NYAFF 2015: Interview With Subway Cinema & NYAFF’s Sam Jamier & Rufus de Rham

If you’ve been reading along, you’re well aware of how much fun I had at this years’ New York Asian Film Festival. To close out our coverage, and to give some much-deserved love to the people who put the whole thing together, here now is an interview, conducted via e-mail, with two of the Festivals main planners, Sam Jamier and Rufus de Rham:

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO FOR THE FESTIVAL?

Sam: Sam Jamier, co-director. Mostly, I am responsible for the artistic direction; selecting the films and working with a team of programmers to create as exciting a lineup as possible, figuring out who to invite and bring to New York. I set some of the goals and the general design of the festival. I joined the team a few years ago while I was working at Japan Society.

Rufus: Rufus de Rham, Director of Operations. Mostly I get all the films back and forth and make sure everything works like it should. I work with the programming team to make selections too.

FOR THE UNINITIATED, TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE GOALS AND AIMS OF SUBWAY CINEMA.

Sam: In many ways, our goals and aims come from the place where Subway Cinema was born: the New York Chinatown theaters, now defunct. When the last one shut down about 15 years ago now, a group of friends decided to take things in their own hands so they could still watch Asian films and share them with others by creating a festival of their own. That’s the spirit of the New York Asian Film Festival and of Subway Cinema, the production committee behind it. It’s a story of friendship, generosity and curiosity, a quintessential New York story in a way.

Of course, after all these years, as the festival has become bigger, and perhaps more institutional, we’ve had to develop a more business-like structure, but fundamentally what we’re doing is the same: we show films from half a world away, often stuff that more Western-centric organizations, showcases and festivals would never think of showing, in a focused yet wide-ranging selection of films.

As a team, we share a firm belief in, and the same love for the theatrical experience, the idea that for about two hours, you sit with a group of strangers and something happens. You’re there and suddenly, for the time of a dream cycle or two, you have a community… with which you share something unique and intangible. And together, you get to see visions, stories from other worlds, other people, who are like you, live and breathe like you, and yet are so different.

All of this to say that our goal, our “mission” if you like, is to get people out of their sofas and their living-rooms, into our theaters, to see something different, and perhaps see the world with different eyes. We don’t claim to show the most “important” films in the world (it’s up to the audience to decide) or to solve the epistemological conundrum of world cinema, but we know how to show people a hell of a good time; we want our audience to be part of a fun, smart, cool and thought-provoking event, something that’s off the beaten path, and hopefully a good alternative to all the popcorn ready-made CG fests and bombast of summer blockbusters.

WAS THERE AN OVERALL THEME TO THIS YEARS LINEUP? IS THERE, IN GENERAL, SOME SORT OF EFFORT TO MAINTAIN A COHERENCY WITH THE FEATURES CHOSEN, OR IS IT AS SIMPLE AS THE BEST, COOLEST FLICKS MAKING THE CUT?

Sam: Themes usually come last as far as I’m concerned. We review a large number of films throughout the year. Then, when the lineup starts shaping up, some narratives, some themes or commonalities usually appear. Some plots echo each other. Characters seem to speak to each other, across the movies. Or maybe it’s just the alcohol… or the fatigue. There’s a degree of imagination that comes into play: some of the themes come from us, and are really what we think we see in the films we review. On the other hand, depending on the year, the country, you end up with convergences and trends (costume dramas in Korea, for example, have been a big thing for better or for worse).

Rufus: What Sam said, but also world events help to shape common themes. This year we saw a lot of films with social interest/justice story lines and they also really resonated with our audience. Definitely not anything we seek out. We all watch hundreds of films to make our selection and things just naturally float to the top.

DESCRIBE IN DETAIL THE PROCESS OF SELECTING THE MOVIES FOR THIS YEARS FESTIVAL. WAS THERE A LOT OF DEBATE ABOUT WHAT MADE THE CUP? DID FISTFIGHTS BREAK OUT? WHO WON THOSE FISTFIGHTS?

