The Trenton Film Festival, established in 2004 to attract both residents and visitors to the city’s downtown restaurants, art galleries, and historic buildings, is one of those deals that seems too good to be true. Except it isn’t. It really is a deal and it’s a good one running Wednesday through Sunday, March 30 through April 3.
Consider the details of this year’s festival: A chance to see 55 films from 16 countries for $25 in an intimate theater where there are no bad seats. The price includes free parking nearby, and you can count on the patrons sitting beside you in the 100-seat Mill Hill Playhouse to be respectful as the movies are shown. Why? Because they love the art of film, because they support new or struggling filmmakers, and because attendance at the festival is a validation that cinema is alive and loved in a city whose once robust movie palace scene was erased in 1972 with the closing of the grand Lincoln and Trent theaters.
Each film festival has its own vibe, whether it’s the serious, celebrity-heavy New York or laden-with-free-giveaways Sundance. On a balmy early evening, when the festival served drinks and appetizers outside the N.J. State Museum, Trenton exuded its own magic as patrons milled around discussing movies they just saw. It was enough to make any Trenton-area resident cry in memory of the long-gone Brunswick on Brunswick Avenue, an art house where film buffs went to see provocative entertainment like Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” before emptying into the lobby for espresso and chatter.
Before it was turned into a skin flick emporium, it was where people who cared about the shared experience of movie viewing went. They were serious about their movies, and so is the Trenton Film Festival, which now fills the unique niche of being the only theater — albeit temporary — in the capital of New Jersey. It has created a worthy niche for itself based on the power of film and its ability to draw us into new worlds of experience.
Those glory days for Trenton theaters were pre-social media and pre-Netflix eras when walking in the city wasn’t considered a challenge and movies still possessed the kind of innocence that has since given way to more carnal and violent content.
The festival, which also offers single admissions for $8 in addition to its $25 all-access pass, is actually a hopeful affirmation that people in the state capital care enough about films and the city to make the effort to come out for an event that returns people to the streets in the best kind of way, one that says Trenton has a healthy art community that is flourishing.
Susan Fou, onetime marketing manager at Lincoln Center’s Film Society and currently employed at Princeton University’s digital communications department, is a board member of the Trenton Film Society, and one of the organizers of this year’s Trenton Film Festival. She is more than hopeful for its future.
“We need more attention, and we need volunteers,” she says. “But we had 129 submissions from around the world. From that we chose 55 films from 16 countries. People know about us and are responding. We have 2,500 people on our mailing list.”
The Trenton Film Society cast a wide net to build its program, with entries from Iran, Greece, Canada, Bulgaria, and Korea, among others. But the biggest draws may be the bundle of locally focused films featuring the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Trenton Catholic Diocese’s program for the mentally ill, and “Velocity,” a drama about a super spy forced back to into her dangerous job by her past. It’s the work of Art All Night and Trenton Social film director Jeffrey Stewart.
Frank Lettieri is behind the camera of “Life as We Know It,” an exploration of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen’s Share Project, a performance project where the hungry use poetry, song, and short stories to address poverty in Trenton.
New Hope-based National Geographic photographer Bob Krist chronicles the job of a young Icelandic farmer moving herds of sheep and horses in “A Thousand Autumns.”
And it is John Bynum behind the lens of “PACT: A Day in the Life,” which examines the work of the Trenton Catholic Diocese’s Program of Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) for the mentally ill of Trenton. Bynum is a media specialist with Catholic Charities.
“Two Years” by Toms River filmmaker Sandy Levine takes on the lingering problems of a New Jersey community still struggling after Superstorm Sandy while Governor Chris Christie turns his attention to a run for the White House.
The Trenton Film Society hold events throughout the year, including an evening of Oscar-nominated shorts. A list of those events along with times and descriptions of all of this year’s film entries can be found on the Trenton Film Society website at trentonfilmsociety.org or by calling 609-331-9599. Sign up for its mailing list, make a contribution, and buy tickets to the film festival at the site.
Established by a group of community members who created the Trenton Film Society, with Trenton filmmaker Kevin Williams as founding artistic director, the popular festival hit a snag several years later when its growth led to a behind-the-scenes tussle over who was in charge, who should be paid, and what direction the success story would take. The TFF went on hiatus from 2008 to 2014.
After the nonprofit attracted organizers who included developer William David Henderson, the resurrected festival was streamlined by eliminating such venues as the New Jersey State Museum, Gallery 25, and the Contemporary. By restricting screenings to the refurbished Mill Hill Playhouse at 205 East Front Street and offering free, off-street parking at Artworks’ parking lot at the corner of Market and Stockton streets, the Trenton Film Society found a permanent home for year-round events.
This year’s impressive selection of films has been paired in bundles totaling 90 to 100 minutes each beginning Wednesday, March 30, at 6 p.m. On the festival’s final day, April 3, awards for Best Film, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short, Best Narrative Feature, Best Narrative Short, Best Animated Film, Best New Media (Music Video, Spoken Word Poetry, New Media), and Audience Favorite will be handed out beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Trenton Film Festival, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Wednesday, March 30, through Sunday, April 3. $8 single showing or $25 festival pass. 609-331-9599 or visit www.trentonfilmsociety.org.