Live from the archives: The Constance Talmadge film Polly of the Follies (1922) plays SFSFF, which capitalized on Anita Monga's cinema savvy for its artistic director this year.

Anita Monga and the SF Silent Film Festival

Sura Wood July 11, 2009

Film programmer Anita Monga has been enriching the local film experience and expanding horizons for audiences since she started, first at the Roxie Cinema and later at the York Theater, nearly 30 years ago. But it was during her tenure at the city’s grand movie palace, the venerable Castro Theatre, that she really made her mark, shepherding the venue to international prominence while working with distributors, festivals and filmmakers, developing eclectic programs and ongoing festivals such as Berlin and Beyond and Noir City. (Her partnership with Noir City’s Eddie Muller has helped turn that event into an annual rite of passage for noir aficionados and led to the establishment of a preservation initiative.) Since her departure from the Castro in 2004, Monga hasn’t looked back. When not juggling her various roles in sundry cities, she’s currently acting artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs this weekend at the Castro. True to Monga tradition, this year’s 12-program lineup, with plenty of live musical accompaniment, promises to be provocative, adventurous and fun.

SF360: How did you get your start as a programmer?

Anita Monga: I met underground filmmaker Curt McDowell (Thundercrack!) in 1979-ish and we became fast friends. Curt and I would spend nights watching 16mm films in his apartment and he introduced me to the films of George Kuchar— something that I’ll be eternally grateful for. We’d also go around the corner to the theater Curt’s boyfriend Robert Evans owned, the Roxie. We came up with an idea to put on a midnight show at the Roxie, and Robert and his partner Peter Moore agreed to let us. I never left.

SF360: What are the parts of the job you enjoy the most?

Monga: I like to share my favorite things with people. It is a very moving experience to be in a theater and watch people really ‘get’ something you love. I like having the chance to introduce people to things they might never see otherwise.

SF360: Is New York still the best city for repertory films?

Monga: New York is a great city for just about everything, but San Francisco is its equal for film exhibition, really.

SF360: Are there still rare gems out there, discoveries to be made in the age of Netflix and the Internet?

Monga: Oh, yes! There are still lost films to be found—like the legendary King Vidor silent Bardelys the Magnificent that we’re showing in the Silent Film Festival, lost for 80 years until a print was discovered in a cellar in France! And Eddie Muller and I take a detective trip to L.A. every year looking for lost noirs. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking for a print no one ever thought to ask for. Sometimes a film can will sit in a vault for years mislabeled. But, a film doesn’t have to be "lost" to be overlooked, and that is one of my favorite things—dusting off old movies. You know the scene—when the mousy librarian takes off her glasses, unpins her hair, and suddenly she’s a raving beauty. I like to take the glasses off old movies.

SF360: Speaking of Netflix… many people today see movies at home rather than venturing out to the theater where they’re shown as filmmakers would like their work to be seen. What are your thoughts about this trend?

Monga: I am so grateful for Netflix. It has made it possible for many small films to find an audience, and for me to catch up on films that I missed. Everything is changing in film exhibition and I can’t predict what will happen, but I do know that festivals are still going strong, and creatively programmed theaters are still drawing. I think that many filmmakers are pleased that their work can reach a broader audience through the Internet and Netflix, after the festival circuit. I think there will always be a place for the communal experience, and seeing something in its quintessential format. Just because I have a postcard of the Vermeer’s "The Milkmaid" doesn’t make me not want to see it in at the Rijksmuseum. Au contraire, it whets my appetite.

SF360: What’s the biggest coup you’ve had in landing a special film or series? Is there something you’ve curated that you’re especially proud of?

Monga: Hmmmm… I premiered Sergei Eisenstein’s uncompleted Que Viva México, constructed from extant footage and his notes, at the York Theater (in the Mission), on Día de los muertos. It was entirely accidental on my part, but I looked like a genius!

