Split Screens Festival
May 29-June 3
323 Sixth Ave.
New York City, NY
By GWEN OREL
How do you watch TV? Some shows — “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” the Super Bowl — merit watch parties.
But most often, TV is a relatively solitary activity. Maybe another family member is there, maybe not. Maybe you watch on an iPad, or on a computer. Maybe you’re up late bingeing a show on a school night because you just have to know what happens.
The communal experience is reserved for online boards, such as A.V. Club, Primetimer, Reddit, and comments on recaps.
It’s different at the Split Screens Festival.
Now in its third year, the festival, which runs from May 29 to June 3 in New York, is spearheaded by Montclair’s Raphaela Neihausen, who from 2011 to 2104 was the executive director of the Montclair Film Festival. She’s currently executive director of the documentary festival DOC NYC, and a weekly series at Manhattan’s IFC Center called Stranger than Fiction.
She produced the 2017 Oscar-nominated short film “Joe’s Violin.”
But for all her love of film, it’s not uncommon, Neihausen said with a laugh, for her husband Thom Powers to have to come downstairs late at night and take the remote control from her hands. “I am often a broken woman because bingeable content is available.”
While the term “golden age of television” gets thrown around, there is some truth in that idea, she said. “There’s an abundance, not just in the quantity, but also higher quality than there’s been before. This festival is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the best of scripted television, and cull through all of it.”
Neihausen works with John Vanco, another Montclairite, at IFC, and it was Vanco’s idea to hold Split Screens.
“There are so many overlaps given how many great documentary features originate with tv and streaming networks but end up playing in theaters. And of course there’s a similar commonality in the fiction feature world. One might even say that this golden age of television owes much of its origins to all the talented American independent filmmakers who hit a wall trying to raise financing for a film, and then migrated to direct episodes of high end television with immense verve and style. We audiences are still reaping the rewards of that migration,” Vanco said in an email from Cannes.
And it’s a way to see television as a true cinematic art form, up on the big screen, with others watching.
“TV fans are people hungry to communicate with other people,” Neihausen said. “There’s a huge online fanbase for all of these things.” The festival is for “people who want to experience television as a community.
Split Screens will include conversations with Pamela Adlon (FX’s “Better Things”), Christopher Abbott (Hulu’s upcoming “Catch-22”), and William Jackson Harper (NBC’s “The Good Place”), among others. There will be a fan-focused live watch of “Deadwood: The Movie,” with an appearance by Ian McShane, and the Season 5 premiere of AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” as well as advance screenings of premieres, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Queen Sugar.”
Insider panels include a showcase of “Russian Doll,” a panel on live streaming and a discussion of (S)heroes, among others.
Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland and New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz are co-creative directors of the festival.
Some of the events spotlight the nuts and bolts of TV-making, Neihausen said: the “Russian Doll” event on Wednesday, May 29, includes the hair department head Marcel Dagenais and the costume designer Jenn Rogien, and illustrates “what goes into making a show like that.” In the show, a young woman dies on her 35th birthday, only to come back to life and die on her 35th birthday again. The close-up with “Better Things” executive producer Pamela Adlon will go into her personal approach to her work and to being a woman in this industry.
She likes to stay busy: in July she’s launching 51Fest, a festival that celebrates the female majority, and female storytellers, with screenings, conversation, and performance, all by and about women, also at IFC.
Putting together festivals is challenging: sometimes Neihausen won’t know until the last minute if talent can be there in person, due to production schedules out of that person’s control.
Janet Mock, the winner of this year’s Vanguard Award, will film a video message to an audience. Mock is a trans woman of color who made history with her script for “Love Is the Message,” from Season 1 of “Pose,” which Split Screens will show.
Storytelling is what keeps Neihausen watching. She’s particularly excited to see the premiere of Season 4 of “Queen Sugar,” a multigenerational drama about an African American family fighting to preserve their father’s legacy.
There’s something about having to live with a show over time that makes people have a deeper investment with television, and feel a more lingering impact, than they often do with a film, which makes an impression and then vanishes.
Bingeing may have a little more of a junk-food quality, Neihausen said. But “in this time and age, the way we interact with all technology, our brains are being rewired in real time. We don’t yet know what it means.”