Although raised in Ridgewood in Bergen County, filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz — who received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for his first film right out of film school, “Spellbound,” a documentary about kids in the national spelling bee — chose Plainsboro as the setting for his first narrative feature. The closing film of the upcoming Trenton Film Festival, “Rocket Science,” an official selection at Sundance Film Festival this year, will screen on Saturday, May 5, at 7:45 p.m., at the New Jersey State Museum. This will be the New Jersey premiere.
“Rocket Science” is autobiographical, exploring the life of a teenager tackling the mysteries of life, love, and public speaking. Hal Hefner, the main character, is a stutterer, as is Blitz, and a member of the high school debating team. “I stuttered in high school; I joined the debate team but beyond that the movie is largely built on fiction,” writes Blitz, who conducts all media interviews via E-mail. “Hal is very different from me and to create a compelling and funny story about him, all sorts of stuff had to happen that I made up.”
Blitz says he did not want to set the film in his hometown, “but wanted to set my movie in a different place, give myself some room to imagine a story away from my reality.” Blitz said he chose Plainsboro because he “liked the name” although he didn’t know the town before filming there. “I hope I did it justice,” he says.
Hal attends the fictional Plainsboro High School (Plainsboro residents actually attend either West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North or South). With many scenes shot in Trenton, Plainsboro, and Asbury Park, Blitz has stayed close to his New Jersey roots, creating a rich ambiance of bucolic scenes of the Garden State. “I insisted on getting a shot of the ‘Trenton Makes The World Takes’ bridge, which I’ve always loved,” the 38-year-old filmmaker says. “Trenton, in a tongue in cheek way,” he says, “represents the big city.”
“My biggest help and encouragement during my school years came from my parents,” Blitz says. “But my debate coach, who I thank in the credits, was also very supportive. When I began debating,” he says, “I was quite a wreck at public speaking but by the time I hit my senior year, I was president of the team and did quite well on the New Jersey debate circuit.”
Now a resident of Los Angeles, Blitz travels to New Jersey several times a year to visit his parents. His mother is a retired physician and his father a retired research scientist.
The fourth annual Trenton Film Festival takes place on Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. Between the kick-off party on Friday in a tent outside the New Jersey State Museum, and the final festivities after the last film on Saturday night, the festival offers 30 films you can’t find anywhere else — and the opportunity to mingle with filmmakers and film lovers who enjoy being immersed in this art form. With two venues for screenings within easy walking distance of each other this year, the festival is easily manageable. Films will be shown at the New Jersey State Museum on West State Street and at the Contemporary, a club just up the street at 176 West State Street.
There are other festival films with New Jersey connections. “JackStock,” by Lambertville filmmaker Thomas Florek, follows the life of a legendary New Jersey bar-room singer. Some of the short subjects deal with the Chambersburg neighborhood, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and agricultural barn building in New Jersey in the 18th and 19th centuries. East Ward Councilman Gino Melone will be guest presenter at the free screening of the documentary short, “Chambersburg….A State of Mind,” on Saturday, May 5, at 1 p.m.
The Coalition for Medical Marijuana in Trenton has provided a 26-minute film about the arguments for legalizing medical marijuana. The film, produced by the coalition to educate members of the State Senate and Assembly, follows several patients whose suffering from MS, cancer, and migraine could be alleviated by the use of medical marijuana and tells how the coalition is working to effect a law in New Jersey to make marijuana available through a doctor’s prescription. Ken Wolski, executive director, says that New Mexico recently became the 12th state to allow legal access to medical marijuana.
This year’s offerings include one U.S. premiere, several New Jersey premieres, and one East Coast premiere. Alysia Welch-Chester, the new festival director, notes that the organizers are particularly excited to have obtained opening night and closing night films, both of which are already receiving high praise throughout the film world.
The opening film, which will screen on Friday, May 4, at 7:45 p.m. after the party, is the New Jersey premiere of “The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.” This is the gripping story of Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, who was incarcerated at Abu Ghraib for eight months, wrongly accused of being an insurgent, planning to kill Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is a film about politics, prison, and human relationships that becomes, in the end, a story of hope and liberation. The director/producers, the husband and wife team of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, will be on hand for a Q&A.
Other scheduled films include the U.S. premiere of the British comedy, “Are You Ready for Love,” an official selection of the Cardiff and Monaco film Festivals, and the controversial documentary, “Manufacturing Dissent,” in which the filmmakers follow documentary maker Michael Moore through the country on his tour after the release of his Fahrenheit 9/11, depicting the difficulty of “reaching” Moore and through their pursuit of him, uncovering some of the “skeletons in his closet.”
“We will be screening many new completed and work-in-progress films from our alumni filmmakers who have previously screened at the festival,” Welsh-Chester says. In addition, the special Trenton Area Filmmaker Showcase will highlight filmmaking talent in the Greater Mercer County area.
“I’m intrigued by some of the titles,” she says, “especially ‘Monsters in Autumn’ and ‘Mild People in Aggressive T-Shirts.’ One fantastic aspect of film festivals is that you have the opportunity to view films of different genres that you didn’t know you’d enjoy but may come to really like.”
Animation is always a popular category with film-goers of all ages, and two programs of Oscar-nominated shorts, both live action and animation, will be shown on Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and 6.
Once again, there’s a free screening for children. “The Red Balloon,” a 1956 Oscar classic that takes us into the world of a lonely French boy and the wondrous red balloon that follows him everywhere, will screen on Saturday morning, May 5, at 10 a.m. at the Museum.
The festival has been reorganized and pared down this year, according to Welch-Chester. “We’re a totally volunteer operation, with no paid staff,” she says, “but we felt strongly about the need to continue; we had built up momentum. We’re all here because we love film and we love Trenton. We have a vision for the future of the festival and look forward to many more years of film weekends in Trenton. But we all have day jobs.” Welch-Chester, 33, who has been active in community affairs since she moved to Trenton in 2002, was born and raised in Niagara Falls, New York, and graduated from SUNY at Geneseo, where she majored in communications. Her mom is a human resources director for a medical group; her father, a retiree from General Motors. Before joining TerraCycle, a Trenton manufacturer of organic plant food and fertilizer, as publicist, Welch-Chester worked in the wireless telecommunications industry, in organized labor and in the non-profit sector. Her husband, Zachary Chester, is a native of Trenton, immediate past president of the Trenton NAACP, and is community relations director for Capitol Health Systems.
In addition to being a two-term elected Trenton/Mercer County Committee person, Welch-Chester is an active member of the Junior League of Greater Princeton and the Trenton/Mercer Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women. She was recognized in 2005 with The Trentonian’s “20 under 40” award for people under the age of 40 who make a difference within the community.
The festival’s social events will include the Clifford Adams Jazz Trio at the Friday, May 4, kick off-party, sponsored by Whole Foods and the Filmmaker Party at Mill Hill, Saturday, May 5, after the last screening, starting at about 9:45 p.m. For those who are hungry Friday night after the screening of “The Prisoner,” the nearby Italian Restaurant on Front Street, Settimo Cielo, will have extended hours.
Says Welch-Chester: “I love anything that brings people to Trenton and it is great to be immersed in film, to view different genres, to meet people and enjoy the social aspects of the weekend.”
Trenton Film Festival, Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. Screenings at New Jersey State Museum, 205 State Street and the Contemporary, 176 West State Street. A complete schedule and forms for ordering tickets are available at http://trentonfilmfestival.org or call 609-396-6966.