Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Bringing Independent Film, and its Emotional Resonance, to the World

When most moviegoers were flocking to see “Jaws” and “Star Wars” in the 1970s, Brian Ackerman ’81 was immersing himself in the foreign, independent and experimental films that his father, Meyer, brought to the string of theaters he owned in the New York City area.

  • Brian Ackerman on stage interviewing Dr. Serena McCalla at the Jacob Burns Film Center
    Brian Ackerman ’81 with Dr. Serena McCalla, a research teacher from Long Island featured in the documentary "Science Fair." The Jacob Burns Film Center hosted McCalla for a Q&A following a screening of the film in October 2018 as part of their original "Inquiry: Science on Film" series.
  • Brian Ackerman ’81
    “Films take us to places that no other art form can approach," says Brian Ackerman ’81Ackerman is the program director for the Jacob Burns Film Center, one of the country’s most successful suburban art houses.

Ackerman recalls being awestruck as a teenager by “The Conformist,” Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece on Italian fascism, and “The Ruling Class,” a 1972 black comedy with Peter O’Toole. “The movies my father played weren’t necessarily made to please audiences,” he says. “They were made to mess with our heads.”

The Exceptionality of Independent Films 

Ackerman inherited his father’s passion for films outside the Hollywood mainstream. He has served for the last two decades as program director for the Jacob Burns Film Center, a nonprofit cinema and education center located in Pleasantville, New York, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, where he oversees the kind of films screened at the institution. It has become one of the country’s most successful suburban art houses, with over 225,000 people typically coming each year to see 450 films from all over the world, from new indies to documentaries to specially curated thematic series.

“Films take us to places that no other art form can approach, and what’s particularly beautiful about the best art films is that they’re mining this space for deep and honest emotional resonance, constantly exploring the form for new experiences,” he says. Though Ackerman voices appreciation for many commercial films made today—he loved writer-director Rian Johnson’s mystery “Knives Out,” for instance—he doesn’t often see them have the same impact. “Typical commercial films, which are treading very formulaic ground, expend most of their brilliance going after really primal, simple instincts like fear and anger,” he says. 

Weathering the Storm of COVID-19

Like many other movie theaters and arts institutions, the center has struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic. It has been closed since March 2020 because of New York’s COVID-19 restrictions, forcing much of the staff to be laid off. Ackerman and the other programmers have set up a “virtual screening room” with carefully selected new releases that are available through the center for a fee, such as celebrated Romanian documentary “Collective,” about a shocking case of corruption and the journalists who chase it down.

Yet choices have been limited since distributors are holding many films back until theaters can reopen nationwide, and Ackerman says only a small audience has taken advantage of the offerings so far. The center’s usual roster of special events, which include up-close conversations with directors, actors and writers, is diminished but still active online. (Pre-pandemic, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Barry Jenkins and Greta Gerwig are just a few of the A-list guests who have appeared there in person over the years.) Other creative endeavors are paused as well, including workshops for children and adults, a burgeoning fellowship program for emerging filmmakers and an artist-in-residence program where Bong Joon Ho of “Parasite” fame spent a month five years ago. “Everything has been a challenge,” says Ackerman.

A Brighter Future for Film 

There have been bright spots though. The free online conversations that the center has sponsored with filmmakers, writers, and activists during this period have been viewed thousands of times on its YouTube channel. More than 850 festival passes were sold to its annual Jewish Film Festival in October, even though the films were showcased online. Plus, a large proportion who bought passes watched all 12 movies that were featured—atypical for most film festivals. “That went way beyond anything we ever expected,” says Ackerman. “It shows that our community continues to have a desire to see thought-provoking, ambitious work.”

Fortunately, the center is financed largely by membership fees and donations, so it doesn’t have to rely entirely on ticket sales. In addition, it has a robust endowment that insures it will stay in business, which will not be the case for many for-profit theaters. “It’s going to be a very different landscape when the pandemic is over, and we may actually be a stronger institution when all is said and done,” he adds. “People are going to want to still connect with each other through the arts, and take part in the shared, communal experience that you can have here.” 