Sam: There were four of us programming this year. Three, including me, are Asia-based. We’re too far from each other, geographically, to get physical anyway. All jokes aside, It’s actually a fairly civilized, rational process.

Here’s how it goes: we travel around Asia and Europe, go to the major film markets and festivals to talk shop with the distributors and review the films at press & industry screenings, starting from October, with Busan and Tokyo, then Taipei (sometimes), Berlin, Hong Kong and Cannes. We talk things over, discuss what we like and what we think is great (not the same thing), and what audiences will like, and of course we try to make some space for small, new films as well, films people have never heard of… or would never see coming. That’s for the new films part. But we also make a point of including retro screenings, retrospectives and tributes.

We try to find some kind of balance between all that, which isn’t always easy. To achieve this balance, or this blend, it can take a while. A few films we pick up immediately, others take more “digestion”: sometimes, you really have to ponder and let your thoughts simmer a bit.

What we try to create, in the end, is a conversation between the films themselves, some kind of chemistry that will speak to people.

Rufus: I’m New York based and I also work year round at Film Society of Lincoln Center, so my contribution is trying to keep an eye on what is being screened in the city and what is doing well. We are all in fairly constant communication as we view films and rely a lot on collaborative internet tools to do it. If we didn’t have Trello, Google Drive and Hangouts our jobs would be a lot harder! As for the debate it isn’t all that violent, sometimes we will fight for personal favorites but we really work toward what is best for our audience and through them, the festival.

WERE THERE ANY MOVIES THAT YOU WERE PARTICULARLY DISAPPOINTED COULDN’T MAKE IT INTO THIS YEARS’ FESTIVAL?

Sam: Yes, but only a couple.. and I’d rather not talk about it. Haha.

Rufus: I think we got almost everything that we really wanted, but it is the nature of the game that some slip through the cracks, or aren’t ready for us. I think our team really put together a stellar lineup this year.

WHAT WAS THE ACTUAL PROCESS OF ACQUIRING THE FILMS THEMSELVES? WHO DID YOU HAVE TO TALK TO AND WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO DO TO TURN THE LIST OF FILMS YOU GUYS WANTED INTO ACTUAL SCREENINGS?

Sam: Usually, Asia-based distributors. The big ones, the small ones. It goes from pretty straightforward business, to sometimes (unfortunately) rather complicated and painful. But most of the time, it’s not too hard. The festival has become more established over the years, and we’ve developed and maintained good relationships with the local industries in Asia, relationships based on trust and mutual respect… for the most part. Since we’ve made Film Society of Lincoln Center our home, and their folks our production partners, things have become a lot easier, I should add.

COULD YOU SPEAK A LITTLE ON THE PROCESS OF ACQUIRING THE PRINTS FOR THE OLDER FILMS? I WAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED BY THE CITY ON FIRE PRINT, WHICH LOOKED LIKE IT CAME STRAIGHT FROM A 42nd STREET DOUBLE FEATURE.

Sam: The films from the “Last Men in Japanese Film” sidebar, our tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara were from the Japan Foundation and the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.

For City on Fire, it was a bit more complicated, and a bit more of a cave exploration, but I’ll spare you the details. The bottom line is: older Asian films can be tricky to track, but that’s also part of the fun sometimes. You ask around and when you’re lucky find a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend. It almost feels like a drug deal sometimes. And it’s very satisfying when the detective work pays off, in the end.

Rufus: Luckily we know a lot of really great archivists and collectors, and know where a lot of prints are or can guess well enough to start down the rabbit trail. This isn’t always easy, and there are lots of hoops to jump through, but we always try to bring new audiences to these works. I think the hard work Sam put in to put the Takakura/Sugawara sidebar in really paid off. Those prints were amazing and people really got to experience extremely hard to see films in one of the best theaters in the city.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE JOYS AND CHALLENGES OF COORDINATING THE COLLECTION OF STARS, SPONSORS, EMBASSIES, ETC, NEEDED TO MAKE A FESTIVAL LIKE THIS A SUCCESS?

