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Rajendra Roy: Charting The Waters At MoMA

 

For Rajendra Roy, it’s all about the passion. Beginning his fifth year as the Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of the legendary Department Of Film at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA), Raj (as he is affectionately known by friends and colleagues) can look back at significant accomplishments during his tenure and substantial challenges ahead. “The film world has changed so much since I started this job”, Roy shared with me in an interview in his intimate, no-frills office. “Distribution companies and studio divisions that once seemed so promising have since closed and the New York exhibition landscape has also changed dramatically. And now the internet is so key in letting people know about films and also in bringing films into their homes and on their computers.” In this technological speed shuttle that we are all riding, five years is a lifetime. MoMA’s Film Department, the first ever at a major cultural institution, has had to learn how to adjust to this volatile environment and finds that it has a unique role in its relation to film education and the public.

  “Because we have been around for so many years, there is a kind of sacred trust between us and our members, the audience and the filmmaking community”, Roy commented. “Since we are a cultural institution, we can afford to take risks that others in the industry cannot.” That has included an eclectic 365-day calendar that encompasses showing both film classics and “lost” films from MoMA’s extensive film archive, showcasing new American and international titles, and of late, an experiment in offering a kind of semi-theatrical release to films that fall between the cracks of the traditional distribution system. “We’ve started to follow this model for two reasons: it helps filmmakers who have fewer options these days when it comes to theatrical presentations and because New Yorkers are notoriously busy people, and simply having a one-off screening of a great new film is just not enough. And while we care about filling the house, we don’t have the same economic pressures as traditional distributors do in a very competitive New York market.” A glance at what is happening this week at MoMA’s two theaters reveals an engaging mix of Hollywood classics, a showcase of new Brazilian cinema and a retrospective of the films of pioneering American documentarian Les Blank. 

Roy brings an industry savvy to a position that had in the past been more academically oriented, making his programming and exhibition initiatives both refreshing and highly pragmatic. Prior to coming on board at MoMA, he served as the Artistic Director of the Hamptons International Film Festival and a member of the international competition selection committee for the Berlin International Film Festival (for which he still consults). Earlier in his career, he served as a Program Manager in the film department at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and was the executive director of MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival. This mix of industry experience has informed his approach and his desire to find new and interesting ways to connect with his core audience and also expand it. “For the first few years, most of my efforts went into refining our website and in finding ways of embracing the internet and social media technologies to let people know what we were doing and make it easier for them to browse film schedules, buy tickets and interact with one another”, Roy stated. “Now that we have done this, I am focused more on the content and what MoMA’s role should be in the future.”

    Roy has also been instrumental in promoting cross-department initiatives within the museum, including the highly successful retrospective devoted to filmmaker Tim Burton. That program went beyond simple film exhibition and involved the drawing and sculpture departments, demonstrating the talented filmmaker’s influences and talents. The exhibition was incredibly successful and is currently touring the world. Its success has inspired Roy and his colleagues to take this more expansive approach in the future, with a planned expansive program devoted to the British filmmaking team The Quay Brothers being assembled for next summer. Roy also hinted that there could be potential collaborations with online exhibition platforms and in making the archive available to people via new technologies. 

However, in this sense, Roy is a traditionalist, who still believes that the most immersive experience for audiences is to collectively watch films in the sanctum sanctorum of a film theater. While he applauds the recent expansion of the Film Society Of Lincoln Center, his institutional partner in presenting the New Directors/New Films showcase each Spring, he does not plan to go in exactly the same direction of presenting first-run exhibitions of films that are playing in other parts of the city. “My goal is to make this a unique destination, where film buffs, filmmakers and people who are coming to the museum mainly to view the art exhibitions, can come together and appreciate classic filmmakers of the past or emerging filmmakers of the future”, Roy concluded. “We are in a unique position to do this and finding the ways to do so is what keep this job interesting and exciting for me.” For more information on current and upcoming programs at the Museum of Modern Art, visit: http://www.moma.org

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor  

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The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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