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Film Forum at Forty: Still Independent and Individualistic

By Tamara Krinsky

This year, New York City's Film Forum celebrates its 40th anniversary. Throughout the years, it has played an essential role in the city's film world, earning such glowing descriptions as "New York's most nourishing cinema" (Stephen Schiff, Vanity Fair, 1988), "A moviegoer's landmark" (Andrew Sarris, New York Observer, 1989), "Our idea of heaven" ("150 New York Essentials" issue, Time Out, 2008), and "New York's most prestigious, active and venturesome art-film theater" (John Rockwell, The New York Times, 1992).

Much of this praise can be traced directly to the long-standing team of programmers who bring the idiosyncratic mix of cinematic gems to the Film Forum screens, as well as care and detail to the film-going experience. Karen Cooper and Mike Maggiore oversee the New York premieres, while Bruce Goldstein commands the retrospective selections.

Cooper, who has been director of Film Forum since 1972, sees her role as being selective. "I think one can get easily lost in the mass of catalogues, even from one's local film festivals," she says. "It's important for me to at least be able to make a selection that is very rigorous, that has a lot to do with my taste-what we think is well made and has something important to say, and often does it in a new and innovative way."

She is proud of the art house's growth and unique identity. It is the only autonomous nonprofit cinema in New York City, and currently has an operating budget of $4.1 million, which is raised from both public and private sources. Launched in 1970 as an alternative screening space for independent films, with 50 folding chairs, one projector and a $19,000 annual budget, Film Forum has evolved through several venues in lower Manhattan to the three-screen, 489-seat cinema it is today.

Documentaries have always been a core part of Film Forum's programming. The wide-ranging list of films that have had their exclusive New York premieres there include Spellbound (Dir.: Jeffrey Blitz, 2002), The War Room (Dirs.: Chris Hegedus, DA Pennebaker, 1993), A Grin Without a Cat (Dir.: Chris Marker, 1977), Burma VJ (Dir.: Anders Østergaard, 2009), Valentino: The Last Emperor (Dir.: Matt Tyrnauer, 2009), Tarnation (Dir.: Jonathan Caouette, 2004), Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Dir.: Errol Morris, 1997), 42 Up (Dir.: Michael Apted, 1999), The Filth and the Fury (Dir.: Julien Temple, 2000), and The Farm: Angola, USA (Dirs.: Liz Garbus, Jonathan Stack, 1998).

For the Forum's 40th anniversary show at the Museum of Modern Art this past February, Cooper chose to focus on documentaries. "When I was putting together a list of titles with which to approach the museum's curatorial staff, I couldn't help but notice how many were documentaries," she says in the event's program booklet. "Clearly that's where my heart is. I think real life is a lot more complicated, nuanced and exciting than jewelry heists, prostitutes-turned-society-ladies, drug deals done wrong..."      

Don't look for a pattern, theme or mission in Film Forum's nonfiction choices, though. With only 30 premiere spots per year, Cooper and Maggiore cast a wide net when deciding what to add to the schedule. They don't limit themselves to showing just social issue or historical or cultural documentaries. They watch hundreds of films a year; attend major festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Berlin and IDFA; and recently received a grant from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation to broaden their outreach efforts by attending festivals in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Cooper tends to eschew showing a particular film because it fits in with a currently popular style or trend, instead choosing to focus on work she describes as "something that really comes from the heart and soul and brain of an individual filmmaker. And I think that's what so great about independent work, whether it's narrative or documentary or animated or experimental; it is highly individualistic. I am as interested in a 30-second animated short as I am in a nine-hour film like Connie Field's Have You Heard from Johannesburg."

While Cooper and Maggiore tend to program from their own tastes, they are not immune to changes in the exhibition marketplace and the needs of their audience. Cooper cites Michael Moore's work as a key turning point in how theatrical documentaries are viewed. "I think Michael Moore really proved to critics and audiences alike that the documentary was not moribund, and was not an educational and didactic genre," she maintains. "It could be funny and entertaining and clever and witty--all the things people go to the movies to experience...And I think the rest of us are reaping the benefits of his brilliance."

In order for Film Forum to survive, programming choices need to reach different audiences throughout the month. Sometimes the team gets lucky with a film like Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born into Brothels, which won an Academy Award and elicited a tremendous response from many different sectors of the public. Many of the programmed films, however, appeal to distinct groups that may not overlap, but when put together in a full year's schedule reflect the large, urban population stretching from Tribeca to Harlem that makes up the Film Forum audience.

The organization's upcoming slate of documentaries reflects this breadth. DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's Kings of Pastry, released by First Run Features, plays September 15 to 28. The film follows 16 chefs competing in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), France's Nobel Prize for pastry, and was dubbed by critics in the UK as "the culinary Hurt Locker." Switching gears from tasty pastry to Auschwitz physicians, Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors, produced and directed by Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter, screens from October 6 to 12. The documentary about medical ethics has its heart in Lifton's 1986 book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. An entirely different audience will most likely show up for Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara's Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, opening on October 27, about Merritt's work as a musician and composer.

After almost 40 years at the same gig, one might expect that Cooper would get burnt out, but it's quite the opposite. She is still fascinated by the discovery process as well as by all aspects of running a theater. "I really do care about not just the quality of the films, but also the quality of the popcorn, the fact that the rug gets shampooed every spring, that we just had the neon re-done," Cooper explains. "I want to show respect for the audience. I often felt when I began doing this work that there was a kind of a false snobbery about not being a professional, about not being a movie house, about being sort of an underground cinema where people sat on the floor on pieces of foam rubber. Not at Film Forum, but certainly at other venues. And I think that had its place in our history in the late '60s and early '70s.

"But if you want to reach people who are not in the 17-to-24-year-old demographic, who want to be comfortable in their chairs, appreciate a good sound system, want the best possible image, and want a good piece of lemon cake and not Jujubees when they watch their movie, it's a different world from what it was when we started out," Cooper continues. "That keeps me going; it's exciting and provides a lot of stimulus for the job because the world changes every day--and hopefully I'm changing with it."


Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary and writes regularly about science, new media, entertainment and technology. For more: