The film bug bit Ben Saltzman 10 years ago, when he was a student at John Witherspoon Middle School. Experimenting with his new video camera, he started playing around, shooting bits of footage of family members and friends.
Today the 21-year-old alumnus of Princeton High School is a student at New York University’s Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & Television. He will be on hand for the screening of his first documentary, “Juggling Life,” at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, July 9. He returns to the library a week later as a judge for the library’s Student Film and Video Festival, Wednesday and Thursday, July 16 nad 17, an annual event that has nurtured his own talent over the past few years. Saltzman’s new film, “In Loving Memory,” in which a film editor becomes trapped inside his own film, will screen at the festival this year.
“I’ve watched the festival as it’s grown,” says Saltzman in a telephone interview from Manhattan. “I’ve submitted films to it every year, and this year I’ve been invited to judge. It’s been really interesting to see it from the other side and be a part of that process.”
After a modest start five years ago with 10 submissions by area high school kids, the Student Film and Video Festival has morphed into a two-night event with a faithful following. According to teen services librarian Susan Conlon, who has been involved in the festival since its inception, this year’s judges had 75 entries to choose from, submitted by budding high school and college filmmakers all over the United States and Canada. There was even an entry from Africa.
“This is such a great event for us,” says Conlon. “Because it’s an exhibit of the kids’ work, with no jury of cash prizes or entry fee, it requires them to have a project that they start and that they finish. It really gives them a reason to complete their work. They have to write about their work on a submission form, and if they are local and get selected, they get to take part in a Q&A and get input from the public. And they really value that.”
Along with Princeton-based film student Brendan Dean, Saltzman is perhaps the festival’s biggest success story. Since his first entry five years ago, Saltzman has made several short films and commercials shown at other festivals across the country. His “Milk Commercial” won awards at Best Fest San Diego, the Garden State Film Festival, and was a finalist in the New York New York Minute Film Festival. The bit also aired on the Discovery Channel.
Saltzman moved to Princeton with his family from Los Alamos, NM, when he was in middle school. His father is a mathematician with Merck; his mother teaches cello at the Lawrenceville School.
A challenge from a friend of his mother’s got the teenaged Saltzman thinking seriously about a career behind the camera. “She suggested that I attend the New York Film Academy at Princeton (University) that summer (2002), because it would be a good test of whether I really want to do this or not,” he says. “And I loved it. I was really excited about it. We got to cut and splice and do things the old-fashioned way, which takes much longer but makes you really plan your shots.”
Three years ago Saltzman did an internship at New Jersey Network on the weekly show “State of the Arts.” A fellow intern told him about a friend who was interested in doing a documentary about juggling. “I was a freshman at NYU at the time,” he says. “I didn’t know how to juggle. But Lou (De Lauro, a juggling instructor and elementary school teacher from Belle Mead) called me, and it seemed like a fun project and a worthwhile cause. For sure, when I started, I had no idea it would take that much of my time. We’re just now getting the film out to festivals, three years later.”
“The film shows the six-week course, where Lou and a group of students teach younger students how to juggle, and then do a final performance,” Saltzman says. “They’re doing it to raise money for a cancer camp. We meet Lou, and one of the counselors who is an incredible juggler. It’s basically a portrait of some of the students as well.”
Conlon is excited about the film, as well as another short one that Saltzman will be presenting in the Festival a week later. “We’ve had a film of Ben’s every year,” she says. “One of the things about Ben is that you can really see in his work how he has such an eye for detail. His work is really well-crafted. It’s been interesting to see him develop over the years.”
After last year’s festival Saltzman showed Conlon his work on “Juggling Life.” She decided to plan an evening around the film’s screening, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Saltzman and De Lauro and an interactive live performance by De Lauro and other jugglers. “He’ll get some feedback, and we’ll highlight something that’s happening here in our state,” says Conlon. “We’re sharing real-life stories of some people and their work.”
The festival on July 16 and 17 will include films by high school and college students. Among them are included a parody of film noir, an animated piece about two pieces of fruit having a conversation, and a “Super Size Me”-style documentary about sleep deprivation. The final film, “Dirt,” is by Brendan Dean, who was also a cameraman on “Juggling Life.”
“Brendan knocks us out every year,” says Conlon. “His film this year is very funny. He worked on Ben’s film, and it’s nice to see the local kids collaborate with each other.”
The screenings of eight films each night are geared toward teenagers and adults. The capacity audiences include the students, their casts and crews, as well as “a lot of people who just really like the event,” says Conlon. “I actually have people who will comment to me throughout the year how much they look forward to it.”
Over the years, the young filmmakers have told Conlon how much they value the input they get from audience members. “We could likely be working with and watching the films of someone who is down the road going to be a major film director,” she says. “We want to foster their interest and provide a way to inspire other young people coming to the event. They become more motivated to make their own films. The real connecting point to all the films is that each of these filmmakers has a really defined story with something to say. The quality went up this year. These are some of the best we’ve gotten so far. We’re really impressed with the quality. We aim to pick a diverse representation of styles.”
For Saltzman, making movies is a never-ending fascination. “I’m always asking myself why I’m making films rather than being an architect or designing stuff,” he muses. “I think it’s that whatever you’re interested in, you can make a film about it. It’s a way to find some sort of meaning in anything that you want.”
“Juggling Life,” Wednesday, July 9, 7 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, www.princetonlibrary.org. Screening, discussion with filmmaker and Princeton High School graduate Ben Saltzman, and juggling performance. The film is a portrait of an award-winning teacher, a college student with an amazing talent for juggling, and a young woman on a mission. www.princetonlibrary.org or 609-924-8822.
Also, Student Film and Video Festival, Wednesday and Thursday, July 16 and 17, 7 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Intended for a teen and adult audience. Free.