It started as something akin to a scavenger hunt: a free, Monday night film series that relied on volunteers to leaflet the Rutgers campus just to help intrepid film-goers find the screen locations.

Volunteers are still posting those colored flyers to help you find the movie sites, but when the New Jersey Film Festival Spring 1998 season opens on Friday, January 23, it will be bracing for an annual audience of more than 15,000. The spring festival features 39 nights of some 60 film screenings encompassing new international films, American independent features, short subjects, classic revivals, 8 mm films, and documentaries, playing through April 25.

Curator Albert G. Nigrin, who started the series back when he was in graduate school, says the building process has been slow and steady. The festival currently presents more than 130 events a year in three seasonal series. "We’re here for the long haul," says Nigrin, who gets help on his seven-day week from two part-timers and several "handfuls" of volunteers. Rattling off numbers, Nigrin adds, parenthetically, that his festival also boasts a core constituency

of 50 or 60 — "They’ll come to anything."

Known for its spectrum of film offerings that ranges from the popular, historic, classic, and cult, to the just plain questionable, the spring

festival opens with "For Ever Mozart," the latest film from Jean-Luc Godard.

"We always start with something that no one has shown in the state," says Nigrin, "and one that we think is an important film." Godard, who came to prominence with the French New Wave, had faded from sight until his "Hail Mary" got so much publicity, courtesy of vocal and physical protests from the Christian Right. This political filmmaker, who lives in Geneva, turned from film to television in the 1980s, working with partner Ann-Marie Melville. Set during the Bosnian war, the film features a barrage of imagery and philosophical

commentary. "Now it seems that he’s recharged his batteries," says Nigrin.

The festival features 20 films in their New Jersey or area premieres. There are new films from Mike Leigh and Sally Potter, and some still-shocking old films from Andy Warhol ("Blow Job" and "Vinyl"), Jack Smith ("Flaming Creatures"), and Carolee Schneemann ("Fuses"). Other festival highlights include a retrospective of the maverick Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, and the best of Paul Robeson’s films, including "Body and Soul" from 1924. The Thursday-night

revival program of "The Best 100 Films" ever made moves into the 1940s this season, opening with David Lean’s "Great Expectations." The spring season also marks the gala 10th anniversary of the Annual Super 8 Film & Video Festival, February 13 to 15, the only festival of its kind in the nation. Far from waning in popularity, the Super 8 festival expands to three nights for the first time this year. The spring festival’s guest director is Menachem Daum, who speaks

on March 4 at a screening of his documentary, "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America."

Audience polling is one of the keys to the festival’s success. The festival aims to serve diverse constituencies like a "mini-Museum of Modern Art of the movies," says Nigrin. Stanley Kubrick’s "Clockwork Orange" is back for a second time this spring because of an exit survey that invites patrons to recommend any title. "Seeing the film as film rather than as a reproduction of the film — there’s nothing like it," Nigrin reminds viewers.

New Jersey Film Festival, New Brunswick, 732-932-8482. Presented by the Rutgers Film Co-Op, with sponsorship from Kodak, Johnson & Johnson, and CoreStates. Films are screened at 7 p.m. on Thursdays in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College; Fridays and Saturdays, Scott Hall, Room 123, Rutgers College Avenue campus; Sundays at the State Theater. $5 ($8 Sundays).

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