Right now film curators around the world are keeping an eye on “Loving,” an early favorite of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for its simple telling of a real-life, American interracial love story. It will be something they will consider for the film festivals they work with, filling the void left by independent, thoughtful films that are often obliterated in the United States by a bombardment of superhero and comic book hero blockbusters.
The most prominent film festivals attract talent from around the globe and have brought new prominence to the cities that host them — Toronto, New York, Tribeca, and so on. New Jersey can add New Brunswick and Trenton to that list.
The good news is that people who crave worthwhile films have unsung heroes scattered across college campuses, little theater companies, and dark screening rooms where they scour little seen films that deserve audiences who can appreciate them.
Al Nigrin is one of those heroes, a soft-spoken teacher and filmmaker whose nurturing of what is now called the New Jersey International Summer Film Festival at Rutgers University has encompassed 20 years and opened the minds of thousands of students and movie lovers.
This year’s festival, screened Saturday, June 4, to Saturday, June 18, in Voorhees Hall on the New Brunswick campus, will be surviving in a changing landscape of digital media that prompted Nigrin to change some of his selection rules.
Nigrin has seen just about all there is to see cinematically. A man with a soft spot for cats (he cares for a colony of the animals), Nigrin has watched a world of retro and independent films morph into a demand for newer works from festival audiences who can rent a new film, stream it on TV, or even shoot a film of their own with a smartphone. The immediacy of digital media has changed everything, Nigrin learned while fostering new talents at a series of festivals whose audiences still range from “a healthy dose of” students to seniors to a handful of long-time regulars who “come to everything.”
“I saw it coming about seven or eight years ago,” says Nigrin, who serves as executive director and curator of the festival. “We’re no longer doing second runs. It’s a pretty healthy film festival. We have money in the bank. But we were just about breaking even. With the digital revolution, everyday people could make films.
Nigrin began to rethink the film festival so liked by director Martin Scorsese that he volunteered to give a lecture about his favorite film — “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” — in 1994.
What will keep an expected audience of 2,500 coming to New Brunswick for the summer festival are 25 films from seven countries culled from 366 submissions. They were then screened and judged by 15 Nigrin film students in two tiers who rate the films from 0 to 10.
Nigrin’s first film festival attracted 50 entries. This year there were an nearly 400.
“About 100 of them were excellent,” says Nigrin of this year’s submissions. “The other 266 were not very good. The people who made those either have to keep working or change what they were doing. Some fell into the “in love with their images too much” category.
An experimental filmmaker with a practical bent, he is on the record for saying, “As always, we’re doing a series of films that our audiences have asked for, and that also fulfills a mandate to reach out to the community. But at the same time we have to be mindful that we want to be back again next year, so we have to feature events that pay the bills.” And he’s no snob, he points out, because like a lot of American audiences, he likes big adventure films, too. In that vein Nigrin will also book a film if he gets five E-mails requesting it.
He cites “The Suitor,” a 12-minute short by Woodside, New York, resident Alvaro Congosto, as one of this year’s festival highlights. It’s a romance that takes place as the famed 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” plays in the background. By setting the fictional event in Grover’s Mill, a section of West Windsor, Welles panicked the nation with the fictional account.
Director Congosto will be part of a question-and-answer session following the film’s debut, an exposure that can jump-start a new talent.
In another bow to New Jersey, Elvie Mae Parian brings an earthy element to her “Chilltown USA,” a documentary detailing Jersey City’s vibrant music scene.
As for acting, Nigrin singles out Gene Gallerano of Jeff Barry’s “Occupy Texas” as a standout.
All of the films will begin at 7 p.m. with a brief intermission between double features. They will be shown in Voorhees Hall 105 on the Rutgers campus near the corner of George and Hamilton streets. Free parking is nearby for patrons.
New Jersey International Film Festival, Voorhees Hall #105, 71 Hamilton Street/College Avenue Campus, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, Monday, June 4, to Thursday, June 18. $9 to $12, some screenings are free. Jimmy John’s of New Brunswick provides free sandwiches prior to all showings. 848-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.
#b#Screening in Trenton#/b#
Elsewhere, fresh off its latest Trenton Film Festival, the small but mighty Trenton Film Society is offering a handful of cinematic gems with Trenton World Cinefest, a festival of films Thursday through Saturday, June 9 through 11, at Mill Hill Playhouse on Front Street in Trenton.
Further proof that a thriving cinema scene in New Jersey’s capital is a promise its burgeoning arts community is determined to keep, the festival is spotlighting seven films featuring moviemakers from regions as diverse as Spain, France, Uruguay, China, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, India, the Congo, United Kingdom, and New Jersey — Haddonfield to be exact.
