After finishing her Ph.D. work at NYU, Elena Oumano had a burst of energy—and an idea for a book.
“I wanted to write about film,” says Oumano, an associate professor in BMCC’s Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts. She pitched an idea to St. Martin’s Press, received an advance and proceeded to spend it all traveling around the U.S. and Europe, interviewing some of the most iconic filmmakers of the postwar era—Bertolucci, Scorsese, Altman, Godard, Fassbinder and Chabrol, among others.
That was 25 years ago and the interviews became the substance of Oumano’s first book, Film Forum: Thirty-five Top Filmmakers Discuss Their Craft. Last fall, Rutgers University Press published her 22nd—Cinema Today: A Conversation with 39 Filmmakers Around the World.
A focus on auteurs
“Cinema Today is structured as a kind of symposium in print,” says Oumano. “This time I turned my attention to auteurs—directors who also write the screenplay, do the camera work and even handle some of the editing, so that their personal creative vision is reflected in the film.”
In the quarter-century since her first book appeared, Oumano says, "Filmmaking has changed significantly and that’s what I wanted to convey in Cinema Today.” But the changes that interested her had less to do with the aesthetics and social messages than with technology.
“Equipment has gotten lighter, cheaper and better, and that has had a democratizing effect,” she says. “Countries that didn’t have a single filmmaker a generation ago now have burgeoning movie industries.”
While Cinema Today includes interviews with legendary directors such as Costa-Garvas and Melvin van Peeples, it also features established and emerging artists from Turkey, Lebanon, the Philippines, Israel, Russia, Latin America and elsewhere.
In researching her first book, Oumano recalls, she had little difficulty gaining access to directors. “I was an unpublished writer with nothing but a good idea and backing from a publisher, but I had no difficulty getting people like Scorsese and Godard to talk to me. This time, I had 21 books to my name and solid credentials as a movie reviewer, but found it much harder to make contacts.”
The reason, she suggests, is that the industry has become so much more commercial. “My book wouldn’t come out in time to provide useful exposure for anyone’s films,” she says. “For that reason, many publicists saw no benefit in allowing me to interview the filmmakers they represented.”
Who needs car chases?
All of the filmmakers she did interview “are great writers with an exceptional capacity to translate the complexity of the human condition using dialog, rhyme, action, lighting, location, editing, sound and silence rather than explosions, car chases and trite romantic comedy,” she says. “The sad thing is that their work isn’t distributed in the U.S., so we don’t get to see it.”
While Oumano has made her mark as a film critic and historian, her books reflect a broad range of interests, from music and theater to self-help, nutrition and health. Her biographical subjects include Elvis Presley, Paul Newman and actor-playwright Sam Shepard.
The publication of Cinema Today becomes all the more remarkable in light of the fact that Oumano arranged, conducted, transcribed and edited the interviews and wrote the book while teaching a full course load.
“It wasn’t easy,” she says. “But it was great fun.”