SF International Film Festival’s Noah Cowan Dishes On What’s New This Year

noah cowan sffs
Noah Cowan

Photo Credit: Tommy Lau, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

We’re just days away from the kickoff of the 58th SF International Film Festival, which takes place April 23-May 7 and is the crown jewel of the San Francisco Film Society’s exhibition program. We caught up with SFFS Executive Director Noah Cowan to get the scoop on the hautest films on this year’s schedule, which famous faces we can expect to see around our beautiful city and how he’s finding life in the Bay. The Canadian landed here in March 2014 from Toronto, where he was the founding artistic director at TIFF Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival.

HL: What mark have you personally put on this year’s Festival since there wasn’t really time last year?
NC: The Festival is really a team effort by a group of talented programmers, event producers and communications experts who have been doing a terrific job for many years. I think I may have brought some opinions about how to better organize the Festival for audiences and some connections to interesting filmmakers and talent. But most of my impact is probably felt in behind-the-scenes work, as we rebuilt our strategic direction and the fruits of that exploration, driven forward by the whole team, can be found in the exceptional collaboration programs with folks like SFMOMA, Human Rights Watch and many others.

steve jobs sffs film festival noah cowan
A scene from Alex Gibney’s STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

HL: What do you expect this year’s hottest film to be and why?
NC: We love all our children equally at the Festival and believe that “hot films” seem to find their own way to audiences, no matter the views of the programming team. That being said, we think a lot of folks will be excited about our science and tech focused Opening and Closing films, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Experimenter, as well as the special nights with the Festival’s awardees for the general public. I also think 54: The Director’s Cut is going to be a really fun night.

richard gere san francisco international film festival
Richard Gere, recipient of the Peter J. Owens Award for excellence in acting at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival

Photo Credit: Myrna Suarez, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

HL: Which famous faces can we expect to see in town this year?
NC: Quite a few! Aside from the industry heavy hitters in our honorees Richard Gere, Guillermo del Toro and Paul Schrader, we’ll also be welcoming a number of recognizable names such as Jason Segel, Isabella Rossellini, Jason Schwartzman, Ryan Phillipe, Breckin Meyer, Miranda July and Garpard Ulliel, among many others.

 A scene from Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's THE TRIBE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival
A scene from Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s THE TRIBE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

HL: Tell us about the film in sign language with no subtitles and who that is geared for.
NC: The Tribe is a highly unusual, pretty tough film made in the Ukraine. The emotions are visceral and so the filmmaker chose to communicate them without subtitles, very little music and no dialogue. The film follows a boy’s story in a brutal home for young people who are deaf and dumb and plays out like a contemporary Lord Of The Flies. While not for everyone, there is certainly no film like it in this or any Festival this year.

HL: How does the Bay Area’s innovativeness in technology play a role in the Festival?
NC: The tech community is not only a leading force in our city and region but a fascinating object of contemplation for the rest of the world. We are seeing more and more films that contend with that fact and we are showcasing some of them in the Festival. But the tech community plays another role here. It has made the city even more curious about big ideas and open to discussions about how we might make the world a better place. And it is in this sphere that I think we overlap in a significant way.

HL: Which film, from any time, can you watch every week and never tire of?
NC: Gosh that’s a tough one. I love Preston Sturges, the 1930s social comedy director, and 70s disaster films, but every week? Not sure.

HL: You’ve been here for over a year now. How is SF different than what you expected, or is it?
NC: San Francisco is a unique ecology. I feel like I will be learning about this place for every minute I live here. What I do know is that the film community, the donor community and the tech community have all been incredibly welcoming since I got here.

HL: What neighborhood do you live in and how did you pick that one?
NC: I am in a sweet place right off Mountain Lake Park in the Richmond. It’s really for my senior greyhound Ruckus; we just walk out into the park out of our back door. It gives him and me a lot of pleasure to be somewhere so beautiful.

casto theatre sffs san francisco international film festival
A packed house at the Castro Theatre for a San Francisco Film Society event in 2012

Photo Credit: Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

HL: What’s your favorite movie theater?
NC: There is nothing like the Castro Theatre in the United States. You feel connected to history in a profound and exciting way. Every filmmaker we bring in to the theater becomes quiet and reacts with awe. It is as though they understand they are becoming part of history.

HL: What do you keep promising yourself that you’re going to do in SF/Bay Area that you haven’t done yet?
NC: There are so many incredible things to do here. I feel like I have only scratched the surface. But I think my staff is waiting for me to make good on a promise to go swimming in the ocean. I keep boasting about being a Canadian polar bear who can take the cold water here. We’ll see if I make it!

We wish Cowan well on that swim—as well as this year’s Festival. For the full slate of films and programs featured in this year’s Festival, visit www.sffs.org/sfiff58