The Trenton Film Society knows the importance of local talent. Over the past two years, the group has organized more than a dozen events aimed at encouraging central New Jersey independent film industry.
In that spirit, the second annual Films of the Trenton Film Society event, an evening of short works by filmmakers from the greater Trenton area, will take place at the Contemporary at 176 West State Street, Trenton, this Saturday, January 22, at 7 p.m.
"It’s really important for folks who are trying to make films here," says Trenton native Kevin Williams, artistic director of the Trenton Film Society (TFS). One of seven children, Williams worked his way through undergraduate studies at LaSalle and an MBA at Tulane all the way through a five-month film program at NYU. His position with the Trenton Film Society now allows him to lend a hand to filmmakers who are going through the same struggles he once did. "It’s the opportunity to help filmmakers move to the next level," he says.
The January 22 screening will be a competitive event, and the winning film, to be announced at the screening, will earn a slot in the second annual Trenton Film Festival this May. "It perfectly sets us up for the festival," Williams says. "Outside of the festival, it’s our most important event."
Williams says it can be difficult getting the word out to New Jersey filmmakers without an existing infrastructure to help filmmakers communicate. "New York has IFP [the Independent Feature Project], but there’s really not a New Jersey filmmakers’ association," he says. "Not having a central organization in New Jersey, you’re just doing it piecemeal."
TFS received about as many submissions for the event this year as it did last year, but the group is on track to easily beat last year’s total for the big festival in May, Williams says. Some of the filmmakers who submitted this year were previous entrants whose films the jury passed on in 2004. "Even if they didn’t get in, they came back," Williams says.
Also among those who came back were three filmmakers who were picked for last year’s event. Williams says that the filmmakers’ new films demonstrate how they have developed their craft since last year. "You can see where they’ve grown as filmmakers," he says, "and it’s great to be a part of it."
A jury of independent filmmakers, professionals in the industry, and students of film ultimately picked eight short films. For his part, Williams says he is very happy with the selection of films. "I knew that the jury would do a very good job," he says.
The filmmakers received a special Christmas gift this year when Williams called just before the holidays to tell them that their films would be included in the event. "There are a lot of really good filmmakers in our area," Williams says. "We can be the springboard for them to get into even bigger events."
Filmmaker Justin Warias of Pennington won last year’s TFS event with his short film "Meter Maid," which was later screened in the Trenton Film Festival last May. His film "A Desert Sunset," which was picked to screen in this year’s event, centers on a man whose mother wants him to continue the family business by becoming a hit man.
"Cup of Joe," by director Michael McClure, whose short film "John F. Schafer Hitching up His Pants" was shown at last year’s TFS event, features a dialogue about coffee between a man and a puppet. McClure, a resident of Hamilton, shot the film in a "not so great" part of Los Angeles in 2000. "We were a little concerned about our safety shooting in the middle of the night in a bad section of L.A. with several thousand dollars of camera and light equipment," he says.
Trenton-born Jan Marlyn Reesman, who will see two of her short films screened, has had a long career spanning theater, film, and art education. "Escaping Jersey" (with Ellen Crawford, who audiences may recognize from her regular role as a nurse on television’s "ER") has had an impressive run on the festival circuit since it was filmed in 2001, and "The Stronger" is based on a play by August Strindberg. Pulitzer Prize winner Dennis Clontz wrote the screen adaptation just before he died.
Also showing two films will be Jamie Watson, an experienced IMAX film editor who has had public screenings in Philadelphia and elsewhere, but never before in Trenton. His short documentary, "American Boychoir," looks at the admissions process of Princeton’s American Boychoir School, where he once sang as a student in the 1960s. "Little Big Dog," shot in Mercer County Park in 1999, covers the only Jack Russell terrier dog race competition in New Jersey.
Eric Szabo and Christopher Wells of North Brunswick have a decidedly different take on dogs with "Trunk Space." In their short, a driver accidentally runs over a dog during a lightning storm and decides that the only humane thing to do is to put the animal out of its misery. Things get difficult, however, when company begins to arrive.
"Eyes Don’t Lie," by Hamilton Township’s Jennifer Mengedoth, is a story about a singer/songwriter struggling with writer’s block as her producer presses her to meet her deadlines. Mengedoth, whose short video "Dark Lady" was included in last year’s TFS event, filmed "Eyes Don’t Lie" as a student at Rockport College, a film and photo conservatory in Maine.
The film society has a long history of selling out events. The first Films of the Trenton Film Society screening, held in the Trenton Marriott in January of 2004, sold out a week in advance. This year, TFS has taken the precaution of moving the screening to a larger venue, the Contemporary.
"We deliberately moved it to the Contemporary because it fits more than twice the crowd of [the space we had last year in] the Marriott," Williams says. "We’re hoping for another large crowd."
Williams can at least expect a large crowd of filmmakers; almost all of the directors whose films are being shown on Friday say they will attend the screening. Though many of the filmmakers have experience showing their work to an audience, most say they still have a few butterflies in their stomachs.
"I have attended tuxedoed, Hollywood-style formal premieres of the IMAX films I’ve edited," Watson says, "but never of shows in which I’ve worn the several hats of writer-editor-producer-director."
Some of the bi-coastal filmmakers say they are anxious about coming back to their hometown. "I was born and raised in Trenton and Hamilton Township, so that makes me a bit nervous," Reesman says. "My family in Trenton still asks, ‘What is it that you do?’"
Others say they are excited to take part in a question-and-answer session with the audience following the screening. "I look forward to answering questions and telling people a little bit about what went into the production," Mengedoth says.
Most of all, however, the filmmakers say they are excited to see their work projected on the big screen, and that they will do anything to make it to the show. "Unless a snow storm stops me," Reesman says, "I will be there."
Films of the Trenton Film Society, eight short films, ranging in length from 4 to 22 minutes, Saturday, January 22, 7 p.m., the Contemporary, 176 West State Street, Trenton. $6 in advance at www.trentonfilmfestival.org/ or $8 at the door. For more information on the festival call Kevin Williams or Jamie Griswold at 609-396-6966.
Editor’s note: Christopher Zinsli is also an independent filmmaker whose short film "Commands" was included in the 2004 Films of the Trenton Film Society event. Information about TFS can be found at www.trentonfilmsociety.org.