Didn’t make it to Sundance or Cannes this year? Did DiNiro forget to mail your all-access pass to the Tribeca Film Festival again? Not to worry, New Jersey has its own little slice of film heaven, and it’s right in our backyard. The New Jersey Film Festival, an eclectic series with a spring line-up that runs through Sunday, April 17, takes place on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick. And while you might not see Nicole or Julianne or Jude there, you will instead have an opportunity to sample a true smorgasbord or films – from foreign films to indie films to documentaries and even some films sure to make the Oscar roster this year.
The brainchild of filmmaker and Rutgers film studies lecturer Albert Gabriel Nigrin, the festival was born as a student-run co-op when Nigrin was a graduate student at Rutgers. "I shelled out $300 from my T.A. (teacher’s assistant) salary and put up a revival festival," he says. Interested in movies that were not getting screened at most theaters, Nigrin pulled together a few films that he and some of his other film buff friends wanted to see. Starting with six nights of programming in 1982, the festival has grown to include 130 events. Now entering its 24th year, with Nigrin at the helm as executive director/ curator, the festival is part of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, which gets support from the state through the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, as well as from Rutgers.
Born in Charlottesville and raised on Staten Island by his father, an endocrinologist pediatrician who was associate director of pediatrics at St. Vincent’s in New York and his mother, a lab technician at St. Vincent’s, Nigrin received his undergraduate degree in French and history at SUNY Binghamton in 1980. He went to Rutgers to pursue a graduate degree in French in 1983, and while taking a course in French film he realized that his lifelong love of film might actually become his career. He earned his MFA from Rutgers in 1986.
Unlike Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival, the New Jersey Festival is not designed to host only world premieres, rather, its mission is to exhibit films that provide an alternative to the commercial media. "There’s a pretense, an exclusivity, with Sundance and Tribeca. You have to club somebody to get a ticket there. They have a country-club feel. It’s all about famous people hobnobbing. (At the New Jersey Film Festival), it is not an aggressive scene," says Nigrin, adding that you still might see some Hollywood heavyweights there.
"We’ve had Todd Solondz (director of Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse). We’ve had Bruce Sinofsky, who directed the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster. And we’ve had Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell three times – she is Scorsese’s editor from Raging Bull (for which Schoonmaker-Powell won the Academy Award for Best Editing, and she was also nominated in 2003 for Scorsese’s "Gangs of New York") The Festival also welcomed Scorsese himself, but that one, Nigrin says, "felt a little bit Hollywood. Scorsese came in through the back door. He wanted to support our programs, but he didn’t want to mix that much." Scorsese aside, "generally, the guests don’t have body guards," Nigrin says. The famous come in through the same door as the audience, and they park in the same lot.
Easy parking is another great feature of the festival, he says. "The parking lot is right next to the (screening) space. It’s like opening up the gate to the backyard. And the gate is not a wall. It’s not insurmountable to get into like some other festivals. It’s very user-friendly."
User-friendly is also the operative word, says Nigrin, describing the mix of the films as art house movies that have cracked the mainstream, such as "I (Heart) Huckabees," a wacky yet charming existential comedy, and the likely Oscar contenders "Motorcycle Diaries" (for Best Foreign Language Film), based on the true story of the early life of che Guevara, and "Vera Drake" (for Best Actress), about an ordinary Englishwoman who leads a secret life as an abortionist, as well as documentaries, which Nigrin calls "the increasingly popular entertainment alternative." This year’s documentaries include another likely Oscar nominee, "Tarnation," a devastating and deeply moving portrait of a child whose mother is a schizophrenic; "Word Wars," which profiles the lives of four Scrabble competitors, and "Last Journey for the Leatherback?" which chronicles the plight of endangered sea turles.
"We want to educate as well as enlighten. We want to challenge people to think," says Nigrin. "We take the intimidation factor out, with pre-film introductions and some post-film Q&A sessions with myself or special guests." Some of these guests include "Tarnation" director Jonathan Caouette; David Ehrenfeld, of Rutgers’ biology department, who introduces "Last Journey for the Leatherback?" on Thursday, January 27; and Matt Graham, one of the subjects of "Word Wars." (Dates for Caouette and Graham were not yet set as of press time; call the festival phone number about two days before the screening dates.)
Nigrin says that the festival is perfect for film buffs who are disenchanted with the mainstream. "In the mainstream cinema nobody is taking chances. Their bottom line is the bottom line, and ours is showing good movies. Some of (the festival films) have never seen the light of day. Does that mean they are not worthy?"
The whole idea behind a film festival like this one is that it’s about the films, not the starlets, gowns, and comedic emcee. "It won’t be a slick presentation but the staff is helpful," says Nigrin. "It is a large space, but it is not tiered seating like the multiplexes and we don’t sell popcorn. Yet people with an interest in good pictures come out of the woodwork because 80 percentof the programs we offer you can’t get anywhere else."
He points out that the big difference between seeing a movie like "Vera Drake" at a regular movie theater and seeing it at the festival boils down to the quality of the audience. "Our audiences are quiet and respectful of the art. If you like movies, different and unique movies, and you like talking about them, you are going to find people of like minds." Case in point: Nigrin has received thank-you notes from couples over the years who have met their partners at the festival.
