“The Pine Barrens” director David Scott Kessler.

The New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University in New Brunswick puts the lens on a major New Jersey subject on Friday, October 9, with the online presentation of “The Pine Barrens.”

Philadelphia-based filmmaker David Scott Kessler calls the feature-length work something more than a documentary.

“While it falls under the umbrella of documentary, I think of it as an experimental documentary, a tone poem. It plays with reality and folklore and subjective experience,” says the 45-year-old director during a telephone interview.

Created over six years, the film captures the sounds, images, and moods of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness in the midst of the most densely populated state in the union.

It is also a record of the various people engaged with maintaining a way of life against political and social pressures.

That’s accomplished through the use of recurring images of people swapping stories around bonfires, cranberry harvesting, natural scenes, drivers ripping through the wilds, and a state committee clashing with local residents over plans to extend a gas pipeline through the forest.

While Kessler’s involvement with the Pine Barrens contrasts with his northern New Jersey roots, it also seems natural.

“I grew up in Union,” he says. “I had only kind of heard of the Pine Barrens. For most of my life I understood it as folkloric place and mysteries surrounding it. Even for the first years in Philadelphia I had not even visited the Pine Barrens until I wanted to make a film.”

That decision followed a series of film works he was creating. “I had been interested in exploring the sense of place in a cinematic tone poem form. I had done previous work under the El train tracks in Kensington (Philadelphia). It was done in an impressionistic way.

“I wanted to see how that style could be adapted to another place — explore the relationship to place. The Pine Barrens made a lot of sense. It had mythological significance. I came in with some ideas. I had a tone in mind. But it evolved. After six years of filming I came to understand it more. The film hopefully holds onto those different stages of understanding.”

The son of a lawyer and an elementary school teacher, Kessler originally chose to study art at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

“But after a couple of years I couldn’t live in New York City. It was too expensive, but I wanted to go to school where I could be in the city.”

He says he chose in 1995 to go to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where focused on painting and illustrating and then film.

He has remained in Philadelphia and launched his own commercial film company, Studioscopic, named after an early independent project filming artists in their studios.

He currently provides video animation for clients such as Alexion Pharmaceutical and Jewish Relief Agency while developing his own projects.

Looking at his artistic work, Kessler says, “I still think of myself as a painter, but I happen to be working with film.” He has interest in “exploring the character of a place.”

He says his approach for “The Pine Barrens” was to create something “to be experienced as cinema. I wanted it to feel like a painting rather than an educational documentary.

“A lot of decisions I made were to have the viewer being there at the moment. I didn’t want to put text on the screen. I wanted it to feel like a direct experience.”

That also includes allowing people to appear on the screen without captioned identifications.

The intent, he says, is to create a sense of the everyday. “These were just people you just meet in passing. You don’t know the details except for what they reveal to you,” he says.

Kessler says although he had taped thousands of hours between 2011 and 2017, the film structure emerged because of an artistic choice: the founding of the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra to create the musical landscape for the film.

A still from the film.

“They were friends of mine,” he says. “They didn’t play together. It was assembled for this project.”

He says he and one of the subjects of the film took the musicians “out to a ghost town in the Pine Barrens called Friendship. They played for the first time in the basement of a ruin” and took the name for their group.

Kessler says as he taped he would also have presentations where the musicians would perform during the screenings that organically suggested themes and organizations.

The musicians using traditional and digital instruments along with recordings of the Pinelands’ natural sounds helped created tonal moods.

“(The musicians) basically became my collaborators over time. They became improvisational. There was a structure (to the film), but a lot of it was improvised.”

Since he was not a musician, Kessler says, “I had to come up with a language of how I wanted certain things to feel. I had never really had much experience in music, so this allowed me to feel that musical collaboration that I never had before. Music still holds a lot of mystery.

“A lot of it is done in a minor key and has a moody tone. You have this feeling of new and old. You have the landscape and this uncanny quality. You have harp and banjo and harmonium and mixed with synth. There’s that mix, but it’s seamless. It certainly sets a tone. It’s the juxtaposition between different sounds that works for ‘The Pine Barrens.’

“I went out and recorded audio. So you get all the tree frogs and insects, sounds of wind, and sounds of fire. I also worked with engineer and record all of that. The sound was an important element.”

He says the film’s consistently rich visual tone was helped by necessity. “I am a one man crew. The only time I had other people were the campfire scenes. Everything else was me and a camera. Everything was filmed on a tripod and allowed the film to have a more cinematic look.”

The filmmaker also credits new technology with helping make the film possible. “I was able to use the Sony A7S — with very fast lenses. Those cameras are hand-held. They’re not like a cinema camera. Just having that equipment without a crew adds a lot of immediacy to film. It adds to the quiet nature of the project. It was more relaxed.”

Explaining his production costs, Kessler says one of his biggest savings was he didn’t have to pay for a crew. “I shot and edited myself. It would have been financially difficult to have crew. There was Crowdfunding to raise money. And on top that in 2015 I was awarded a Pew Grant. It was for an artist to focus on their work. That allowed me not to worry about having a fulltime job and allowed me to have the time to focus on the film.”

He says the musicians were paid through crowd funding and through ticket sales for live presentations held in the Pinelands and regionally at the Hopewell Theater and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

“We definitely want to do more screenings with a live score,” he says. “That’s the best way to see it. I’m particular about the tone and the sound.”

Looking at the creation of the film, he says he was surprised how welcoming the people in the Pines were.

Initially unsure of how to meet people, he says he started posting on social media with little response until Pinelands writer Karen Riley intervened.

Kessler says the lawyer-turned-writer who had moved into the Pine Barren region years before understood his situation and connected him with the circle of people she had connected to over the years she was collecting information for her books.

“She was a huge help,” says Kessler. “She stayed with the project for a number of years and died of cancer. There were a number of people who died during the filming. It became more important to make the film. We need to cherish people while we can.”

He also says during the filming he also remembered that “people need to appreciate a place on its own terms. You can come with preconceived expectations, but it only reveals itself when you get past that. You have to accept that it isn’t always going to be entertaining and there is boredom. But then you start to notice other things. You let the details reveal themselves.”

And let the camera capture them to share.

To see “The Pine Barrens” and other films in the 2020 New Jersey Film Festival, go to www.njfilmfest.com.

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