Veteran MoMA Staffer Sally Berger Fired After 30 Years on the Job

MoMA says it will stand by its decision.

Sally Berger. Courtesy of the Institute of Documentary Film.
Sally Berger. Courtesy of the Institute of Documentary Film.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has confirmed that curator Sally Berger has been fired, after 30 years on the job. Her decision to cancel the New York debut of Under the Sun, a controversial North Korean documentary film directed by Russian filmmaker Vitayl Mansky, may have been a reason for the decision.

“My actions reflect several complex and substantive issues, and are the result of a long and deliberative process that Sally has been part of,” wrote Rajendra Roy, the museum’s chief film department curator, in a statement released to IndieWire and sent in response to emails protesting Berger’s termination. “As painful as this decision has been, I stand by it.”

New York’s film community has launched a Facebook-based email campaign to have Berger reinstated.

On June 10, MoMA apologized for not screening Under the Sun at its Doc Fortnight Festival in February. Roy told the New York Times that “Under the Sun is a remarkable documentary that was wrongly disinvited,” and that the decision to do so was “made by the festival’s curator without my knowledge or input.”

Director Sally Potter, Sally Berger and actress Tilda Swinton attend the Sally Potter Retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art on July 7, 2010 in New York City. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

Director Sally Potter, Sally Berger and actress Tilda Swinton attend the Sally Potter Retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art on July 7, 2010 in New York City. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

To shoot his film in North Korea, Mansky agreed to let the government completely oversee the production. During filming, however, Mansky kept the cameras rolling, capturing the degree of control and manipulation exerted by the country’s leaders. Well-received on the international film circuit, the documentary has been criticized by the North Korean and Russian governments.

In emails provided by the filmmakers to the Times, Berger expressed concern that screening Under the Sun could lead to retaliatory action in the same vein as the Sony hack that followed the release of James Franco and Seth Rogen‘s satirical film The Interview, about an unlikely assassination plot against Kim Jong-un. “It just simply came in too late to review all the possible ramifications of showing it here at MoMA,” Berger wrote of her decision.

Vitlay Mansky, <em>Under the Sun</em>, film still. Courtesy Vitaly Mansky.

Vitlay Mansky, Under the Sun, film still. Courtesy Vitaly Mansky.

Numerous Facebook users have expressed their disapproval with MoMA’s decision to fire Berger. “This is insane!” wrote avant-garde filmmaker Su Friedrich.

“Whether Sally Berger made a mistake in this case or not, it’s pathetic to think it’s a fireable offense,” added documentary filmmaker Doug Block on Facebook, founder of the D-Word, an organization for documentary film professionals. “Sally has been such a brilliant curator and tireless champion of independent cinema for decades. Either MOMA is cowardly buckling under the public embarrassment or they were looking to get rid of her and are using this as an excuse.”

He wasn’t the only one on social media who questioned whether other factors were at play. “Firing Sally Berger over this suggests that another agenda was at work,” wrote one e-flux reader in a comment. “MoMA, in my experience, uses small missteps to oust people whose back they wish to see.”

Melis Birder, whose documentaries The Visitors and the The Tenth Planet: A Single Life in Baghdad screened at MoMA thanks to Berger called the curator “a true believer of independent documentaries” on Facebook. “We need her back in MOMA,” Birder insisted.

Former MoMA film curator Laurence Kardish added a statement of support for Berger, telling IndieWire that “I no longer understand what goes on in my old stomping grounds…Doesn’t a curator have the right to pick and choose what is to be shown under his/her auspices?”

While Berger did not respond to artnet News’s request for comment, Block later added that he had spoken with her “at length and can confirm she’s filed a grievance through her union.”


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