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Josh Siegel, film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, on rediscovering lost films and his association with Indian cinema

Siegel, who has been behind more than 90 film, media and gallery exhibitions, spoke on curating movies for 26 years, his interest in Indian cinema and an upcoming documentary film festival in New York.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Updated: December 11, 2019 2:59:30 pm
Josh Siegel,Museum of Modern Art, art and culture, indian express Josh Siegel

RECENTLY, Josh Siegel, a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, was at the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar in Mumbai for a conversation, and to watch new and exciting Indian films. Siegel, who has been behind more than 90 film, media and gallery exhibitions, spoke on curating movies for 26 years, his interest in Indian cinema and an upcoming documentary film festival in New York.

What kind of interest does MoMA have in Indian cinema?

We, at MoMA, believe that cinema as an art form belongs alongside paintings, sculptures, photographs and so on. Our programming encompasses the entire history of cinema in every region. We have an abiding interest in Indian cinema.

In the ’50s, MoMA had a role in the making of Pather Panchali (1955). Monroe Wheeler (then MoMA’s director of Exhibitions and Publications) was in India for an art show when he heard about this young filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, who seemed very promising but didn’t have enough money to finish his debut film. So, Wheeler went back to the trustees and rounded up a little cash for Ray to finish the film. It had its world premiere at MoMA. Subsequently, we did a massive exhibition called “Film India” in 1981, which showcased Indian cinema from different states. It was a deep dive into Indian cinema as far as New Yorkers were concerned.

Could you talk about your association with Indian cinema?

I created a festival about film preservation, “To Save and Project”, about 17 years ago and I’ve shown several restored Indian movies. I’ve done a number of exhibitions on contemporary Indian cinema with Uma Da Cunha (curator and casting director).

These attempted to look at some of the trends taking place in Indian cinema — from the mainstream to artistic films. We have a festival with Lincoln Center, called “New Directors/New Films”, where we’ve shown several Indian films over the years, including Titli (2014), Court (2014) and S Durga (2017).

When MoMA helped Ray, was that a one-off case of the museum supporting a filmmaker?

It was, in fact, a very rare case. We obviously put our money on the right horse because he turned out to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. We do today provide completion funds for films, but on rare occasions. Most often they are filmmakers we have a close relationship with, such as Agnes Varda. We have also helped Steven Soderbergh and Isaac Julien.

How much film preservation work does MoMA undertake?

We have a very robust preservation programme. MoMA is the only archive in the US that collects from across the globe. I suppose the Library of Congress is the closest institution that the US has to a national repository of cinema. It’s not exhaustive or complete. We have, over the years, acquired many Indian films.

The “To Save and Project” festival was a very selfish effort on my part. I read about all these films that were being restored around the world. I thought it was really unfortunate that I’m never going to see them. I decided to create a festival so that I can watch these movies myself in New York. The idea is to showcase the efforts of some of the archives and independent filmmakers around the world to save their cultural heritage.

How does MoMA make its selections from around the world?

We try to be as well versed as we can with world cinema. We have specialists across various mediums and regions. We initiated a series of scholarly task forces, called C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives), as part of which we invite artists and historians from around the world to speak on art of certain regions so we can understand them better. That includes C-MAP group for Asia. We look not only at Indian cinema but all other forms of Indian arts. Dayanita Singh, for example, is currently on view in the MoMA gallery.

So, these C-MAP groups are an effort to take a long view at what’s being made, what’s of interest, and the trends that are taking place in various regions around the world. So, the attempt is to give it time and let our understanding deepen rather than dilettantish efforts to acquire works in a kind of rapacious fashion as some museums do.

With the entry of well-curated steaming services such as MUBI, do you think the non-mainstream cinema would be more accessible?

There’s a lot of films that we show that are not marketable, which means they’re not going to generate enough profits. Often we do a week-long run of films that fall through the cracks but are wonderful. Distributors nowadays don’t take risks because it’s very hard for them to stay afloat. The number of distributors in New York is diminishing. The number of critics in New York too is diminishing. We’re a non-profit institution. So, we don’t have to rely on the box-office. That means that we are free to show whatever we want. That is incredibly liberating for me as a curator. Obviously, we do like to pack the house.

In terms of streaming, there’s a very limited selection of what’s available even with the growth of bespoke, independent cinema-driven streaming platforms like MUBI or Criterion, or the more mainstream ones like Disney or Netflix. In spite of all that, there’s still very little available, for example, of Indian cinema, in the US. So, we have a lot of gaps to fill.

How is your life as a curator?

My glamorous life as a curator involves answering the 19,000 emails that I have in my inbox. Everyone, including my wife, thinks that all we do all day is watch movies. I do have a great job but the reality is that a lot of the work is grind work and detective work, in finding the best material possible for certain films. The tragic reality is that a lot of films have disappeared altogether. So, a lot of my time is spent trying to find the best possible exhibition copy of a certain film and that can take months.

Who are the Indian filmmakers that you discovered during your stint at MoMA?

Well, certainly the contemporary filmmakers. We had showcased their works in the two series that we did — “India Now” and “The New India”. Most of them, I hadn’t heard of at that point, and some have gone on to receive success. I arrived at MoMA when I was 22. So, I would say, a lot of Indian filmmakers who are well-known here, were new to me at some point. We’ve also showcased films of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Adoor Gopal Krishnan and Mani Kaul.

Could you share details of the upcoming show that you are working on?

I’m working on a festival of documentaries, called “Doc Fortnight”, that takes place in February. It’s an international selection of non-fiction cinema. I’m deeply immersed in watching documentaries right now. I just saw a film from Uzbekistan about women who are essentially kidnapped in their own homes and enslaved by their husbands as teenagers. Some of these documentaries are astonishing and offer glimpses of cultures that are foreign to most of us. I attended Film Bazaar to look at non-fiction films. I am also looking at fiction films to consider for “New Directors/New Films”.

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