This summer saw the advent of penguins and inner city kids who dance running neck and neck with Batman and aliens at cineplexes and art film houses alike. Documentaries like "March of the Penguins" and "Mad Hot Ballroom" are boasting critical acclaim and extended runs, pushing the documentary genre smack dab into the commercial arena. Riding the coattails of this trend, the New Jersey Fall Film Festival at Rutgers University, which opens Friday, September 9, and runs through November 18, has filled about one-third of its 21-evening program with documentaries.
The immensely popular New Jersey Film Festival was founded in 1982 by Albert G. Nigrin, executive director and curator of the Rutgers Film Coop/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Program in Cinema Studies at Rutgers University. In 1982, while Nigrin was still a graduate student at the university, he used part of his income as a teaching assistant to subsidize free screenings of about 20 revival films a year on campus. "The enthusiasm of those early showings told us there definitely was interest in a non-commercial film venue," Nigrin says, "and in the late 1980s we expanded the program and began to charge $2 admission."
It was perhaps the 1991 sell-out showing of "Daughters of Dust" – a documentary about descendents of African-American slaves who live isolated lives on a Georgia island – that led to the realization that the filmgoing community was ready to support more regular art house programming, including documentaries, and the festival in its present form came to life.
The popularity of so many documentaries today is a reflection of the poor quality of much of Hollywood’s output, Nigrin believes. "But documentaries are, by nature, biased," he added. "They have to have a point of view."
The maker of a documentary faces unique challenges in pursuit of an interesting and informative film that people will want to see. One documentary filmmaker whose work will be shown at this year’s festival is Roger Weisberg. His film, "Waging a Living," a story about the working poor, chronicles the day-to-day struggles of four low-wage earners, two of whom are from New Jersey. It will be shown on Friday, October 21. The film, first shown at Rutgers last year, is back by popular demand, after having been named co-winner of the Best Documentary Film/Video award of the 2005 New Jersey International Film Festival.
"Like many of my peers, I grew up believing in the work ethic – the belief that hard work will bring economic success," Weisberg says. "Yet the hard-working low-wage people we met while making this film felt trapped into poverty by dead-end jobs. They wanted to believe in the American dream but discovered that the way out of poverty is steeper than they imagined."
Despite a 31-year career, Weisberg says the challenges of making documentaries are plentiful. "Once you have the funding for a project – a challenge in itself – you need to find the subjects."
For "Waging a Living," he went to food banks in many areas for suggestions of subjects to profile in the film. He also approached a health care workers’ union. "You interview a great many people, settle for a few, and then hope that as you tell the story you can deliver a dramatic arc. We followed many people who never made it onto the screen," he says. "Gaining access to the locations of your subjects’ lives is another issue. Can you follow them into the workplace, the social service agency, the nursing home?"
Weisberg points out that it’s of paramount importance "to win the trust of your subjects." He says, for example, that in "Waging a Living" the people involved share painful personal moments that their own intimates did not always know.
The next challenge, after the film is shot, is the editing of hundreds of hours of film – a time-consuming and expensive process.
And completing the film is only the beginning. Like most documentary film makers Weisberg wants to make a difference with his work and hopes to influence public opinion and even policy or legislation. So his organization prepares viewer guides and works on outreach with relevant organizations and community leaders. "Waging a Living" has been shown at several festivals, will open this fall in some art theaters, and will be aired on public television next year.
In 30 years of film making, Weisberg says there have been "little discouragements, a political dimension that can be uncomfortable, and there’s never enough money to do everything you’d like. But I consider myself blessed and lucky. Every film gets my juices going again."
Other documentaries that will be screened at this year’s Rutgers International film festival include two films about Tibet, which are co-sponsored by the University Students for a Free Tibet in honor of the Dalai Lamai’s scheduled visit to Rutgers on Wednesday, September 14 (more than 14,000 tickets have been sold to his appearance in the university stadium). Screen star and Tibet advocate Richard Gere narrates "Lung Ta: The Forgotten Tibet," which tells of the horrors inflicted on Tibet and its people during 40 years of Chinese occupation, against a background of exquisitely photographed mountainous, snow-swept vistas of one of the most beautiful regions on earth. This documentary will be shown on Thursday, September 22.
"The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche," which will be screened on Thursday, September 15, deals with the discovery of a three-year-old boy who was deemed to be the reincarnation of the revered Tibetan monk Khensur Rinpoche. Traveling to India and Nepal, the film makers chronicle the epic quest to find the living reincarnation of a spiritual master after a letter smuggled out of Tibet describes a young child who displays extraordinary qualities and knowledge beyond his years.
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" had wide distribution in major markets as it tied in with news headlines of corporate corruption. The Friday, October 7, showing is co-sponsored by the Rutgers American Studies Department.
Back by popular demand is "Waiting to Inhale," which explores the battle between patients, doctors, activists, and the United States government over the legalization of medical marijuana. The film focuses on the real stories and struggles of people on opposite ends of this provocative issue.
Offsetting the powerful but sometimes heavy material that documentaries address, Nigrin has scheduled a few films – not documentaries – on the lighter side. One of these is Woody Allen’s "Melinda and Melinda," which Nigrin added to the mix after receiving a slew of E-mails requesting this contemporary comedy. Other mainstream films include the critically acclaimed "Broken Flowers," starring Bill Murray, and "Millions." Experimental films, foreign-language productions, and revivals are also included in the programming, assuring that there is something for every taste.
Another important component of the festival is appearances by film makers. Promising surprises and laughs is a showing of the slick streetwise tale of the Dead End Kids of Hell’s Kitchen, "Angel with Dirty Faces (1938), starring James Cagney and Leo Gorcey. Gorcey’s son, Leo Jr., will be on-hand for the Friday, October 14 screening to talk about his father’s life and career. "Angel" is a hard-hitting film layered with a touch of social conscience.
Also scheduled for a personal appearance is Mira Nair, director of "Monsoon Wedding," which will be shown on Thursday and Friday, November 3 and 4. Nair, who will appear on November 4 with a lecture and clips from her various films, is a native of India, schooled at Delhi University and Harvard. Her work tells the stories of people who are often pulled between two competing worlds. A former actress, she challenges audiences and draws them into a discussion of the issues explored in her films. This program is co-sponsored by the Middlesex County Cultural Heritage Commission and Dosa Grill Restaurant in North Brunswick.
Now attracting an audience of 15,000 a year for a roster of programs – including the New Jersey Film Festival – nine months of the year, Nigrin’s film co-op works closely with university departments and community groups to provide programming that not only entertains but, he says, educates, informs, and ties in with people’s experience. Including short films, some 200 movies are shown during 130 evenings.
Nigrin says the New Jersey Film Festival has been successful in bringing the community onto the campus, thus creating a significant non-student audience. "This is a comfortable, quiet, friendly, non-commercial atmosphere. While we don’t profess to offer a ‘singles scene,’ we recently received an E-mail from a woman who met her husband at the festival 10 years ago and wants to re-create the evening they met with a showing of the same film, posters, and fliers."