By Heidi Simmons
Every year the PSIFF gathers a world of culture to show the Coachella Valley. The 27th annual festival has 176 films from over 60 countries that range from Africa and Australia to Palestine and Poland.
These movies don’t just arrive in the desert without thought and consideration. A team of programmers meticulously curate films and design programs that capture our hearts, provoke our thinking and enlighten our worldview.
Working with Artistic Director Helen du Toit, the programming team searches the globe to make the PSIFF exciting, interesting and fun for all who love and value the art of cinema.
Alissa Simon has been a programmer with PSIFF since 2000 and was named Senior Programmer in 2008. She has been a film curator for 25 years. Simon is a Yale graduate. In 1999, she was named Chicagoan of the Year for her innovative work as Associate Director/Programming at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute. Simon is also a regular contributor to the film industry trade paper Variety.
Cinematically savvy and a true film fan, Simon confidently moves about the festival chatting with filmmakers, industry professionals and film buffs. She always has a smile and is cheerful and charming. Simon was kind enough to answer some questions about life as a PSIFF programmer.
CVW: What do you program for the festival?
Simon: Different members of the programming team take responsibility for different geographical areas. I follow the films from Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East — although I do select films from other areas.
CVW: How many programmers are on your team and when do you start looking for films?
Simon: I’m part of the programming team working under Artistic Director Helen du Toit. Including Helen, we are 7 programmers, plus a few associates. I start going to new festivals later in January. I discovered THE FENCER last January at the Nordic Film Market in Gothenburg.
CVW: Do you watch all the movies all the way through to the end?
Simon: No, not all. I usually can tell pretty quickly if it is a film that I would be interested in programming.
CVW: Where do you live?
Simon: I live in Chicago, but I say, jokingly, that I am a “migrant arts worker” because I am traveling almost all the time and in the past six years, I have been in London each spring for three months.
CVW: Where do you begin looking for new films?
Simon: I start watching films right after Palm Springs finishes because there are several big markets where I find things: the Nordic Film Market at the Gothenburg Festival and the European Film Market at the Berlin Film Festival.
CVW: Is there something specific that makes a perfect PSIFF film?
Simon: I keep an open mind, but personally I go for humanist dramedies and fresh takes on genre.
CVW: What makes the PSIFF special or unique?
Simon: Many things, including our timing, which coincides with the awards season, our focus on foreign-language films including a specially curated section of the best films submitted to the Academy for the Best Foreign Language Oscar©, our Sunnylands retreat for filmmakers, our filmmaker hikes in beautiful Indian Canyon guided by Tribal Rangers, and our many, many, wonderful volunteers.
CVW: What is the hardest part of your job?
Simon: Competing with other festivals to get certain films.
CVW: What do you like best about your job?
Simon: When I see a filmmaker connect with the audience and the audience connect with a film.
CVW: How many film festivals do you attend during a year?
Simon: Probably 12 – 15
CVW: If you were stranded on an island and only had three movies to watch what would they be?
Simon: My favorites are always evolving.
CVW: What would you be doing if you were not a film festival programmer?
Simon: I used to work in a museum cinematheque and in a film archive, both of which I enjoyed. But festival programming is the best!
CVW: What do you do for fun?
Simon: I actually go to movies! When I am in London, I am at the British Film Institute at the South Bank watching films 3 or 4 nights a week. I also love watching contemporary dance.
CVW: What do you do after the PSIFF?
Simon: I go back to Chicago for a few weeks then on to Gothenburg and Berlin.
CVW: Is there anything you want people to know about film and why festivals are important?
Simon: Film festivals bring films that may never come into distribution. It’s a great opportunity to see films as they were meant to be seen: on a big screen in the best possible viewing situation. It’s a chance to travel the world without leaving town, to experience new cultures and ideas.