Thursday, April 21, 2016

SFIFF59—The Evening Class Interview With Rachel Rosen, Director of Programming

Short of a decade ago, in celebration of the 50th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), Russell Merritt conducted interviews for the San Francisco Film Society's Oral History Project, which included a sprawling 78-page conversation with SFIFF head programmer Rachel Rosen, fascinating for its description of her early years at the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), how its infrastructure was organized in the early '90s, and tasty reminisces of her colleagues and peers. At the time Rosen and Merritt conducted this interview, she was programming for the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Ever since returning to SFFS in 2009, I have been meaning to sit down to talk with her. Earlier this year we met at Mission Chinese to share a meal and catch up.

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Michael Guillén: In your interview with Russell Merritt for the San Francisco Film Society's Oral History Project you said, "A film festival is a dialogue between the programmer and the audience." I'd like to pursue the idea of programmers' relationships with their audiences and who in the world might be the "New Audience"?

Rachel Rosen: Good question.

Guillén: So let's begin by setting some definitions. Do you distinguish between programming and curating and, if so, where do you identify yourself within that spectrum?

Rosen: I have not thought at all about what the differences between those two things might be. Curating is the word you use in the art world and programming the word you use in the film world. That's the main difference. The missions of a film festival are slightly different than the mission of an art gallery or museum, which might be what you're actually asking me? Meaning, in the art world the idea of curation is that you have an opinion, you're making a statement by what you choose, and people can follow it or not. Programming for a film festival involves creating a sense of community so it involves acknowledging that you have an audience and that you're programming to an audience. A museum person would say, "I'm programming to an audience of international art connoisseurs," whereas many film festivals are programming beyond the communities they're in or even the audience that comes to the festival; but, they're still programming in a way that acknowledges audience a little bit more than art purists.

Guillén: And isn't your relationship with audience more direct as a film programmer? You often hear immediate feedback from your SFIFF audiences? They don't just sit passively and watch. They tell you what they like, what they don't like, what they're excited about that you've included in your program and what has disappointed them to not find included. So I guess when I'm linking the curatorial to programming, it's in this sense: how you rudder, how you navigate, all these different constituencies and their likes and dislikes, negotiated through your own taste. It strikes me that each member of the SFIFF programming team have distinguished tastes, often variant, but frequently in consensus. For example, in the 10 years I've been attending SFIFF, it's become clear how important the documentary is to your festival. Is that because of you and your interest in documentaries?

Rosen: Again, with any festival there are at least three things going on. One is just the history. SFIFF has an international history, a very broad history. Of course, there are individual preferences—preference is the wrong word—areas of specific interest and influences for each programmer. My background is in documentary. I love all types of films but I'm super attracted to nonfiction storytelling. Then, whatever the organization has decided its mission and direction should be.

Guillén: That's what I was getting at. You started with SFIFF in 1991 when you were making Serious Weather, your documentary short on tornado chasers that served as your Masters Thesis at Stanford, and then you slowly winnowed your way into the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). How many SFFS Directors have you worked under while programming SFIFF?

Rosen: Executive Directors I'm not sure I can even count. Peter Scarlett was both the Executive Director and the Artistic Director when I started. At a certain point, the Board brought in other Executive Directors like Barbara Stone, Amy Leissner, Roxanne Captor-Messina, and then I went away. Then there was Graham Leggat, Steve Jenkins as an Interim, then Bingham Ray, then Melanie Blum as an interim, then Ted Hope. Let's say, officially eight.

Guillén: Wow, that's quite a history. Is the programming that you and your team do for SFIFF delimited in any way by civic pressures, whether political or financial? Do you get any funding from the City?

Rosen: I wish. That's a more European concept, right? And it's got its great points and its bad points. All you have to do is take a look at what's going on in Busan to see what the nadir of local civic support for a film festival can turn into. We get some limited support from the Film Commission….

Guillén: But not enough that they can in any way tell you what to do or what to program?

Rosen: For U.S. festivals, that kind of pressure tends to come more from sponsors. That's an accommodation that a lot of festivals have to make.

Guillén: After a stint away working in L.A., you came back to SFIFF in 2009 when Graham Leggat was at the helm. As I had only been focusing on film since 2006, the excited news that you were returning caught my interest.

Rosen: [Laughing] Like, "Who is this lady? And what difference does it make?"

