Forward thinking: Susan Oxtoby, who curated this weekend's Ning Ying films, offers hints on PFA's spring lineup. (Photo courtesy Pacific Film Archive)

Susan Oxtoby and the Pacific Film Archive

Michael Fox October 24, 2008

It’s hard to believe that it’s already three years since Susan Oxtoby came down from Canada to join the Pacific Film Archive as senior curator, stepping into the seat the beloved Edith Kramer filled for more than two decades. As the director of programming at Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario since 1997, and a curator before that, Oxtoby organized a veritable flood of filmmaker retrospectives from G.W. Pabst to Rithy Panh, national cinema overviews, thematic series (such as Film and Architecture, Dante and the Cinema and The Sound of Silent Cinema) and special events. Oxtoby began her career as a filmmaker with All Flesh is Grass (1988) and January 15, 1991: Gulf War Diary (1992), and worked as a researcher, archivist, sound recorder and picture editor for experimental and documentary films. We lounged in the sun outside the BAM/PFA building a few weeks ago, and talked about a life in film. One of Oxtoby’s series, I Love Beijing: The Films of Ning Ying, is currently playing at the Pacific Film Archive, with Ning Ying in person. (More at the PFA.)

SF360: What’s your first movie memory?

Susan Oxtoby: Well, it may have been Oliver!, the musical, which would have been around 1968. So I might have been around five at the time.

SF360: You saw it in the theater, obviously.

Oxtoby: Yes. I grew up in Connecticut, and I think 2001 was playing for a year and a half at our local Miracle Mile Cinema. I was in Canada from age eight until I moved here in 2005. One of the most memorable turning points in terms of the cinema that influenced my life is watching, believe it or not, Bergman’s The Silence on TV, when I might have been around 11. I remember asking my mother, ‘Why is there so little language?’ and ‘Why are people just staring at each other?’ I remember that being a very influential early exposure to foreign-language cinema. I know I was pre-teen, because by my early teens my family was traveling a lot and living abroad, and I had the chance to see a lot of cinema in places like London or Beirut or Bombay.

SF360: Has it been a while since you summoned that memory of
The Silence?

Oxtoby: Well, I love that film. In my university years, Bergman became a very influential director in terms of the types of films I would tend to write essays on.

SF360: Was there a movie that made you want to make a career in film?

Oxtoby: There were several. Films by Bergman and Antonioni and Fassbinder, when I was doing the films studies degree at the University of Toronto, led me towards a serious interest in the history of cinema. But I also did a film production degree. We were a typical family that had a Super 8 camera and I come out of that home-movie film generation. The type of filmmaking that I enjoyed working on was that kind of very independent, very personal cinema where I was doing my own camerawork. But I knew that wouldn’t cover the rent. (Laughs.) So I moved into distribution and then programming.

SF360: After three years here, what’s the difference between the east coast of Canada and the West Coast of America from a curating and exhibition standpoint?

Oxtoby: The similarity is that what we do at the Pacific Film Archive is becoming extremely rare. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but showing film in rare prints from the world’s archive from distributors that may be based in Paris or Hong Kong, that whole activity only has been happening in the niche area of exhibition—either film festivals, and San Francisco has a good number of impressive niche festivals and the International festival, and groups like PFA. Most of my career it’s been the case that the tradition of seeing foreign-language art films in commercial houses is gone. This work is left to specialized exhibitors. In that way, the Bay Area and Toronto are very similar. I think the fact that I worked with the Toronto International Film Festival, on its annual showcase of avant-garde films and as director at Cinematheque Ontario, is similar to what we’re doing in Berkeley. It’s harder to speak of the differences because there are just a handful of institutions like PFA, like Cinematheque Ontario and other important cinematheques internationally, doing this level of extensive programming year-round. In Berkeley we present about 500 programs a year. That commitment to running six nights a week for almost every week of the year, and making all of that cinema available, has become very, very rare.

SF360: In the repertory cinema days, the PFA wouldn’t feel the need to show staples like Honk Kong action cinema. In the post-rep world, has that attitude changed?

Oxtoby: We’ve instituted this Saturday matinee for all ages series, now in its third year. This fall it’s a couple of David Lean films in newly restored 35mm prints, and three Buster Keaton shows. It’s so exciting to see parents or grandparents or relatives out with young family members and showing them the experience of watching a film on the big screen with an enthusiastic audience. So it’s definitely a big part of PFA’s mandate.

SF360: How much of the audience is UC Berkeley students?

Oxtoby: Over 40 percent of the audience is Berkeley students, or students from other Bay Area colleges and universities. I know from chatting with audience members that a lot of the patrons are seeing Godard on the screen for the first time, and I think it’s very important for PFA to play that role.

SF360: With Netflix, a person can do his or her own Godard or Howard Hawks retrospective. Does that affect how you program?

Oxtoby: It does. One of our strengths is having a lot of filmmaker residencies, or critics working with guest programmers to present a series. The fact that we bring in a lot of authorities and filmmakers [means] many evenings at PFA you’ll have a question-and-answer period or an instruction. When we have a full theater and you’re watching a great work of world cinema that is available on DVD, you still have that cinematic experience of the attentive nature of a large audience watching a film, and the discussion that happens afterwards. I think that experience is so very vital at PFA. You know, we have excellent exhibition standards in terms of the quality of the prints and the way in which they’re projected. I’m also an advocate for DVDs. I think it’s wonderful that you can study works forwards and backwards in terms of how they’re constructed. They’re excellent for teaching in many ways, and the bonus tracks are helpful. So it continually challenges us in terms of how we approach curating and what’s different and distinctive. But the main thing is sharing one’s experience with cinema with a large audience.

SF360: What are some of PFA’s other strengths as an exhibitor?

Oxtoby: A lot of the works that we tend to show have stood the test of time. We can point to many, many cases every year when we’re showing things that could be local premieres, but they were made 80 years ago. Our ability to work with the world’s archives means that a lot of time we’re showing things that are buried and bringing them to light. PFA and other institutions like us play that role of keeping film culture alive, because you need to unearth areas of film history. We do some preservation. We work with a lot of institutions that are involved with restoration. That is a huge field and one of great interest to many patrons, but it’s central to our work. In any given year there are many projects that fall into that category, works that only PFA could bring to the Bay Area. When you crunch the numbers at the PFA, it’s amazing to see the things that are extraordinarily rare and to look at everything that falls in the category of premieres. We try to approach our work as programmers with a fresh eye, to see how PFA can approach things in a way that only PFA can approach things.

SF360: Give us a sense of the scope of the archive part of the Pacific Film Archive.

Oxtoby: The history from Day One is that the PFA had in its vision that it was an archive. Not all film programming institutions have that vision. It’s something that has allowed PFA to develop in important ways. In terms of the public, they have the chance to see archival prints frequently. It’s possible to use the PFA film studies center by contacting the staff and coming in and looking at work. People in the local community do that, students at the university do that, and we have a lot of international researchers looking at our rare Japanese film and avant-garde and Soviet collections.

SF360: Going back to the exhibition side, can you leave us with a sneak peek of what’s on tap for the spring?

Oxtoby: We’ll be welcoming Agnes Varda. It’s been many years since she visited the Bay Area and she just premiered a film at Toronto and Venice, so we’re working with her on setting her dates. That’ll be a major series in the March-April calendar. A major essay film series will run from January through April. And there’s a North American touring series of Andrzej Wajda’s works, and we’ll do a selection in January-February.

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