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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



Interview with NYAFF Director Samuel Jamier

In September 2015 Samuel Jamier was appointed Executive Director of the New York Asian Film Festival established in 2002 by Subway Cinema which he is also heading now. The festival is considered by the New York Times to be one of the best New York based festivals, offering an outstanding line up of superb entertainment and art house films. He is currently also working as a producer for the New York based Windwellers Films which he co-founded last September. Jamier previously served as the chief programmer for the Japan Society and was in charge of its acclaimed Japanese Film Festival, Japan Cuts, for several years. He formerly worked as a senior program officer for the Korea Society, and the cultural services of the French Embassy. Other credits include that of a writer, including a current fiction work in progress.  He attended the Ecole Normal Superieur and Tokyo University/Sorbonne Nouvelle holding a PhD in English Literature.


Claus  Mueller          You have been involved with the festival for several years now. First when directing Japan Cuts and collaborating with the NYAFF and afterwards directing the NYAFF.   What are the most important changes of the festival which you have observed over these years insofar as the countries where the films come from?


Samuel  Jamier        Lots of changes. First of all, the emergence of digital and on-demand platforms here and overseas have changed the way the films are distributed, their impact, and so on. The rise of the Chinese market is also a huge factor. It has an influence on both their neighbor markets in East and Southeast Asia, but also in the US. That is probably the biggest change we've seen in the past few years. The consequences are enormous: cultural, financial, etc.  And we're living right in it.


CM     With respect to themes and issues addressed by the film makers?


SJ       As for this year, it was quite striking to see how many filmmakers were addressing issues and themes of corruption, moral and institutional, at the individual and societal level. I think overall the films are less frivolous (at least the better ones). There's a general trend towards addressing real problems, from the real world, upfront, even in more commercially bent titles. On the surface, you're watching a crime thriller, or some noir movie (that's particularly true with films from South Korea), but if you go just a little bit deeper, what you're really seeing is a film about the ills of society, the disenfranchised, etc. I think that's something you can generalize to a lot of East Asian countries. Maybe people are sick of superhero franchises, and comic book-based fantasies... I'm not sure what it is. Or maybe the world is having issues that film people can't ignore, one way or another. 


CM     With respect to their artistic approaches?


SJ       That is a very complex, and general question. I'm not sure I can answer it in a satisfactory way. And we're talking about so many territories; I don't think there's one single unifying trend. We'd have to talk about each country, one by one. 


CM     What kind of audience did NYAFF serve when presented originally in Chinatown, subsequently at the Anthology Film Archives, and now at the Walter Reade?


SJ       I wasn't there at the time! I wish I could comment on it. I attended one of the first editions of NYAFF, way back then, but not the very first. Since we started off as a genre festival, it was lot of fanboys, I imagine, movie nerds of all kinds (not such a big crowd at the time). People who were passionate about movies from Asia. That crowd. At the time, genre cinema had sort of a stigma attached to it. Now it's become so mainstream. That's a huge difference between the festival started and now, in 2016. Anyway, genre film fans are still our base; they've been faithful to us, as I feel we've been faithful to them.


CM      How big is your current audience?


SJH     In the 10,000-plus range.


CM    The screenings I attended were mostly sold out. What accounts for this increase? Is it a growing interest in the countries your films come from or the fact that these films are otherwise not accessible?


SJ     We spent a lot of time on the programming, selecting films and guests very carefully. With a different programming team, and a different marketing approach. 

On the other hand, yes, I think there's more interest in the countries the films are from. With the rise of China, there seems to be a surge of interest in East Asian countries in general. The players in the industry have changed a bit, but access to Asian cinema in general isn't as restricted as it used to be. There are countless titles available on VOD platforms, and a few get released theatrically every year. 

Of course, the boom you had about a decade ago now is gone, but it's not as difficult to find films as it used to be 15 years ago when the festival was created. In any case, to go back to your question, I think we've developed a relationship of trust with New York audiences, and they feel that they'll find some great films to watch with us. And you know, the atmosphere of the festival is quite unique. 


CM     Do you have any demographic data covering your audience such as ethnic composition, age, sex and educational status?  If not what is your estimate?


SJ      Yes, we do. It'd be an interesting to do a thorough data analysis at some point, but we just don't have the resources.  It's quite a diverse audience. With a majority of women these days, interestingly enough. All ages, all educational status.


CM     When securing films for the festivals what are the problems you encounter?


SJ      There's always the race to getting the best premiere possible. Conflicting plans with theatrical or VOD releases, other festivals etc.  But we usually get the films we want.  


CM     How many films were considered by the festival this year and how many were selected?


SJ      Hard to tell, now that the festival is behind us. Somewhere in the several hundred title range. I can't quite remember honestly. But definitely a 3-digit figure.


CM     How many films were programmed when you started in Chinatown?


SJ      Only a handful. We're talking 5, 6 films. It was small, and it was never meant to be a big thing. The festival evolved organically from there.


CM    Are there productions which are directly submitted to the festival by filmmakers?

If so how many compared to those selected by you and your staff from other festivals and recommendations?


SJ     There are a few. Actually, an increasing number every year. 

Mostly the festival is curated, and it's something that's likely to change. But it's nice that more and more filmmakers think of us and want to show their films at our festival.  


CM     By the time they are screened by the festival are some of the films already in theatrical or digital platform distribution in the United States and/or Canada?


SJ       A few. Some of them get small theatrical release. Sometimes if we find the film enjoyable and important enough, we decide to include the title in our lineup, regardless of premiere status-- or absence thereof.


CM     Have any films been picked up by distributors after they were first shown at NYAFF?  If so can you name some?


SJ     Yes, a few every year. "My Love Don't Cross that River" was picked up for distribution last year. And US distributors are looking at the films we programmed this year, as of the time of this interview.


CM    According to a recent write up in the Wall Street Journal, China will become, by the end of 2017, the world’s biggest film market and soon thereafter China will be producing more films than any other country. Will this result in more films from China and Hong Kong being selected for your fest in the future?


SJ   Not necessarily, but I suppose it could. It depends on the quality of the output.


CM   In New York you have many festivals covering specific countries, from large ones such as the Indian Film Festival to small ones like the Bosnian - Herzegovinian film festival. But there is no Chinese film festival here.  What do you think is the reason?

Does the NYAFF preempt that space?


SJ   There is actually a Chinese film festival. From what I heard, it's not exactly great.

Overall, I'm really not a big fan of national film showcases, though I ran one for 4 years. In the era of rabid nationalisms, I think there's something wrong about the "promotion" of this or that culture. Most of these showcases go on about the uniqueness of the country the films they are showing are from. Frankly, it's quite boring. 

Why this country, as opposed to that country? All countries are unique, as are all individuals. The discourse always comes back to the same thing (chauvinism and my tribe vs yours). In this day and age, I'd much rather focus on what people have in common (which means understanding other film cultures, how they differ from one another), rather than wave someone's flag (whoever and whatever that is).


CM   Do you receive any public funding? Is most of your funding from private sources?


SJ    No public funding. 


CM   What is the proportion of the festival budget covered by ticket sales?


SJ  A good chunk. Box office sales are vital to the existence of our festival.


CM   In organizing the 2016 edition of the festival what were the biggest challenges you faced?


SJ    I worked with a different team, so there are challenges that come with working with a different set of personalities, a different group. But I think it was by far our best year.


Thank you for your reflections






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