Guillén: Well, I wanted to know what you had done in the past that had made people so happy that they were excited upon your return. This was about the time that I was getting to know the Bay Area programmers and starting to distinguish their curatorial styles. Again, I say curatorial in terms of decisions informed by critical practice. There are hundreds and hundreds of movies that can be chosen at any given time for a film festival, but it's your job to decide—based, as you said earlier, on the audience you know—which film they will take a chance on, appreciate, follow up on from—let's say—earlier films you have shown by a certain filmmaker at earlier editions. It just so happened that it was the programming team you headed under Graham Leggat that became the team I could observe. Over the years you've all developed your styles, your choices. I began to know which films Linda Blackaby would promote. I grew fond of Rod Armstrong's genre programming. But it was Sean Uyehara's signature that became most pronounced for me for actively courting a new youthful audience. I don't mean to be ageist about it—it wasn't just an outreach to youth—but, he actively encouraged a new audience that looked at and applied film in different ways, either through multi-media or social setting. His teamings of silent film with contemporary musicians were engaging experiences that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't, but often worked exceptionally well—The Denque Fever event remains one of my top highlights of all my years attending SFIFF—so I'm curious, with his moving on to his new position with the Headlands, what will happen to that dimension at the festival?

Rosen: We'll hire someone who has those abilities in programming, events and partnerships. Sean did a lot of programs that were more than just the film on the screen. Some had a performative element, the events part, but he also really drew on facets of the community, whether the artistic community or other organizations, and was very in tune with what was happening in galleries and dance, resulting in partnerships that made for more individualist programming.

Guillén: Having grown up with your audience, do you think that such performative and partnership-oriented programming is more desired to offset, let's say, what's come to pass with increased access to home entertainment? Is the event aspect of film festival programming becoming a requisite value added?

Rosen: I don't know if it's requisite. I believed in the excitement of event programming before the advent of the small screen age or the second small screen age, whatever we want to call it. The first in the official string of music and film programming that we did was before I left to Los Angeles; we did a Tom Verlaine program with some avant garde shorts and then the next year Doug Jones and I, mostly Doug, put together the Yo Lo Tengo event. Being there and experiencing that is, for me, a more personal charge. I'm not pretending I know what the answer is to keeping younger audiences interested in traditional film—it's probably the problem I'm most interested in figuring out—but, what I've seen and come to believe is that along with this "I can get anything I want anytime I want on my home screen" there are people who will buy into special events, not necessarily even film events, they can be restaurant pop-ups, and are all a part of a popular phase where people feel they are getting a unique experience. Creating those kinds of experiences can bring audiences to films that wouldn't get an audience without them.

Guillén: Do you have any way of gauging audience demographics? Do you have someone standing there counting how many redheads there are in the crowd?

Rosen: We've done some surveys over the years but we haven't done one recently. With anyone who buys a ticket online, we can generally gauge where in the area they come from, so we can do geographics. But other surveys we haven't done for a couple of years.

Guillén: The very nature of cinephilia seems to have morphed in the past decade or so, evolving from individual if eccentric pursuits of rare films to social outings with others to observe event-films. How is your programming affected by this increased social element of viewing film?

Rosen: Festivals have the advantage of already being social activities so the idea of someone wanting to go out where there will be people in a lively environment is something festivals already have. I think the main thing we have to work on is the way we talk about movies. At a Film Society meeting just recently I was saying that festivals have spent decades of telling people, "Of course we like this film because we should." I'm not going to criticize that approach; it was the right thing to do for the time, right? But now it behooves people like me to talk more about the pleasure that movies bring audiences, instead of their importance. We used to talk about films and say, "This is an important film and you should want to see it." That was enough of a motivator for people who love film. But "should" doesn't work the same anymore. People don't define themselves intellectually in the same way. It's a much more populist world now or maybe I've just become more attuned to that? Now folks say, "Screw that. I want to do something that I'm going to enjoy. I work too hard."

I actually program because I enjoy it. I'm not trying to feed someone something because it's good for them; I'm trying to share something I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of. How can I communicate that? Noah Cowan's been helpful with a lot of that by describing films in a way that are welcoming to people who might feel like they might not understand. I remember hearing someone talk about avant garde film and saying, "People don't like them because they don't get them." I have felt that myself watching experimental film. But the point is you do get it; whatever's on the screen, you're getting, whatever it is, and you would actually enjoy it if you worried less. It's not like a New York Times crossword puzzle. If you can just let yourself have the experience, whatever it is that it's supposed to be, you will enjoy it more as a viewer.

