A Bell and Howell 16mm-movie projector, 50 folding chairs, the lease on a loft on the Upper West Side and a suitcase filled with letters to filmmakers.
That’s what Karen Cooper was given in 1972 when Peter Feinstein asked her if she’d like to take over the year-old Film Forum. With such bounty on offer, how could she refuse?
“I looked over the correspondence and thought, ‘I was an English major, I can write these letters,’” she said last week in a telephone interview. Almost 45 years later, she still can write them, although she doesn’t really need to. Today, Film Forum has its own home on West Houston Street, with three screens, no folding chairs, several types of projectors in each of its theaters and a well-deserved reputation as a launching pad for innovative and creative films of all kinds. Filmmakers, in short, come here.
For our purposes, Forum is particularly astute in its choice of Jewish-themed films, as the coming season’s schedule vividly attests. In rapid succession, the theater will showcase premieres of “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman” (March 30-April 5), “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” (April 6-19), “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream” (April 20-26) and “Eva Hesse” (April 27-May10).
Asked about this unusual concatenation, made all the more enticing by the fact that three of the four films, all documentaries, are profiles of strong Jewish women, Cooper replied, “I don’t go out of my way to show [Jewish films]. It has to be a terrific film. But as a Jew I do feel that we have a fine history of being a just people, involved with the rights of others, and I’m very concerned with issues of culture and history and justice.”
She points to another recent Film Forum premiere, the Oscar-nominated “Son of Saul,” as an example of those concerns.
“There have been so many films about the Holocaust,” she said. “‘Son of Saul’ does something entirely different, and that’s why it’s one of the greatest films ever made about the subject. It’s about being in terror all the time. But as great as it is, it’s had a good, not a great response from our audiences. People just don’t want to go back there.”
The programmers, however, inevitably will. One side benefit of Film Forum’s track record of Jewish-themed cinematic excellence is a sustained relationship with the Joan S. Constantiner Fund for Jewish and Holocaust Film and the Ostrovsky Family Fund. The former has helped make it possible for Cooper and co-program director Mike Maggiore to book numerous Jewish and Holocaust-related works, and the latter foundation is subsidizing a week of free screenings of the Akerman documentary.
Even so, Cooper confessed that the coincidence of the four-film skein surprised her.
The presence of the movie about Streit’s was not unexpected, though.
“We saw the film a year ago and knew we had to hold it for Passover,” she said. “It came to us just a little too late for last year, so we’ve held it for this April. How can you be a New York City theater [programmer] and not fall in love with this film? The great-grandchildren are still making the matzahs!”
Film Forum is located at 209 W. Houston St. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to filmforum.org.