The man who curated the upcoming Cinefest and two years of its predecessor, the TFS International Film Festival, is St. Louis native Jed Rapfogel, a self-confessed film lover who is a programmer for New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
Just back from a Korean film festival, Rapfogel says his typical day involves “a lot of writing, editing, and assembling the Anthology Film Archives’ quarterly calendar and watching a lot of movies and doing research.
“We have a limited budget, so I can’t go to every film festival, but I go to many. Toronto, Locarno, Vienna, Cannes, New York, Berlin are certainly among the most important.”
For his work with the Trenton Film Society this year, Rapfogel was assigned to find seven noteworthy films, eclectic as possible, and make them as geographically diverse as possible. None of the films have been shown locally, as Rapfogel acknowledges the immediacy digital media offers and the challenge it presents to film festivals.
There are a lot of good films and a film begins its life at a film festival,” he states. “The Trenton Film Society likes the movies to come from many countries, but we added a U.S. film this year. I don’t always get time to go to the Trenton festival, but I think I will this year to help with one of the directors’ question and answer sessions.”
Although never a filmmaker himself, Rapfogel is a champion of films old and new and hesitates at the thought of naming a favorite.
“There is a certain kind of person who spends a lot of time at film festivals,” said Rapfogel, “but I think the Trenton Cinefest is a good way to bring international film to Trenton, an opportunity to see a good movie of a different style reflecting a portrait of time and place and another culture.”
Working at Anthology Film Archives has given Rapfogel a rare glimpse into the world of cinema and he points to China, Mexico, Romania, and Iran as countries that are producing some of the most impressive films on the global scene.
The Trenton assortment, which includes a number of films shown at prestigious film festivals in Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art; Venice, Hong Kong, Locarno, and Stockholm consists of three documentaries and four fiction works. All will be shown at the Mill Hill Playhouse, with a final schedule dependent on filmmakers’ availability to be listed on the Trenton Film Society’s Facebook page.
The only New Jersey film in the Cinefest mix is Haddonfield native Ted Fendt’s “Short Stay,” a 2016 comedy about a guy who divides his time between the pizza joint where he works and his mom’s house. Fendt’s debut showed at the Berlin International Film Festival and the New Directors/New Films Festival at the Museum of Modern Art.
Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary “Behemoth” (China/France) examines toxic mining in Inner Mongolia and its effect on both workers and the land. The film won the Golden Firebird Award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Stockholm Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Adding Kafkaesque comedy to the lineup is Federico Veiroj’s Spanish/French and Uruguayan 2015 absurdist “The Apostate.” Shown at festivals worldwide, the film concerns Gonzalo, a man in his 30s who wants to break with his conservative family by leaving the Catholic Church. The move proves to be more difficult than he imagines.
Jakob Brossmann’s documentary “Lampedusa in Winter” is a 2015 documentary about life and death on the border to Europe on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, the first port of call for African immigrants seeking sanctuary in Europe. In the off-season, a struggle between the refugees and local fisherman ensues. This is the film debut of Austrian director Brossmann. It played at the Locarno Film Festival as part of Critics Week.
“Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is Clement Cogitore’s 2015 dark ghost story about French NATO mission soldiers who begin disappearing while trying to secure an Afghanistan valley on the border of Pakistan. Their captain becomes more confused when he sees that the Taliban has also been losing men. A French-Belgian production.
“La Belle at the Movies” is Cecilia Zoppelletto’s 2015 exploration of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a city of 10 million people without a single movie theater. The film includes interviews with filmmakers, theater owners and government officials to see why movie theaters have disappeared over the past decade.
From Uk/Belgium/Congo, “Aligarh,” India’s 2015 biography from Hansal Mehta, follows the real-life case of a gay Indian professor who dies mysteriously after being suspended from Aligarh Muslim University for his sexual preference in 2010. The film concentrates on the professor and the journalist who investigated his case.
Curator Jed Rapfogel will appear at a Q & A following the June 10, 7 p.m. showing of “Neither Heaven nor Earth” as well as the June 11 showing of New Jersey native Ted Fendt’s “Short Story” which is part of a double feature paired with the 6 p.m. showing of “La Belle at the Movies.” Fendt will participate in the Q and A as well.
Trenton Film Society’s Trenton World Cinefest, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton, Thursday, June 9, through Saturday, June 11, $8 single showing or $25 festival pass. 609-331-9599 or www.trentonfilmsociety.org.