Interview With Richard Peña About World Cinema

Publication Type

"Art is not democratic - not everyone has talent. It's important for us [as curators] to look for that talent as openly and without prejudice as we can."

The Global Perspectives on Society (GPS) Film Series at NYU Shanghai closed on April 29 with Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, an acclaimed portrait of exploitation in modern day China. The film was introduced by Professor Richard Peña, who became one of the foremost proponents of world cinema over the past 30 years as the former program director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center and director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

Dr. Fareed Ben-Youssef, GPS teaching fellow at NYU Shanghai, conducted a wide-ranging interview with Peña that explores the career and influences of featured Chinese director, Jia Zhangke. Together, they also discussed Peña's curatorial philosophy and vision for one of the world’s most renowned film festivals.

Following the trailer of A Touch of Sin, Peña broke down how the director Jia Zhangke came to be known as "one of the most important filmmakers in the world." He situated Jia within broader trends in Chinese cinema following the 1980s and details how the filmmaker created an influential brand of cinema that focused on urban life in China today.

Peña then provided insights into his own role in finding luminaries of world cinema, as well as the New York Film Festival's selection process. He framed cinema as an inherently globalized medium, as since the beginning in the early 20th century, "films made in China could be shown in Peru." Moving to our present moment, he  defined today's idea of "world cinema" as a form that breaks through national and regional boundaries.

Peña went on to consider New York City's influence on his programming and how he sought to engage the city's various immigrant communities. Recounting  his showcasing of Iranian film at Lincoln Center, he discussed how film festivals were initially conceived as a mode of cultural diplomacy.

He pondered the educative dimension of programming as well as the distinction between a curator and a critic - the former, he argued, needs to have historical perspective. To illustrate his curatorial approach, Peña went on to situate A Touch of Sin within a hypothetical program at Lincoln Center and spoke to the film's relationship with classic Chinese martial arts film like King Hu's A Touch of Zen.

He proceeded to talk about how Chinese films such as Zhang Yimou's Red Sorgham featured prominently in the early portion of his career. Ben-Youssef then shifted attentions to the later period of his tenure at Lincoln Center to question Peña on the perceived impact of 9/11 attacks on his own festival.

Their dialogue closed with a consideration of how university screenings might push debates beyond film studies, with Peña recounting his own experience introducing A Touch of Sin, a major work of Chinese cinema, to NYU Shanghai.