Festival’s new director returns to N.Y.C. to find a community


Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Peter Scarlet last February at City Hall

Peter Scarlet was 3,000 miles away from New York — 6,000 miles away from San Francisco, for that matter — when he first heard of something called the Tribeca Film Festival.

Why, he wondered. Who needs it, he wondered. Aren’t there enough film festivals in this world?

Peter Scarlet is not a negative personality. He is one thousand percent the opposite of a negative personality. He is a joyous, omnivorous enthusiast, capital E, and what he devours, what he eats, sleeps, and dreams, is film. Movies. Motion Pictures. Pix. Flicks. Cinema. “The hardest thing in writing about movies,” Andrew Sarris was once heard to say (since he said it to me), “is finding synonyms for the word ‘movies.’”

When he first learned about the Tribeca project, Peter Scarlet was in fact in Paris, France, going head to head with the famed and venerable Cinematheque Francais. He had come to its directorship after 19 good years running the San Francisco Film Festival. “I had been offered a job, the Cinematheque, that was too good to be true — took the job, went there, and found out it was too good to be true.”

After one year at the Cinematheque, Scarlet came home to the United States — gladly — and today he’s the director of the Tribeca Film Festival as it enters its second season.

“I am of that generation,” says Peter Scarlet, “when you didn’t have a lot of film festivals in this country. Chicago, San Francisco, New York — that was pretty much it for a long time. Now they’re everywhere, often run by people who don’t know what a film festival is. You know” — in deadpan throwaway — “somebody could make a lot of money putting out a product called Festicide.”

But even 3,000 miles away, Scarlet says, it was clear that that first Tribeca Film Festival had been a tremendous success.

“What I didn’t know was why,” he says. “Now I know that it was born out of very positive and altruistic and generous motives — not only to put this community back on its feet, but to become a vital part of that community. And not just the community of Tribeca but of New York City. When I left here in 1970, there was no community. You remember the 1970s.”

Back in New York in the fall of 2002 he went to see Jane Rosenthal, co-founding co-director with Robert De Niro of both the Tribeca festival and the many-branched Tribeca Film Center.

“I found she had the same feeling I had about Festicide. Do you remember the great old actor Harry Carey? Remember the moment in ‘Red River’ [Hawks, Wayne, Clift, Brennan, 1948] where Harry Carey gets to say: ‘There are three times in a man’s life when he has the right to get drunk and go out and howl at the moon — when he gets married, when his first child is born, and when he finishes a job he hadn’t oughta have started in the first place.’

“Well, when these folks [Rosenthal, De Niro & Co.] put on a film festival in New York, with only four months to prepare it, never having done a festival before, three months after 9/11 — and they did it — they have the right to go out and get drunk and howl at the moon to the end of time, as far as I’m concerned.”

Thus Brooklyn-born, Murray Hill-raised, 59-years-young Peter Scarlet, who last October became director of the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, and hasn’t had much sleep since. Or maybe any. “For that, you should interview my wife.”

In point of fact, and speaking of moons, at the very moment of this palaver between Peter Scarlet and the Downtown Express a few weeks ago, his wife, the Voice of America’s Katayoun Beglari, is en route by car from Jordan to Baghdad, and has just been telling her husband by cell phone about the beautiful full moon overhead — the same full moon lighting up the N. Moore St. along which, in a brief break at 8 p.m., Scarlet is walking from his festival office for a restorative espresso at Bubby’s.

There are, judging from the 30-page 2003 Tribeca Film Festival Guide, some 200 films of various types, lengths, origins, nationalities, vintages, categories, etc., in this year’s assemblage. “And if there are 200 we’re showing,” says Scarlet, deadpan as before, “look upon us as the Saint Georges of New York who have slain 2,000 dragons at the gate before they could be inflicted on the public.”

Did Scarlet himself play a role in the selection process?

“This year? You’re damn right I did. There are three people who work on this” — David Kwok and Nancy Schaefer are the other two — “but I’m the chief culprit. After all, I did it for 19 years in San Francisco.

“Also I’m a traveler. I go out and hunt. As far as I’m concerned, a film-festival director must travel. Go out and find films that give you an idea of what’s going on in the world that you can’t grasp from newspapers or television. See films that aren’t quite finished, aren’t quite ready for other festivals. And so forth. It’s a kind of proactive way of programming.”

It was on one such scouting trip that Scarlet found himself screening old videos of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at schools and orphanages in Kabul, Afghanistan (he himself is the son of two New York City high-school teachers). “These Afghan kids’ teachers said they’d never seen children laugh this way before.” Anyone who knows Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” [Joel McRae, Veronica Lake, a chain gang, 1941] will feel what Edward Wilson called the shock of recognition.

Afghanistan, by the way, lies at the heart of two of this year’s features of which Scarlet is particularly proud:

“Nilofar in the Rain” (a first film by Homayoun Karimpour), about an Afghan exile in Paris who sees on television a beautiful girl — an Afghan refugee — in Pakistan, goes to Pakistan, finds she’s a prostitute, marries her, brings her back to Paris — and then her father shows up. “Like a film Antonioni made in the ’50s.”

“Fire Dancer,” a movie about Afghan immigrants in New York and the clash of generations — “like an 80-years-later ‘Jazz Singer’ “ [Alan Crosland, Al Jolson, 1927]. The director of “Fire Dancer,” 42-year-old Jawed Wassel, will not be at the festival. In the fall of 2001 he was killed here in New York by one of the investors in the film.

Of the many “sidebars” at this year’s, like last year’s, festival — family events, a street fair, a rock and comedy concert, panels, workshops, art exhibits — one new kick will be three nights of “Drive-in” movies, free (but ticket required), on Pier 25. The pictures to be shown are Barry Levinson’s “Diner” (1982). Randal Kleiser’s “Grease” (1978), and, on the third night, whatever turns out to be the festival voters’ choice of “the best New York romantic movie ever made.”

Downtown Express interviewer (Before “When Harry Met Sally” won the online poll): “I vote for ‘The Clock’” [Minnelli/ Zinnemann, Judy Garland, Robert Walker, Penn Station, James Gleason, a milk wagon, a subway, World War II; 1945].

Peter Scarlet: “That would be one of mine.”

Does Robert De Niro, one wonders, have any active role in the selection of some of those 200 entries?

“Yes, he does,” says festival director Scarlet. “I think a lot of films come here because of his presence, particularly Hollywood films that would not otherwise play an offbeat New York festival. Not just because he’s a star, but because he’s respected.”

And Al Pacino — this year Pacino’s making two personal appearances at your wingding. How’d that come to pass?

“Well,” says Peter Scarlet, judiciously, “I heard he was really excited by last year’s festival, and the fact that his ‘Insomnia’ was part of it. [Scarlet as Pacino] ‘God, what do we need Cannes for?’”

Yes, or cinematheques for that matter.


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