The New Jersey Film Festival is celebrating its 33rd year with an inspired lineup that will make you actually look forward to the beginning of autumn. Over 25 films have been chosen, ranging from international, American, independent features, experimental, short subjects, classic revivals, and documentaries.
Many film festivals such as Sundance and Toronto have become more about showcasing mainstream Hollywood films and documenting celebrity sightings. Albert Nigrin, director and curator of the New Jersey Film Festival chooses films that “fly under the mainstream radar; we seek out creativity, artistry and innovation.” The films shown at the New Jersey Film Festival are often making their regional premier with at the added bonus of question and answer sessions with the filmmakers.
The New Jersey Film Festival opens on Thursday, September 11, at 7 p.m. with a retrospective of French film innovator and pioneer George Melies. It starts with the science-fiction wonder “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), followed by “The Impossible Voyage” (1904), “The Rubber Head” (1902), and others. Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Melies-inspired feature film “Hugo” tops off the evening at the Ruth Adams Building at Rutger’s University.
Nigrin has described the New Jersey Film Festival as a mirror of our times. This summer’s viral ALS ice bucket challenge morphs into a touching documentary from Donna York — “Hope on the Horizon.” York, from Basking Ridge follows four hikers climbing the highest peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains — all to raise awareness about the daily challenges of ALS. The film will be shown on Friday, October 3.
New Jersey filmmakers Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno’s look at education reform in “The Rule,” shown on Sunday, September 14. The film documents the academic success story of Benedictine monks teaching inner city boys at a prep school in Newark. Bucking the trend in a city where the high school graduation rate is 22 percent, St. Benedict’s Prep has a 90 percent college acceptance rate.
This year there were 277 submissions to go through. While it is getting harder and harder for independent filmmakers to get their work seen, the New Jersey Film Festival provides a collegial atmosphere giving independent filmmakers a better chance. Awards are given but not overemphasized. Juries offer written feedback to each entrant who requests it, whether he or she has been accepted or not. Nigrin says that many of the filmmakers are impressed with the thoughtfulness of the process. “Since we are filmmakers ourselves we know how to do it right.”
Rutgers Cinema Studies student Andrew Zrebiec explains one aspect of the selection process and how film students participated as interns. “Our job is to weed out the good and the bad, and rate the films based on their quality in terms of originality of story, characters, the script writing, creativity, image quality, and production values. We take our jobs seriously because we are the first to see the films. The films get an overall number rating, and the ones with middle to high scores are then screened through a more elite group of judges.”
Zrebiec, who has been in the program since 2011 and has the responsibilities of a manager for both the office and house manager during screenings, says that his active involvement has enhanced his critical awareness. “I know how intimidating it can be to first give your opinion on someone else’s work. The only information I usually give other interns who watch the films with me is to keep an open mind. It is difficult not to compare to other things that have been screened at the festival, but is important to keep fresh eyes for anything that has potential.
“I also say not to back down on your opinion. If you really love something, say it. Even if only one word comes to your mind, write it down. If you think it is a good fit for the festival, a high rating will get it reconsidered among lower ratings. If the subject of a documentary is unique or the story of a feature film is creative, it has a better chance to get in than a film that had a lot of money put into it but just wasn’t compelling.”
Nigrin says that as the curator of the New Jersey Film Festival, his job is to try to find common themes and elements when putting together the schedule. “Most of the time it is pretty easy to do but from time to time some films do fit and these are grouped together as a kind of potpourri program. All the works (in the festival) were selected by a panel of judges including media professionals, journalists, students, and academics. These judges selected the 23 finalists which will be publicly screened at our Festival.” The judges will choose the prize winners in conjunction with the festival director and announced results after the screenings on Sunday, October 5.
This year’s jurors are professors Irene Fizer and Nigrin, journalist Vic Fern, and film student interns and volunteers: Lauren Caputo, Oympia Christofinis, Jennifer Coard, Jessica Dotson, Sam Green, Paige Navalny, Eden Sapir, and Rob Torres. The office and house managers are Erica Conty, Molly Rich, Johanna Ruiz, and Zrebiec.
As a graduate student at Rutgers in 1982, Nigrin was frustrated by the lack of films on campus and used his own money to temporarily convert a basement classroom into revival-movie theater. The venue has expanded to the Ruth Adams Building and Voorhees Hall with state-of-the-art equipment. And the film showings have morphed into an organization co-sponsored by Rutgers University, local corporations, and county, state, and federal art funding.
Originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, Nigrin studied French and history at the State University of New York at Binghamton and has a graduate degree in visual arts and French literature from Rutgers. He is a lecturer in cinematic studies as well as a noted filmmaker. His father, a pediatric endocrinologist, and pianist mother encouraged Nigrin’s artistic pursuits. “I have the best parents in the world, and they have been very supportive of my cinematic endeavors,” he says.
The New Jersey Film Festival has been supporting the cinematic endeavors of professional and emerging filmmakers locally and internationally in the longest running film festival in New Jersey. It’s a formula that’s worked for 33 years.
New Jersey Film Festival, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, is presenting from Thursday, September 11, through Thursday, October 16. $10. For the complete schedule of programs including film descriptions, locations, screenings, presentations by filmmakers, venues, and special events, visit www.njfilmfest.com or call 848-932-8482.