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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the September 8,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Politics on the Silver Screen
The memories run deep. He was a little kid who played car games with
his family, spotting distant road signs triumphantly because he had
the gift of long-range vision.
Move forward a couple of years, and he’s sitting in movie theaters
with his father, where he felt, in his words, "immediately at home."
Those young eyes worked overtime, seeing the adventure and escapism
films his dad, a New York City physician, enjoyed.
To say that his keen eyes were Albert Gabriel Nigrin’s destiny might
be overstating the case. But in a way, they were. Those eyes led
Nigrin to his passion for films, and that passion has surely defined
much of his adult life.
Today Nigrin is the proud papa of New Jersey’s largest public film
series, the aptly named New Jersey Film Festival, presented by the
Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center. Now 22 years-old, the
festival has grown from that classic glimmer in his eye to a
full-fledged, highly-regarded cultural staple.
The film festival’s new season is about to begin, and Nigrin says that
he didn’t have to search far for its theme. There is a hint in the
fact that the most sought after speaker for the series is Michael
Moore, whose "Farenheit 9/11" has sparked summer-long debate, box
office receipts unheard of for a documentary, and even talk of a "Best
Picture" nomination. "He gets $50,000 for an appearance," confides
Nigrin. And Rutgers is likely to pay that amount, if only the
controversial film maker can free himself up to attend.
In any case, yes, a dominant theme for the festival this season is
politics. More about that plot in a second. Now, cut back to Nigrin.
In many ways, his own life is wrapped around what has become the New
Jersey Film Festival. "The turning point came when I was in college at
SUNY Binghamton," explains the genial film aficionado. "The climate up
in Binghamton [in the Southern Tier of upstate New York where the
number of rainy and snowy days is exceeded reportedly only by Seattle]
was such that the university relied on movies to keep us happy. We had
our choice of five to ten films every night, from animation to foreign
films, and I took full advantage." Moving temporarily to climes
considerably more congenial – climatically as well as culturally –
Nigrin spent many wonderful hours in the cinemas of Paris during his
study year abroad there.
But when he got to Rutgers to delve into graduate studies in French
literature, and soon to study and then create films of his own, Nigrin
was in for a rude awakening. "There was very little being offered in
film in the Rutgers community," he says, "and what there was didn’t
interest me much. It was of the video store variety."
So Nigrin decided to do something about the lack of film inventory. He
took $300 of his own teaching assistant’s salary and put it toward
creating a free film program. About 30 people showed up for the first
event, a free screening of the films of Man Ray. The setting was so
primitive that only half of the film ended up on the classroom
blackboard that served as a screen. But something clicked. And by
spring, the notion of unusual films on campus had caught on.
"Ironically, when we started to charge a modest admission price, more
and more people showed up," he recalls.
Nigrin’s own film-making career blossomed. He has won multiple awards
and grants for his own evocative films, including fellowships from the
National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and a 2002 New
Jersey State Council on the Arts Media Arts Fellowship.
His once-modest film venture has blossomed right along with his
filmmaking career. Today, along with being a cinema studies lecturer
at Rutgers, he is also executive director/curator of the non-profit
Rutgers Film Coop/New Jersey Media Arts Center, leading an
organization that screens and promotes independent, experimental, and
artistic cinema through its New Jersey Film Festivals.
"We’ve grown so much that today we have over 130 programs annually –
quite a leap over our first year, with its six programs," says Nigrin,
who is delighted that the organization’s two annual festivals have
attracted literally thousands of people over the years.
"We generally get 50 percent of our audiences from the college
community, and the other half from outside the college," he says.
"People travel from all over the state, and from other states to join
us, and that’s extremely gratifying."
Rutgers University has supported the program in important ways. "Our
relationship is wonderfully cooperative," says Nigrin. "Support also
comes from numerous other sources, from the New Jersey State Council
on the Arts to Johnson & Johnson and Eastman Kodak. A six-member board
of directors, including professor John Belton, Nigrin’s own mentor,
helps strategize plans and programs.
The mega-hyped "Fahrenheit 9/11," created by Michael Moore, tops the
list of politically-themed films, and screens on Friday, September 17,
at 7 p.m. at Scott Hall on the Rutgers campus. The examination of the
Bush administration’s actions in the wake of 9/11 is the laser-sharp
focus of this highly controversial film, which Nigrin suggests "raises
so many issues."
Another political documentary is "The Unprecedented," a Richard
Perez/Joan Sekler film about the 2000 presidential election (Thursday,
September 16, at 7 p.m. in Loree Hall). Also on the political film
calendar is the screening of "Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a
Moving Train," a film by Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller, which provides
a portrait of the life and times of historian Zinn, author of the
classic "A People’s History of the United States." The film is part of
a double bill on Saturday, September 25 and Sunday, September 26 (7
p.m., Scott Hall) that includes "Control Room," a close-up look at the
conflicts between Arab television’s Al Jazeera, the U.S. military in
Iraq, and the Pentagon.
Politics of a slightly different sort unfolds in "The Corporation"
(Friday, October 15, 7 p.m., Scott Hall), a documentary about the
phenomenal rise of the multinational corporation, with a lens on
whistle-blowers, business spies, and CEOs, as well as ordinary
Also on the schedule are visits by film and video directors, including
Greg Pak ("Robot Stories") on November 5; several revival screenings
of art house and experimental films; and several state and/or regional
premieres, including Jim Jarmusch’s "Coffee and Cigarettes," an homage
by the likes of Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, and Iggy Pop to their
favorite legal drugs – coffee and nicotine. (Friday, September 10,
Saturday, September 11, and Sunday, November 12, 7 p.m., Scott Hall)
"The lineup is terrific, and even includes our special Halloween
program on the weekend of Friday, October 29, when the ‘Rocky Horror
Picture Show’ will also include a Rocky Horror Trivia Contest and
costume competition," says Nigrin.
All-in-all, lots of good viewing for film buffs, whether they first
fell in love with the whole big screen experience in art houses in New
York, or college auditoriums in Binghamton.
Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, Rutgers College Avenue campus, near
the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street. Thursday screenings
are in Loree Hall 024, Douglass College campus, near the corner of
Nichol Avenue and George Street. Admission $6; all programs begin at 7
p.m. Information 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.
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