They started with 50 folding chairs, one 16mm Bell and Howell projector and an annual budget of $19,000, miniscule even in 1970. That was a half-century ago (on Oct. 31, to be exact).
Today, Film Forum is a little bigger: four screens, 469 seats (none of them folding chairs), a $6 million operating budget for the coming year, and a much-deserved international reputation as one of the premier independent nonprofit film venues in the world.
As someone whose career as a film critic is only slightly shorter than the lifespan of the art house, I have faint memories of the original location, a second-floor space on the Upper West 88th Street with unraked seating, splintery floors and an array of folding chairs that guaranteed that if you sat behind someone taller than you, you’d be studying their haircut more than the movie. The programming was innovative, geared towards short films. Indeed, Sandy Miller, one of the co-founders with Peter Feinstein, told the Daily News in winter 1970 that he hadn’t “seen a movie over 30 minutes [in length] in six weeks.”
Karen Cooper undoubtedly remembers those days vividly. The director of Film Forum since 1972, Cooper was invited to assume that post by Feinstein after the struggling organization passed its first anniversary.
Given the threadbare portfolio she was offered, it’s hard to say what made her say yes.
“It was an accident, really,” Cooper confessed in a 2016 interview with The Jewish Week. “I am not a film fanatic, I never went to film school and I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of film. My greater interests were dance and theater and literature and the visual arts.”
Perhaps it was one of the seemingly minor pieces of the budding Forum heritage that triggered her acceptance — a bulging file of correspondence between the organizers and filmmakers from around the world soliciting movies to show.
“I looked over the correspondence and thought, ‘I was an English major, I can write these letters,’” she said.
She still can write them, although she doesn’t really need to. Today, filmmakers come to her. Film Forum has become an essential venue for anyone launching an innovative, challenging film in New York City. And the addition of a fourth screen a couple of years ago has given Cooper and Mike Maggiore, Forum’s programmers, the flexibility to drop in additional theatrical releases.
Film Forum has historically been a particularly fertile source of Jewish-themed films. The synergy of that interest with the fourth screen often produces serendipitous results, like the Feb. 12 premiere of a double-bill of “Waiting for Giraffes” and “Wild: Life, Death and Love in a Wildlife Hospital.” The pairing, one Palestinian (albeit with an Italian director), one Israeli, underlines the way that a common interest, in this case animals and their well-being, can bridge the seemingly insurmountable rift in the politics of the Middle East. “Giraffes,” which played the Other Israel Film Festival in 2017, is particularly charming. Films about the grinding damage of daily life in the region are thick on the ground and by now anyone who hasn’t seen a film that touches on the Kafkaesque life of the Occupied Territories probably has avoided them by choice.
“Waiting for Giraffes” finds an unexpected point of entry into the conflict, focusing on Qalqilya Zoo, the only zoo in Palestine. Marco de Stefanis, the director, focuses on the day-to-day, hand-(or claw or hoof)-to-mouth struggles of the zoo under the devoted and loving leadership of head zoologist Dr. Sami Khader. The zoo, which has a ramshackle charm, is a struggling but energetic enterprise aided by a core of dedicated staff and enthusiastic visitors. “Wild” is similarly centered on animals, taking us inside an Israeli wildlife hospital whose patients include owls and snakes (including one with a “shoulder wound” — who knew that snakes had shoulders!).
But the human cost of Jewish history is a more frequent subject encountered on Film Forum’s screens, where offerings range from (a long-standing commitment to) the work of Chantal Akerman to theatrical premieres of outstanding films about the Shoah like “Son of Saul,” and even the occasional playful offering like a documentary history of Streit’s, the matzah makers.
One side benefit of Film Forum’s track record of cinematic Jewish-themed excellence is a sustained relationship with the Joan S. Constantiner Fund for Jewish and Holocaust Film and the Ostrovsky Family Fund. Cooper, who is Jewish, was frank when asked about Forum’s frequent inclusion of movies with a Jewish ta’am (flavor).
“I don’t go out of my way to show [Jewish films],” she said. “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 pointed to “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.”
The theater’s repertory programming, done by Bruce Goldstein, inevitably also features a lot of Jewish films and filmmakers, from extensive Yiddish retrospectives to the recovery of underrated gems like Andre de Toth’s “None Shall Escape,” a 1944 film that is virtually the only American film from WWII to openly discuss the murder of European Jews by the Nazis.
Clearly, Film Forum has come far from its UWS roots, and not just the four or five miles between the West 80s and West Houston Street. Appropriately, birthday presents have been received, significant grants from the Charles and Lucille King Family Foundation and the Robert Jolin Osborne Trust.
But to my mind the best birthday presents are the ones that this stalwart New York film institution has bestowed on us, challenges to our understanding of what cinema can do and thousands of hours of pure joy.
George Robinson writes about film for the paper.