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Offering an eclectic array of films, Film Comment Selects lets the magazine’s editors program everything from Holocaust documentaries to ghost stories, including 16 films without American distribution.
Now in its 11th year, Film Comment Selects, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center from February 18 to March 3, offers a typically provocative selection, mixing highbrow and lowbrow, old and new. The series generally serves up a few films too bloody for the New York Film Festival, yet this year’s series is centered around Claude Lanzmann’s The Karski Report, which plays for almost a week. Looking over the editors/programmers’ choices, two remarkable documentaries stand out.
Jia Zhang Ke’s I Wish I Knew tells the story of 20th-century Shanghai—with many glimpses of the present—through interviews and alluringly impressionist exteriors and movie clips. The most accomplished of Jia’s documentaries, it has a seductive force. While some details may be lost on spectators unfamiliar with Chinese history, Yu Lik-wai’s monochrome cinematography communicates the city’s appeal loud and clear.
The Karski Report is the second film made from outtakes of Lanzmann’s monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah. Extremely stark, it features an interview with Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who talks about his futile attempts to get Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. Lanzmann relies on Karski’s passionate testimony alone to sustain audience attention for 50 minutes, and he succeeds—The Karski Report makes riveting cinema out of nothing but talk.
Tribeca talked to Film Comment editor and Film Comment Selects programmer Gavin Smith in early February.
Gavin Smith: It’s a change of pace from our standard programming. Maybe our way of approaching things has become a formula. Those things are up for review in the coming years. Film Comment Selects has always stuck out as something that’s more than a series but not quite a festival. We’ve kind of tried to take advantage of that amibguity to persuade filmmakers or sales agents to give us films by either playing up the degree to which it's a festival or playing that down. Generally, we do pretend it’s a festival, even though it doesn’t have that word in the title.
People have written that it’s a “salon des réfusés” of films that didn’t get into the New York Film Festival. There’s an element of that—there are films that fall by the wayside that we’re lucky enough to be able to scoop up—but a bigger part of our programming comes from Toronto. It’s a valuable place to find new films that didn’t even get looked at by the New York Film Festival. We scour far and wide. Some of it’s based on what we’ve seen, some of it’s based on what other people who write for the magazine tell us about.
Tribeca: Do you think that a groupthink tends to develop around certain films at bigger festivals, which your series can counteract to some extent? I’m thinking particularly of Kinatay (The Execution of P.), which I saw at Film Comment Selects last year.
Gavin Smith: That might be more true of critics than programmers. Maybe when a film develops a bad rap, as Kinatay (The Execution of P.) did by the end of Cannes, other programmers aren’t so keen on it... Groupthink starts when there’s more than one person in the room. I think it’s interesting to have programming where everyone doesn’t have to agree with everyone else’s decisions. The other people in the process should be able to say, “That’s your choice. Fine.” They may make that choice because they haven’t seen the film or because they hate it. Most festivals probably do that now. That’s a little bit how we do things.
There are films in the lineup that I haven’t seen. I don’t have a problem delegating responsibility to other editors. There are several films Laura Kern selected. I’m very happy that there are films she stands behind.
Tribeca: Your programming often includes gory horror films and other kinds of work that tends to be shown infrequently at the Film Society. Are you consciously trying to fill these gaps?
Gavin Smith: We all like those kinds of films at the magazine. Unconsciously, there’s a bias against showing them at the Film Society. By default, it’s geared towards showing more thoughtful, worthy cinema and against more subversive, genre-oriented cinema. We do an annual horror series, but I’m behind that too. We like Film Comment Selects to represent the whole continuum of movies, from films that are challenging and tough on an audience to films that are more in the realm of entertainment. Both categories often fall outside the realm of what the New York Film Festival would see.
Tribeca: Well, I really like the fact that you would show The Karski Report and Insidious. I can’t picture the New York Film Festival ever showing a film by the director of Saw.
Gavin Smith: Every now and then, the New York Film Festival does something surprising. I think there’s going to be more midnight movie programming going on here in the future. That may spill over into the festival. The problem with the festival is that it’s a very small selection. Much as I like Insidious, I can’t claim it’s one of the 25 best films of the year, but if I were on the New York Film Festival selection committee, I’d be trying to show it somehow.
Tribeca: Has your attitude towards the series changed now that you’re working as an on-and-off programmer for the Film Society?
Gavin Smith: No. It reflects the range of things I want to do. You can take any film and extrapolate a series I’d like to do. I’d like to pack it with as many discoveries as I can. It really matters to me that there’s an audience for these films. I don’t just want to do a program that makes us look good. There have been times when I’ve considered showing a film, but I’ve changed my mind because I couldn’t figure out how to bring an audience in.
This year, it was hard to get everything we wanted. It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes a long time for people to say yes. It’s nerve-wracking. Once you get one or two key films that you’re looking for, everything else seems to slide in place. When you’re waiting a long time for those films, it’s hard to know what else you need, so you start asking for everything else under the sun. At some point, we thought, “God, almost two thirds of what we’re showing is from Asia.” Now it doesn’t seem so titled in that direction, but there’s a lot from Northern Europe. Those are two things that seem imbalanced this year.
The programs I do outside of Film Comment Selects are built around an idea or theme that feels right for the moment, like Ken Russell’s ‘70s films or the Cannon Films series. They were things I’d been thinking about for years. I’d had a rich dialogue with other programmers here, like Scott Foundas. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other. Sometimes it goes beyond that. Film Comment Selects is more like a kid in a candy store grabbing everything that looks good. When I do regular programming, it’s not so intuitive. After the initial idea, it’s easy. I think it would be good to show the films Ken Russell made from 1969 to 1977. You get a list of them, and you try to book them. There’s not a lot of programming involved, but it comes in the earlier stage of realizing that you could draw an audience.
Opportunism is an under-recognized facet of programming. I don’t know if other people would use that word. I think [Film Forum programmer] Bruce Goldstein has a much more systematic vision of what he wants to show. He doesn’t have to be so opportunistic in his choices.
Tribeca: I also wanted to get your thoughts on a couple of films that, for me, really stand out. What excited you about I Wish I Knew?
Gavin Smith: Well, it was a film that everyone liked at Cannes, but no one felt it was one of the top tier films. It was always in the middle and stayed there. That’s why it was never on the New York Film Festival’s radar. I think anything Jia Zhang Ke makes demands to be shown. Even if I didn’t like it, I think we should show it. It’s another step in the direction he’s been going in. I look forward to seeing it again. I didn’t really feel like we had a proper series until it was confirmed.
Gavin Smith: That’s an example of a film that I also thought was crucial. You can tell because we’re showing it so many times. It hasn’t really been shown much. No one seems to be aware of it.
Tribeca: I first became aware of it when I looked up Claude Lanzmann in Wikipedia after seeing Shoah last year.
Gavin Smith: Me too! I began chasing it down at that point. When I saw Shoah last December, it had an enormous impact on me. I thought we ought to create a sidebar to its rerelease by showing all of his films. Because of their length, that didn't really work out. We’re showing all three of the post-Shoah films, which are sort of appendices. I like that idea. We weren’t sure that Lanzmann would come. We’re happy that he’s able to do so. You can see why the interview isn’t in Shoah, but it’s really something.