Gotham fest lauds arty fare

New Directors/New Films brings emerging talent to New York

What do Wim Wenders, Barbet Schroeder, Peter Greenaway, Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Steven Spielberg, Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt have in common?

They all got their start, at least as far as being exhibited in New York City, in the New Directors/New Films Film Festival (ND/NF), which for the past 40 years has been introducing New Yorkers to emerging film talent from all over the world.

This year, fest will spotlight such talent as J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”), Anne Sewtisky (“Happy Happy”), Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), Deron Albright (“The Destiny of Lesser Animals”) and others who’ve made some noise on the festival circuit. Event runs March 23-April 3.

The child of an unusual long-term alliance between two major metropolitan arts organizations, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), ND/NF was born out of a re-purposed grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Joanne Koch, former FSLC topper and current board member, recalls that the FSLC “had a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to screen films in the prisons,” but was looking for a way to mount a film program in the winter. So Koch and then-New York Film Festival honcho, the late Richard Roud, “sat down with (MoMA’s then department of film director) Willard Van Dyke at the Russian Tea Room and came up with the idea of New Directors. We told the NEA and they were happy to let us transfer the grant.”

With that began one of the longest-running contemporary film series in the U.S.

In the early days, the focus of ND/NF was on foreign pics.

“This is a time in New York when there was a great deal of interest in foreign-language films,” says Laurence Kardish, MoMA’s senior curator, department of film and media. “At this point the idea of American independent films hadn’t really taken off.” He adds that “basically there wasn’t the richness of American independent films, so the emphasis at first was on foreign-language films.”

The festival didn’t wait long to give New Yorkers their first world cinema discovery, with Wenders’ sophomore outing “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” being hailed by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby as “a beautifully acted and photographed tale of existential alienation.”

It was the festival’s focus on new filmmakers that separated it from other such events around the country.

“It was felt that the New York Film Festival, even though it did a great job, wasn’t sufficient to bring to the attention of New Yorkers and the critical community in New York that there were new generations of filmmakers appearing in many countries around the world and that they should be recognized,” says Kardish, who worked on ND/NF at its inception.

ND/NF’s definition of “new” is its own, however, being both narrow (directors must have had no more that two films open in New York City) and wide: 70-year-old Manoel de Oliveira played the festival in 1978 with “Ill Fated Love.” Hardly a new director, but he was new to New York audiences.

There have been some surprise breakout stars from the fest, like Spielberg (1974’s “Sugarland Express”) with Kardish noting that in 1998, the fest screened Christopher Nolan’s “Following,” a 71-minute, gritty, low-budget, black & white neo-noir film.

“Who would have thought he’d go on to make ‘Inception?,'” asks Kardish.

However, one thing everyone was clear on was that some guy named Spielberg had a big Hollywood future ahead of him.