This Is Who We Are: Richard Peña

Carlos Barragán
March 03, 2023

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Film and Media Studies Professor of Professional Practice, Richard Peña, about finding black holes in film history, why you should watch a movie at least three times, and why film, unlike painting or poetry, transcends borders more easily.

A ten-year-old Richard Peña was strolling around a public library in Queens, looking through the stacks, when he saw a shelf labeled ‘Movies.’ “Books about movies?” He asked himself. He picked up The Liveliest Art, by Arthur Knight, and soon was entranced by the way the author discussed Hollywood and the new waves of cinema coming from abroad. A few years later, in 1965, he went to the New York Film Festival where he would have another life altering epiphany. He was there to watch Erich von Stroheim’s silent film, The Wedding March (1928). So were 2,000 other people. Avery Fisher Hall—now named David Fisher and David Geffen Hall—was bubbling with excitement, an experience Peña described as magical. “I thought I was the only one who was coming. From there, after discovering the public pleasure of watching a film, films became a greater and greater part of my life.”

Professor Richard Peña, a son of Spanish and Puerto Rican immigrants, is a living encyclopedia of film history. He began his time at Columbia in 1989, went full time in 1996, and was named Professor of Professional Practice in 2003. During those years, he founded the MA program in Film Studies: History, Theory and Criticism (HTC), recently renamed the MA program in Film and Media studies, where students look at the evolution of cinema as an art, an institution, an object of philosophical study, and an international socio-cultural phenomenon. Peña has also served as the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival from 1988 to 2012—an extensive behind-the-scenes career choosing what to screen at one of the country’s most prestigious film institutions.

I met Peña in his office, surrounded by more than 2,000 films from around the world. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with them after retiring,” he lamented. During the following thirty minutes, he would answer my questions with remarkable precision, as if he knew them beforehand (he didn’t) or as if he had carefully thought about them his whole career by teaching film history and theory at Columbia University for the last thirty years (he obviously had).

“If history is written by winners, film history is written by winners too,” he said as we got started. “The most famous Hollywood films of the past were not always the best, but those that received the most publicity or made the most money. Our education in the United States doesn’t usually lead us to be curious about other films or other worlds. My job has consisted of searching for those dark holes in film history, learning about them and trying to illuminate them to make the world richer.”

Peña usually describes his job as being part of the ‘film history business.’ In 1988, he became the director of the New York Film Festival and Program Director of the Film Society, curating films. “I tried to show what I thought were important trends, forgotten figures, or figures who needed to be discovered in places like Latin America, Iran, or China.” There, he learned that film transcends culture and borders in a way poetry and painting cannot. I was curious about this, since that same morning, I had read an argument about the universality of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems—poems that express themes of loss and the struggle to find one's place in the world.

“Sometimes I regret saying that a bit,” Peña said, chuckling. “Film definitely has certain cultural biases. But it offers something straightforward: you’re there, looking at a face or looking at a place, and you immediately react to that, even if it's a face quite different from yours. In poetry or painting, you only have a mediated experience. Even people with prejudices towards a culture can see a movie and suddenly connect directly with humans. It happens in other arts, but it is always mediated.”

After his answer, I asked him a follow-up question: universality in films. The greatest movies contain both universality and the specificity of a particular culture. How accurate is that universality? “The US has dominated world cinema since 1918,” Peña said. “There has never been a level playing field. US cinemas have a great impact on the way films are made. That doesn’t happen in literature, for example, not even considering the power of the English language. There’s no comparison to the way Hollywood has dominated the world. Hollywood made many great films, but the idea that one country has that kind of control makes you think.” I asked him for an example and he quickly struck back. “I was in Brazil a few years ago when one of the versions or one of the editions of The Avengers came out. The Avengers was playing on 85% of all Brazilian screens. Imagine that you suddenly only hear Brazilian music on the American radio.”

Everywhere Peña has traveled, he has emphasized the necessity of supporting independent filmmakers trying to break free from the model of commercial cinema created by Hollywood. “What’s most powerful is deemed as universal, so we say that Hollywood films are universal. But they are universal because they forced themselves into the world! The world had to learn how to watch them. This is not to say they are bad, but they became universal simply by force or habit. The same happens within the US. For how long was African American life—or other relevant national experiences—completely absent from the screens?”

But then, Peña showed his more optimistic side. “At the same time, there has been a kind of democratization of the means. In the earliest days of cinema, who could make a film? Those who had an expensive camera. Since the end of the nineteenth century, there has been a kind of progressive democratization of the medium to the point where you could make a movie with that,” he said, pointing to the iPhone recording our conversation. “With that, you have a greater diversity of voices [now] than ever. And that’s good.”

During Peña’s tenure, the Film Society grew both physically and in scope, Peña’s years coinciding with a greater American awareness of filmmakers around the planet. Recounting his showcasing of Iranian films at Lincoln Center, he reiterated that the films are “out there,” insisting on the importance of having a historical perspective as a curator. “You can always find an audience, especially if the film is good. I’ve had the privilege of being one of the first to expose Iranian cinema to the US. 95% of the viewers were Iranian the first time we showed Iranian films. But then, for four or five years, Iranians were maybe 20% of the audience. Other people liked those films, too.”

Before closing the interview and leaving his office, a temple of film knowledge, I asked him what impact teaching has had on his understanding of films. He returned to his idea of black holes in cinema history, explaining how his Film History class led him to discover German movies from the early 1930s to the 1970s. “There was another black hole there. I asked myself: why is nobody talking about this? I found quite a few excellent movies. It led me to do a series at Lincoln Center called 'After The War Before The Wall (German cinema from 1949 to 1961).’ You could see how Germany reformed itself after Nazism and what role cinemas played. It is not one of the best periods of film history, but it is fascinating because the country was trying to reimagine itself. Cinema is a good tool to do that.”

After more than thirty years of teaching, there’s still something that surprises Peña: the effect older movies can have on his students. “There are certain films that, no matter how many times you show them, still really affect students a lot,” he said. He’s currently teaching an Arab and African cinema class. He recently showed them the 1969 Egyptian movie The Night of Counting the Years. Everybody's jaw dropped. “It is wonderful that the film is still a  knockout years later. Remarkably, a work of art doesn't lose its power.”

I asked, “If you could leave one—and only one—piece of advice to your students, what would it be?”

“Watch films!” he said, grinning. “It is the best way to learn about film. It is also important to watch a film several times. The first time you watch it, you focus on the plot. The second time, you start noticing some details. The third time, you suddenly know the plot story, you know what will happen, and then the filmmaker’s work pops up. Where are the cameras placed? How do they move? Why? Each time you watch a film, you understand it better.”

Richard Peña has also taught film history and theory at Princeton, Harvard, the University of Paris/Sorbonne, the University of São Paulo, Beijing University and Jadavpur University. At the Film Society, Professor Peña has organized retrospectives of Michelangelo Antonioni, Sacha Guitry, Abbas Kiarostami, Robert Aldrich, Gabriel Figueroa, Ritwik Ghatak, Kira Muratova, Youssef Chahine, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Saura and Amitabh Bachchan, as well as major film series devoted to African, Chinese, Cuban, Polish, Hungarian, Arab, Korean, Japanese Soviet and Argentine cinema.