The unique New York event celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
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28 Mar 2011 - 3:34 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Throughout its 40 years, New York's New Directors/New Films (ND/NF) festival has been the first to screen the works of Wong Kar Wai, Chantel Ackerman, Pedro Almodovar and Majid Majidi to a wide audience in the city.

ND/NF first began at the suggestion of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre (FSLC). The Centre lacked a dedicated venue in Manhattan and wanted to have a presence beyond the New York Film Festival. The first program premiered Wim Wenders's feature film debut, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), and later festivals saw the debut of Spike Lee's first full-length work, his student thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).

ND/NF selector Laurence Kardish, Senior Curator, Department of Film at MoMA, recalls, “I brought Spike Lee's film to the committee because I was on a jury at a student film festival were he showed Bed-Stuy, which is the film we chose, not She's Gotta Have It (1986), which is later. We also screened Chris Nolan's Following (1998) which is a little black and white that is as opposite from Inception technically as you can get, but basically it's a very similar type of film.”

ND/NF was also the first New York screening of Steven Spielberg's debut The Sugarland Express (1974), Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking (1996), François Ozon's See the Sea (1997), Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998), Kim Longinotto's The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy (2006).

ND/NF premiered the Australian films Black Harvest (1992) by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) by Emma-Kate Croghan, Shirley Barrett's Love Serenade (1996), Ana Kokkinos' Head On (1998), Cate Shortland's Somersault (2004) and Sarah Watt's short film Living With Happiness (2002) as well as her debut feature, Look Both Ways (2005), among others.

In 2011, a six-person selection panel, divided equally between Museum of Modern Art and the FSLC, selected 28 films – the biggest program yet. Productions from North America feature prominently, as well as films from Egypt, Germany, Greece, France, Sweden, Iran, Ghana, Russia, Norway, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Peru, Romania, Australia, Mexico, United Kingdom and China. “There is always disagreement. This year, each one of us has major works that did not get in.”

ND/NF looks for filmmakers unknown in New York, rather than simply the debut films from new directors, “We are very parochial,” Kardish admits. “The filmmaker could have made seven or eight films in their own country but cannot have had more than one film open theatrically in New York. That's how we were able to present Manoel de Oliveira a number of years ago, and his 35th film, because none of his other films had been seen here.”

Denis Villeneuve's fourth feature, Incendies, is one of the highlights this year. A powerful, raw meditation on a family at the intersection of war, religion and nationalism, Incendies is structured through the dual perspectives of twins and their recently deceased mother. Drawn from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the International Award for Best Feature Film at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival.

Similarly, Toronto resident Nicolás Pereda, director of Summer of Goliath (Mexico/Canada) has been overlooked to date in New York and is thus making his 'debut' in ND/NF 2011. Pereda's film explores the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking to draw a collective portrait of residents living in a small town in rural Mexico, Huilotepec. The characters are at once subjects in a documentary and preparing to perform in fictionalised roles. The film won best picture in Venice's Orizzonti section.

The 2011 opening night film, Margin Call, celebrates the majesty of Manhattan's night skyline and examines the consequences of the city's notorious greed. Set over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis, this Wall Street drama is the debut feature for Rhode Island local, J.C. Chandor. It stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons and Simon Baker.

“We think it's quite an accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker, both in the script and the actors he was able to secure, and in the direction,” Kardish says. We thought that for the 40th anniversary we would like to open with an American independent film.”

Other American films selected in the program include the independent feature Pariah, the debut for Dee Rees. Executive produced by Spike Lee, and filmed in Brooklyn, Pariah is the coming-of-age story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old New Yorker whose sexuality brings her into conflict with her church-going mother (Kim Wayans). An intimate, performance-driven piece that has been developed from a 2007 short of the same name, Pariah features a number of actors reprising their roles from the original short, including Oduye and Pernell Walker, who plays Alike's confident, Laura.

Both Pariah and the festival's closing night film, Circumstance, were supported by the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab. Circumstance, also a recipient of the 2007 Sundance Institute Composers Lab, is the first feature by Iranian-American writer/director Maryam Keshavarz., Circumstance is an assured, daring Iranian family drama based on the filmmaker's experiences growing up between the United States and Iran. Filmed in the Farsi language and shot in locations across Beirut, the film is an unflinching look at growing up as a young, liberal woman under a repressive regime.

“American independent cinema has become very broad,” Kardish notes when he discusses the hybrid, international genesis of Circumstance. “Then we have a film like Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure which looks as American as apple pie, but is an Australian production.”

Matthew Bate's debut feature documentary concerns two mid-western punks, Eddie and Mitch, who in 1987 moved to a small flat in San Francisco. There they met, or rather heard, their new neighbours, Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett, who spent the evenings yelling abuse at one another. Eddie and Mitch recorded these nightly tirades, and thereby created an underground audio sensation.

Kardish also identifies the Chinese director Li Hongqi's Winter Vacation (pictured) as a personal standout. “We don't usually see many dry, slacker-type comedies coming from China.” The film is set in a small town in Inner Mongolia, Northern China during the last days of winter vacation for a group of local teenagers in the desolate town.

The 40th anniversary of the annual New Directors/New Films festival (ND/NF) screens in New York until April 3 and is co-presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. Full schedule available at New Directors/New Films.