Guillén: After you've set up relationships between your audiences and certain filmmakers, how important is it for you to provide the chance for audiences to see their lesser work?

Rosen: One of the biggest programming questions I remember grappling with was regarding a film from a filmmaker whose work we had always shown because we loved him, but who then made a film that we didn't think was that good. We knew our audiences were going to want to see it and would want to make up their own minds, but we were not fully resolved about it. The tendency is to show it to present a complete selection of a filmmaker's work; but, putting something in a program is like me saying, "It's worth your time." The trick is then to write about it in a way that doesn't mislead. It's a thorny issue and I don't know if I have the exact answer. It depends on the filmmaker and the film.

Guillén: Whatever disappointment I might feel about your not programming a film I've been anticipating is usually countered by your team introducing me to a new film or filmmaker I've never heard of before. I imagine that's a constant negotiation?

Rosen: Yeah! We want to do both, right? We want to make discoveries but we also want to support established filmmakers. You don't want to go too far towards the auteurist end, but you also don't want to be interested in only new filmmakers. You don't want to forget filmmakers who are making the third or fourth film in their career.

Guillén: At what point do you let a filmmaker go?

Rosen: I've never said to a filmmaker, "We're letting you go." It's always a film-by-film basis, right? We engage with each film on its own merits. Of course, it's part of someone's career. It might just happen that you engage with two or three films in a row, but then with the fourth film you might think there's another film by a different filmmaker that audiences will engage with more. Time passes by and you may suddenly realize that you have not included some filmmaker's work for some time.

Guillén: Has San Francisco's huge tech constituency affected your programming in any noticeable way where you've had to book certain films?

Rosen: Again, not "had" to, want to. Yeah, of course, it's a major community in San Francisco. We want to engage with them. But we want to do it in a way that's satisfying for us and them. It's a question of finding what we can bring to the conversation that makes sense for us and for them. As with anything, there are tons of issues that people in San Francisco are interested in and we can find a documentary about any of them, but we also want it to be cinematic. That doesn't mean "beautiful"; but means that filmmakers are using the tools of the medium in ways that represent the choices that can be made, instead of as tools that simply convey an intended message.

Guillén: I'm curious what role a film festival takes in encouraging a certain attention or aptitude for socially-conscious documentaries, many which impact audiences at festivals but are all-but-forgotten during awards season, often failing at even securing theatrical distribution.

Rosen: The answer to that question would be as different as the kind of film festivals that exist in the world. It's not a monolithic effort. Usually festivals involve some mixture of possible reasons why you would want to have a festival; but, the balance is completely different. Some festivals are about civic pride and not so much about filmmaking. We're generally a big city film festival, but we're also a film organization. The best case scenario is that we present something beautifully made about issues we think are important; but, of course, we don't always get perfect packages like that. For me, the important thing is keeping the door open to different kinds of filmmaking while seeking out a balance. I wouldn't want to show all social issue films. I would want to include a film like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan (2012), which is more experiential; but, I wouldn't want to show all experiential films. Perhaps that's a vague answer?

Guillén: Not at all! I hear you loud and clear. SFIFF diversifies its programming to cater to different groups. You're going to have activist groups who come to watch films at the festival and they're going to watch movies like Stanley Nelson's documentary on the Black Panthers. You're going to have Black Panthers coming to watch a movie on Black Panthers! I found it equally fascinating as the film itself to watch that audience as they confronted Stanley. Those are the moments that I look for and enjoy in film festivals.

Rosen: Me too!

Guillén: The shift to new venues located in the Mission, namely the Alamo Drafthouse, raises the civic responsibility film festivals have in making the public feel welcome to neighborhoods that are new to them, and the risks involved.

Rosen: That's sometimes where the funders' and the audiences' needs diverge.

Guillén: Which can be the ground for heartbreak. How does it work within your team to choose films for the SFIFF program and to insure diversified programming?

Rosen: We meet once a week and we talk about what we're seeing. If one of us sees something that the rest of us can't see and they love it, it's in. Sometimes we'll try and get another copy so someone else can see it. But the hard conversation is when you say, "I have this really interesting but slightly flawed apple" and someone counters, "Oh, I've seen this really interesting but slightly flawed orange." Which are we going to show? That's where externals factor in. "Okay, we already have 10 oranges from Chile, so maybe we should try the apple from Poland instead?" It's also a process of getting to know the people you're programming with. I remember when I first came back I was in Toronto and had just basically met Rod Armstrong. Doug Jones, with whom I'd programmed for a decade, was also there. He was still working in L.A. We came out of a movie we all three had seen and Doug would make a certain sound and I knew exactly what he meant. But Rod would be describing a movie I hadn't seen and talking very eloquently about it, but I still couldn't get a sense of the movie ... until we had worked together for a few years. We see enough of the same films and talk about them that we've developed a language amongst ourselves. I know what someone means when they say something.

Guillén: But it's the same with your audiences! We have to learn to understand what you mean when you introduce your films. I remember when I first heard Rod introduce films, I didn't quite connect. Yet I've seen him—almost more significantly than the rest of your programming team—really mature as someone who can frame and enthuse an audience by giving them just a little something to satisfy their mind. I'm always congratulating him on that because I don't for a moment think it's always an easy thing to do.

You're great with talent! I thoroughly enjoy your onstage interviews. Did that come to you naturally or did you learn it coming up through the ranks?

Rosen: My first job ever during college was as a celebrity publicist for a high-level, personal publicity firm. It was great because it helped me get the celebrity thing out of my system. My boss would be like, "Celebrities. They're just like you and me, except they aren't. They're like you and me in that they're going to meet a hundred people but will only have a connection and really like maybe one or two of those people. They're not like you and me in that they're going to have a whole bunch of people around them." She was so down-to-earth. The celebrities were either ill-behaved or well-behaved, such that you just get over the whole idea of celebrity as being anything in and of itself. You just learn to engage with people on a one-to-one level.

Photo: Courtesy of SFFS / Pamela Gentile.
Guillén: Has there been any particular interview that has thrilled you more than any other? You seemed awfully excited over Ewan McGregor. [Laughter.]

Rosen: That was because of how excited Mike Mills was! That was such an exciting moment because Ewan's flight had been delayed.

Guillén: It was great watching him stride down the aisle to join the two of you belatedly on-stage.

Rosen: For me, the most excruciating moment of the year was with Hao Hsiao-hsien with The Assassin. He is one of my favorite filmmakers; but, working with an interpreter, it's hard to have a real conversation. I tend to be more intimidated by directors I admire than actors but sometimes I have a hard time talking to actors because acting is so mysterious to me.

Guillén: Your questions are always informed. How much time do you spend researching to go into a conversation?

Rosen: I have plenty of time. Obviously, I start thinking about it when I'm watching movies. There are some movies where I'm like, "I've got questions for that guy!" I saw Joshua Oppenheimer when I was in L.A. this past weekend. We started talking about Act of Killing and I told him how I resisted that film when I saw it because I didn't want to understand what I was seeing. My emotional defense mechanism was to distrust the director. That's a film I came out of saying, "I've got questions for that guy." So I was happy I got to moderate a Q&A with him. All of my questions got answered.

Guillén: Do you ever approach your interviews with an intent to have them published? Are they recorded?

Rosen: No. I would love a Terry Gross style podcast, for sure, because that's having a conversation like we're having. You're "interviewing" me right now, but we're having a good conversation. I can ask a series of questions but when it gets to the point where one question leads into the next question, that's when it's really interesting. So, yeah, to answer your question, in my spare time I think about that. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Do you still concern yourself with programming national cinema(s) when so many films nowadays are funded multi-nationally? Or is that a capsized approach?

Rosen: Things that programmers need to watch out for is to make sure they're looking hard enough to find the films that are harder to find. I don't even mean that in any specific sense. There are decisions where it's like, "Oh yeah, that's easy. I know people will like that." But that's just part of our job. Another part of our job is doing that thing that I described that curators do, which is to say, "Yeah, but audience, there's this other thing happening that we think is worth you being exposed to that isn't as easy and that you're not asking for; but, that we think you might like anyway." It's easy in getting caught up in thinking, "Oh, we'll have a great audience for this!" Instead, it's more like, "Yeah, this will be harder to get people to come see." That doesn't correlate exactly to what you're talking about because I'm not saying, "It's hard to get people to come see Brazilian movies or whatever it would be."