Sam: When the whole thing’s over, there’s a strange sense of satisfaction, but at the same time, a kind of post-coital sadness. Not sure that’s the best expression here, and how the others feel about it. It’s like having a very cool party and you know people had fun.

One of the toughest challenges of the festival is to bring major stars (actors or actresses) from Asia. There is a lot of moving parts involved in the process, and of course it’s quite costly. That’s what makes us sweat the most.

Rufus: I think the main joy is from the energy that the audience brings with them. Up until then it is just a lot of paperwork, phone calls, and emails. I think from the outside it seems glamorous, but really it’s another job.

FOR THAT MATTER, WHAT DO THE STARS ACTUALLY DO WHEN THEY’RE NOT INTRODUCING THEIR MOVIES OR PARTAKING IN Q&As? GIVE US CIVILIANS SOME INSIGHT INTO HANDLING CELEBRITIES IN A FESTIVAL SCENARIO, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY’RE COMING INTO A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CULTURE AND LANGUAGE.

Rufus: Mostly they just enjoy New York on their own! Sometimes we have dinner with them, or take them out to an event, but a lot of the draw to our festival is also the location. Celebrity handling is about making sure everyone is happy and involves a lot of planning. Luckily we have a great team and cultural differences don’t really become an issue, at this point we travel and work in Asia a lot.

I MENTIONED IT IN ONE OF MY REVIEWS, BUT COULD YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE LIVE SUBTITLING OF EMPIRE OF LUST? IT WAS A PRETTY IMPRESSIVELY BALLSY MOVE AND I’M WONDERING ABOUT THE PROCESS OF DECIDING TO DO THAT, HOW YOU GUYS ACTUALLY MANAGED TO GET IT DONE, AND HOW YOU THINK IT WORKED OVERALL?

Sam: We actually had some issues with the soft-titling of Empire of Lust: What happened is that we found out, upon reviewing the film, that the official subtitles barely made sense, so we decided to do our own.

It’s actually something that we do pretty routinely. We live-soft subtitled La La La at Rock Bottom because of a technical issue with the subtitles. And some of the old films, Abashiri Prison, the 2k restoration of Battles Without Honor & Humanity, simply don’t come with any English subtitles. Yes, it worked out pretty well this year, but that’s something we’ve gotten used to over the years.

Rufus: After the issues with Empire of Lust (subtitles too soft on the screen) the projection team at Film Society actually built structures so we could project below the screen. Other than that it really is just a process of getting the transcript, making sure it’s formatted correctly and using a software that was built for it from the booth. It is something we do pretty regularly at Lincoln Center actually.

FROM OPENING CONCEPT TO CLOSING NIGHT, HOW LONG A PROCESS IS ORGANIZING THE FESTIVAL?

Sam: We start planning as soon as the festival ends. It takes about a year.

Rufus: We actually had already started with ideas during the programming for this year. It is definitely year round.

WERE ANY MOMENTS FROM THE FESTIVAL PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE/SURPRISING/DISAPPOINTING FOR YOU?

Sam: Ringo Lam receiving his award: very special. He was gracious and quite a charming guy.

Rufus: I think the reaction that Cart got was great. Also I really loved the energy that Namewee brought to his Q&A for Banglasia. That night was really surprising and special.

LASTLY, WHAT WAS YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE OF ALL THE FILMS THIS YEAR?

Sam: At this point, it’s still La La La at Rock Bottom. I think that’s also Rufus’ favorite. I’m also a big fan of Pale Moon.

Rufus: For sure. La La La at Rock Bottom is definitely my favorite. It really resonated with me and still does even after having to live subtitle the entire thing! I also fell for My Love, Don’t Cross That River. I think there was really something special about that film.

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