SF360: What skill set do you need to be an effective programmer?

Monga: Curiosity. Tenacity. Honesty.

SF360: What do you see as your special area of expertise?

Monga: I don’t know. I think I’m a generalist.

SF360: In selecting films for Palm Springs or Seattle—what set of criteria do you use when confronted with so many entries?

Monga: My criterion for selecting films is that they be good, really good. But, of course, that’s not the only thing that factors into selection. A big part of putting together a film festival or movie theater program is the art of working with the possible. I can put together amazing series in my head, but putting them on screen is another matter.

SF360: For Noir City, how influenced are you by what the audience wants to see?

Monga: I’m a believer in the curated experience. Eddie and I are bringing the audience films that we want to share with them.

SF360: Do you think the ‘short’ is an underappreciated form?

Monga: Not to those who appreciate them! I love curating shorts programs. I was introduced to many great filmmakers through shorts—Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes to name two—and it’s a place where there are real discoveries to be made!

SF360: For some people, film history began with Spielberg and Lucas in the 1970s. How important is the idea of film literacy and by that I mean a knowledge of movie classics as essential to an educated person as reading Dickens, and Homer, etc.?

Monga: It’s important to me because I’m interested and film has enriched my life. But, since I am illiterate in higher mathematics, I can’t claim that classic film literacy is a necessity to an educated person; wouldn’t that be hypocritical? What I do claim: It is pleasurable and it will enrich your life. But, I’m not talking about simply collecting the experience of classic film to lord it over friends in a trivia contest. I’m talking about opening your heart and mind to a work of art.

SF360: What films would you consider essential viewing for a film literate person and why?

Monga: I could list hundreds, but to pick a few: every film by Stanley Kubrick, Citizen Kane, Fellini’s 81/2, Murnau’s Sunrise, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, The Godfather, 1 and 2, Taxi Driver, Au Hasard Balthazar, Kurosawa’s High and Low, the Maysles’ Grey Gardens, Eraserhead, Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan’s Travels. Why? Because they will help you live a better life. Really, trust me.

SF360: What’s the importance of film preservation?

Monga: The material of film is ephemeral and that material contains amazing works of art that inform our culture, our knowledge of history.

SF360: Are there filmmakers, actors, directors, whose work would inspire you to leave your house in the driving rain to go to the movie theater?

Monga: Martin Scorsese.

SF360: Do you have up and coming talents you have your eye on?

Monga: Sam Fleischner. On the basis of one short and one feature (playing in competition at the L.A. Film Festival), I expect great things.

SF360: What can cineastes learn from Silent film and why should general audiences be interested?

Monga: Looking into the past is a fascinating way to discover where we came from, what influenced our culture, and helps us prize out our own conventions. Looking at moving pictures connects us in a different, more visceral way than words on the page. The past comes alive! Douglas Fairbanks was sexy! Lupe Vélez was a proto-feminist! The true revelation about silents is that they are so relevant, and often, so modern! It’s a chance to see an art form in its nascence, the work of artists whose techniques are the basis of the way we think about storytelling today. And the films are often exquisitely beautiful, (with) camerawork that is untethered to sound equipment. There are moments in silent film that are unsurpassed—the beautiful floating camera in Sunrise, the extraordinary athleticism of Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton. And, you can’t discount the experience of seeing a live musical performance! In that way the Silent Film Festival is as much a work of theatre as cinema. Every performance is new!

SF360: Film festivals including SFIFF have been presenting silent films with live musical accompaniment. Do you think this phenomenon has contributed to a revival of sorts?

Monga: Yes! People are attracted by the music and are introduced to the amazing world of silent cinema.

SF360: Can you name three films that you recommend on this year’s program and why?

Monga: Only three? I can’t choose! All of the films are so wonderful and the program is so varied. And the music is so wonderful and varied. I’m not being glib, but I really can’t choose! My advice: buy a pass, cancel all previous dates and see everything!

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