Guillén: But you're not programming by quotas? You don't have to have so many Latin American films? You don't have to have so many French films?  You don't feel coerced by bean counters?

Rosen: No. We do lag in Scandanavian cinema. It hasn't been a particular area of strength at the festival. When we end up with more films than can fit in a program, I have to resist the urge to say, "That will get taken care of at the Jewish Film Festival. Or Frameline. So we should find a home for this other thing…."

Guillén: Do you carry on conversations with other community-based film festival programmers about who will show what film when?

Rosen: That's a dangerous place to go. I'll have conversations with filmmakers who want to be represented in multiple festivals, but I don't think festival programmers should get into a game of trading movies with each other, or playing tit for tat.

Guillén: I remember in one of my conversations with Graham Leggat he made it very clear that SFIFF was not a premiere-oriented festival.

Rosen: No, we're not a market festival. That's a very different thing.

Guillén: And yet SFFS does develop talent and has helped fund several films through various stages of production. Does this insure that they'll be seen by your audiences first?

Rosen: With us it's a little different than what you're describing. The Filmmaker 360 department has been really successful in cultivating talent, but it's not that we're doing it to guarantee premieres at SFIFF. In fact, there was some frustration in not being able to show some of those films in the festival because their trajectory was Sundance to Cannes, which is amazing, right? But because of Cannes' rules, they usually ask that the film not be shown at another U.S. festival until after it has screened at Cannes. So SFIFF didn't show Beasts of the Southern Wild. We didn't show Fruitvale Station. Even though these were films we had worked with and cultivated carefully. Again, for us we would like to be able to publically celebrate those films that we've invested in through exhibition, but it's not about doing it so that we can have something we can show first. It's about wanting to invest in filmmaking first so that they can make their films but not so that we can have a pipeline of "our" filmmakers. We do ask to have the first opportunity to screen them in the Bay Area, which seems fair. But if a filmmaker we're working with is invited to Cannes, no one is going to say, "No. We gave you money. You have to show it at the San Francisco International Film Festival instead." What's best for those films is what's best for us in the long run. We would just like them to coincide as frequently as possible.

Guillén: Does the SFIFF programming team divvy up attending festivals as you go scouting for films for SFIFF?

Rosen: We did have contacts, in terms of sales agents and national distributors, so that we're not confusing them with more than one person from the festival contacting them. There are certain festivals that we've been in the habit of going to. Rod and I both go to Toronto. Sean and I both go to Sundance. I've been going to Busan (though that won't happen again). We'll see what happens when we hire the new programmer.

Guillén: How much do cultural institutes and consulates influence programming?

Rosen: For us, they mainly help with guests, bringing talent to the festival. Of course, it varies from country to country how much money they have, and whether their governments believe in supporting the arts. Some, like France, we've been showing lots of French films for a long time and they have an entire agency designed to support filmmaking and to promote their films abroad. France has more developed programs, whereas some other countries can only offer support by being enthusiastic and maybe offering a cocktail at the consulate. It really depends on the national cinema. It's great working with them. You also observe how some cultural organizations are invested in promoting certain films that might not be the films that we want to show. They have certain films that they're mandated to support within certain parameters. The cross-national filmmaking world that we live in now has also complicated it for those agencies. Sometimes the films don't quite fit into certain parameters.

Guillén: Well, Rachel, to wrap up here. I can't say that we've really come up with any clear conception of the "New Audience", but as SFIFF shifts to its new Mission venues in its 59th edition, is there anything that you will be watching out for? How would you in your programming practice answer that question for yourself?

Rosen: The only way I know how to do it is by experimenting. The programming team feels that Noah Cowan, our Executive Director, is open to that. When we did Docfest, I said, "These three movies are experiments. We're going to try this and see what happens. I want to tell you that I'm pretty sure one of these things isn't going to work. But how are we going to know if we don't try?" Again, it's the same balance questions. How do you find that "New Audience" without alienating the audience that supports you, but can't sustain the festival on its own? For me, the way is to keep trying things and seeing what works. We're not doing heavy data, but anecdotally you can see through ticket sales and audience comments what's striking a nerve and what isn't.