Acquiring a Richer Understanding of the World 

While at Brandeis Ackerman had little interest in working in the film world. Born partially deaf, he grappled with feelings of shame and denial as a young man; he even refused to wear a hearing aid until he was in his 20s. That struggle contributed to depression as an undergrad, and he took a year-long leave of absence from his studies. During that time, he worked on an independent film that a high school friend was directing, and it reignited his interest in the art form. So after returning to Brandeis and graduating with a degree in European history, Ackerman landed a position building cinemas for a company that owned many iconic New York theatres, like the Angelika, before moving on to programming films for some of his father’s art houses.

Despite not studying film formally, he says the liberal arts instruction he received at Brandeis prepared him well. “I can’t speak as a scholar about say, Italian Neorealism or German Expressionism,” he says, “but my Brandeis education opened me to the richness and complexity of the world, and left me with many deep interests outside of film. That makes for a wonderful way to look at movies.” Looking back, he now looks at how his hearing loss influences the way he experiences film as well. “I often miss a fair amount of dialogue, but at the same time I think I’ve developed a keener sense of the totality of what’s happening on screen and how it’s being expressed,” he says. 

A Lifelong Fantasy - Fulfilled 

In 1998, as he and his father were in the process of selling most of their movie houses, Ackerman met Stephen Apkon, a Pleasantville resident who had left his Wall Street job to pursue his dream of launching a film center in his hometown. Ackerman joined the Burns Center team as an advisor in planning and developing the theater, along with a star-studded list of board members that came to include Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg and the late Jonathan Demme.

In 2001 he became the center’s founding programming director. Ackerman’s father, who passed away in 2019, more than approved. “This was what he regarded as his fantasy theater, a place where you have almost free rein over what you put in front of audiences—and they are only grateful,” he says.

Ackerman's Top Five Music Films  

Brian Ackerman loves a wide array of movies, but with a year like this, he’s been focused recently on music films, which he likes to refer to as “bottled joy.” Under normal circumstances, he and his staff organize an annual summer festival of music documentaries and an annual jazz series. Here are his thoughts on five of his favorites:

  • David Byrne onstage in the film "Stop Making Sense"
    1. “Stop Making Sense” (1984): “Jonathan Demme shattered the very idea of what a concert film could be with his exhilarating take on David Byrne’s boisterously eccentric musical energy.”

    Photo Credit: Jonathan Demme, "Stop Making Sense," Cinecom Pictures, Palm Pictures, 1984

  • Female jazz singer Mahalia Jackson from the film "Jazz On a Summer's Day"
    2. “Jazz On A Summer’s Day” (1959): “Bert Stern’s cinematically gorgeous capture of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is a kind of bottled joy that can be drunk weekly.”

    Photo Credit: Bert Stern, Aram Avakian, "Jazz on A Summer's Day," New Yorker Films, 1960

  • Aretha Franklin, singing, from the film, Amazing Grace
    3. “Amazing Grace” (2018): “Aretha Franklin. Put simply, the most jaw-dropping performance—of any kind—I think I’ve ever seen.”

    Photo Credit: Alan Elliot, "Amazing Grace," Warner Brothers, 2018

  • Evelyn Glennie beating a drum from the film "Touch the Sound".
    4. “Touch The Sound” (2004): “Thomas Ridelsheimer’s joyfully cinematic, mesmerizing doc on the incredible deaf (!) percussionist Evelyn Glennie.”

    Photo Credit: Thomas Riedelsheimer, "Touch the Sound," Piffl Medien GmbH, 2004

  • Glenn Gould from the film "Glenn Gould: Hereafter".
    5. “Glenn Gould: Hereafter” (2006): “Bruno Monsaingeon’s deep, soulful tribute to his friend, the gloriously enigmatic musical genius, Glenn Gould.”

    Photo Credit: Bruno Monsaingeon, "Glenn Gould: Hereafter," ©Idéale Audience / Rhombus Media Inc / ARTE France / BBC, 2006

— Heather Salerno