Nigrin says: "We’re a beacon in the storm for people who don’t want to be subjected to the cookie cutter film experience. Even the classic films that are shown at the festival aren’t done in cookie cutter fashion. The revival nights give people a chance to see some of the best films ever made on the big screen." This year’s selection is ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ "No matter how many times you’ve seen ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ there is nothing quite like seeing it on the big screen."
And if you think there is nothing new under the sun about "The Wizard of Oz," think again. Nigrin says that after the scheduled 7 p.m. screening of "Oz" he will probably run it again and "do the Pink Floyd thing." He offers an explanation for those who don’t know what "the Pink Floyd thing" is. "If you start Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with the second roar of the lion (in the MGM opening sequence) it is supposed to comment on what you see in the film." Admitting that he has never actually tried the experiment before, Nigrin says he thinks it will be fun, and he is sure the audience will get a kick out of it.
This novel perk is just one of the personal touches audience members can expect to see this year. And it is little twists like this that also make the festival unique, says Nigrin. "We do something at just about every screening, including the Q&A sessions with filmmakers and film scholars." They also have giveaways like posters, free tickets, and t-shirts, and trivia contests. And they don’t always publicize them, so get ready to be surprised.
Over the years, the festival has attracted many ardent fans. "Some people come week in, week out," Nigrin says, whether the feature is a documentary, a revival, or part of the Super 8 festival – a juried screening of short and experimental works by students and independent filmmakers from all over the world. And when the movie is over, says Nigrin, "people break up and talk, even if there isn’t a formal Q&A. They stay in the lobby and talk; the experience continues even after the lights go up."
Nigrin firmly believes in the power of film to affect the way people think and interact with one another. "The feeling here is to bring people together and show films that offer diverging points of view so we can truly understand one another," he says. "If people did that more often, the world wouldn’t be in the predicament it is in. We’re trying to make our corner of the world a bit better with our little film festival. It is not big, but we do a lot with what we’ve got."
New Jersey Film Festival, through April 17 (Super 8 Festival is February 18 through 20). Screenings are Fridays through Sunday, at 7 p.m., in Scott Hall, Room 123, Rutgers College Avenue campus, near the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street. Thursday screenings are in Loree Hall 024, Douglass College campus, near the corner of Nichol Avenue and George Street. Admission $6. For more information call 732-932-8482 or for a complete listing of films visit www.njfilmfest.com
Last Journey for the Leatherback?. Stan Minasian’s film features stunning underwater footage and combines environmental activism and documentary film to chronicle the plight of endangered sea turtles. With Q&A session by biology professor David Ehrenfeld. 2004, 30 minutes. Thursday, January 27.
I (Heart) Huckabees. David O. Russell’s film about a man who experiences an amazing series of coincidences. A wacky yet charming existential comedy. 2004, 88 minutes. Friday to Sunday, January 28 to 30.
Notre Musique. Jean-Luc Godard’s newest film, an unexpectedly serene and lucid inquiry into the roots and consdequences of war. Saturday and Sunday, January 29 and 30, at 8:30 p.m
Man with a Movie Camera. Dziga Vertov’s film is one of the earliest and greatest documentary films ever made. This 1929 film features new soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra. 70 minutes. Thursday, February 3.
The Motorcycle Diaries. Walter Salles’ passionate, evocative film based on the early life of Che Guevara. 2004, 128 minutes. Friday to Sunday, February 4 to 6.
Tarnation. Jonathan Caouette’s film is devastating but deeply moving film about a childhood lived in the maelstrom of mental illness. 2004, 88 minutes. Thursday, February 10, at Loree; Friday to Sunday, February 11 to 13, at Scott.
U.S. Super 8 Film & Digital Video Festival. Three-day screenings of competition winners that runs Friday to Sunday, February 18 to 20. www.filmfest.com
The Wizard of Oz. Screening of the American classic. Thursday, February 24.
Vera Drake. Mike Leigh’s film about an ordinary English woman driven to alleviate the suffering of other women who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies. 2004; 125 minutes. Friday to Sunday, February 25 to 27.
What Remains of Us. Francois Prevost and Hugo Latulippe’s film about Kalsang Dolma, a young Tibetan refugee now living in Canada who returned to Tibet in 2004 carrying a secret video message recorded by the Dalai Lama. 77 minutes. Thursday, March 3 at Loree; Friday to Sunday, March 4 to 6, at Scott.
Obedience. Stanley Milgram’s chilling documentary about a classic experiment conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s on obedience to authority. 1965, 50 minutes. Thursday, March 24.
Cowards Bend the Knee. Guy Maddin is often called the Canadian David Lynch and this film is his master work and includes a summary of his life, cinematic techniques and obsessions. 2003, 65 minutes. Preceded by short film, "The Phantom Museum." Friday to Sunday, March 25 to 27.
Travellers and Magicians. Khyentse Norbu’s film is set in the Himalayas and weaves parallel fables about two men seeking to escape their mundane lives. 2004, 108 minutes. Friday to Sunday, April 1 to 3.
Word Wars. Eric Chaikin and Julan Petrillo’s film profiles the lives of four Scrabble competitors as they make their way to national tournament and a chance at winning $25,000. 78 minutes. Friday to Sunday, April 8 to 10.
The Saltmen of Tibet. Ulrike Koch’s film documents the ancient traditions and rituals of a Tibetan nomadic community. Camera follows the three month pilgrimage of the salt men. 1997, 110 minutes. Friday to Sunday, April 15 to 17.