to cinema from various countries. What were some of the biggest challenges?

I worked as a professional film programmer from 1980 until 2012 (the first 8 years were at the Art Institute of Chicago). The great majority of this time was during the “celluloid era,” which meant that practically everything we screened was screened on 35mm celluloid. Back then, when I proposed a major film series to, say, the Polish government, they would have to create new, subtitled 35mm prints. That could be very expensive. Now, most restorations are done digitally, and it’s much cheaper to create and ship hard drives.

Renowned film studies professor and film curator Richard Peña helped audiences deepen and discover classic and new directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, Pedro Almodovar, Abbas Kiarostami, Lars Von Trier, Jia Zhangke, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Watch Xiao Wu online at home and tune in online as expert Richard Peña discusses one of the most impressive directorial debuts in 21st-century Chinese cinema.

Can you share with us your curatorial philosophy and vision?

Hmmm…what I could say is that I hate “black holes” in film history. To stick with Chinese cinema: while there had retrospectives of pre-1949 Chinese cinema, and the emergence of the “Fifth Generation” shone a bright spotlight on contemporary work, there had been little work of the so-called “Seventeen Years.” So I tried to see as many films from that period as possible, and learn about those years, and this eventually led to a major series on “The Seventeen Years” at the New York Film Festival in 2010.

In 1992, he created with the Spanish Ministry of Culture the annual “Spanish Cinema Now” series at Lincoln Center, and in 1996 “Rendez-vous with French Cinema”. He is also responsible for creating the annual New York Jewish Film Festival

Image from the movie "Yellow Earth"
Image from the movie “Yellow Earth” © 1984 − All right reserved.

Professor Richard Peña organized with the China Film Archive the first major U.S. screening for a collection of about 20 films made in the early years of China’s state-run studio system.

You’ve been to China many times. What has impressed you the most over the years?

On a personal level, my friends. Beyond that, when you are in China you feel history happening all around you. The transformation of China from when I first visited in 1986 and now is beyond words.

What do you think is the role of Chinese directors of the sixth and fifth-generation (such as Chen Kaige and Jia Zhangke) that highlighted periods of transitions and social changes, and what is the weight they have in sharing to the rest of the world their point of view about rural and urban China?

Work by these filmmakers and others have often challenged what we might call the “official” narrative of contemporary China. We know about China’s extraordinary economic boom; who are the victims, or losers, of that boom? To experience that we have to see XIAO WU or GHOST TOWN.

Prof. Peña is considered a living encyclopedia of film history. He frequently lectures internationally on a wide variety of film topics

Image from the movie "Pickpocket"
Xiao Wu © 1997 − All right reserved.

Do you think these films, with their universal language through the human emotions, while maintaining the uniqueness of the author, had helped the audience across the world to understand more about China and Chinese culture? In the era of globalization, does cinema manage to be a tool capable of preventing or stemming prejudices?

Don’t know how “universal” their language is. My sense is that the sensibilities of a Jia Zhang-ke or a Lou Ye, are close to their contemporaries around the world. The stories they tell are readily comprehensible to, say, Brazilians, because Brazilians also understand the consequences of unequal development.

Film transcends culture and borders in a way poetry and painting cannot” – Professor Richard Peña

In the last 40 years China has changed enormously, in numerous aspects, as well as from the point of view of film productions. As Professor of Professional Practice in the Film department at Columbia University, can you share with us what are the main reasons and curiosities of young people who approach and start studies about Chinese cinema? How have the tastes of the new generations and audiences changed over the years?

I believe that most of my students over the years in my Chinese cinema class come to the class wanting to learn more about, and understand, China—the biggest international story of the past 50 years. Ideally, they then come to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary beauty and brilliance of the films I show. Over the years, certain films have spoken more to some students than others. A film such as Wu Yanggong’s GODDESS (1934) is seen now as a remarkably prescient feminist work, one that contemporary audiences can appreciate.

Richard Peña attended the New York Film Festival, when he was just 12 years old, to view Erich von Stroheim’s movie The Wedding March

Image from the movie "Suzhou River"
Image from the movie “Suzhou River” © 2000 Coproduction Office − All right reserved.

Can you share with us any meaningful story related to a Chinese movie, from the backstage of a festival or a conversation with a Chinese director?

Once I was having dinner with a Chinese director in Beijing, and as we were finishing he invited me to a screening of his film, a film which I knew was banned in China. I expressed my surprise that it was screening, and he explained it was being shown at a bar, on DVD. We went to the screening, and there were about 150 people there, who engaged with the filmmaker in a debate on the film which unfortunately I couldn’t understand. No one seemed especially concerned that the bar would be raided. It was a bit of “theater”: we’ll pretend to ban your film, and you’ll pretend to accept that, but of course we know you’ll show the film in these semi-clandestine circumstances.

I’m often disappointed that more people don’t take advantage of the enormous, voluptuous banquet the cinema is offering up — such a range of styles, themes, subjects, approaches — more than enough to delight and intrigue every viewer. Sadly, most seem satisfied with only the “fast food” offerings on display at our multiplexes or on our TV screens.”  – Professor Richard Peña

It was often pointed out that the lack of access to content was the main cause of ignorance and prejudice. But we have seen that it doesn’t work that way. What do you think of the role of platforms such as Netflix and Amazon both as promotion and for the fruition of international film and television of small and large productions on the themes of identity, diversity, and inclusion? What additional role in the times of the pandemic and the lockdown? What side effects in an every month huge expanding catalog?

This is really a complex question. I’m not a great fan of the platforms: it’s nice they contain an international assortment of films and series, but the more they produce international works, the more they flatten out and homogenize that material. Their documentaries at this point seem completely interchangeable; the platform-decreed form overwhelms whatever content. Also, what the platforms provide in terms of access, we lose in terms of the communal experience of cinema. I think Marshall McLuhan was correct when he said that cinema was a “hot” medium and TV was a “cool” medium.

Featured image by Ulysse del Drago, photo courtesy of Richard Peña
Special thanks to Jeremy Willinger and China Institute (New York)


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