Director transforms film festival into global collaboration

The largest film festival in New Jersey began with just one graduate student, a small budget and a few minor films.

Today that graduate student, Al Nigrin, is the executive director and curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op and has expanded the festival to include many films from around the world.

Nigrin said the festival he started in 1982 now receives entries from places such as Poland, Israel and Morocco.

“We used to show art house movies that were premiering in other parts of the country. Now with home video-making these movies more accessible, we focus on more independent filmmakers,” said Nigrin, a professor in the cinema studies program.

All together, the festival receives more than 200 entries a year, said School of Arts and Sciences senior Allie Steiger, who also works as an intern for the NJ Film Festival. A committee of students, professors and academics use a rating system to cull the number of films to the 50 shown this year, she said.

The committee is broken into smaller groups that watch the films and rate them according to originality, creativity, production, performances and the quality of the DVD, she said.

Entries range in subjects — from “Set for Life,” which features three people who lost their jobs, to “Starting from Scratch,” a film from University alumnus James Huang about how the economy has affected a marriage.

“Over the years, the festival becomes a mirror for the times,” Nigrin said.

He said the festival opens Friday, with two short films and a rare treat: the premiere of the Chinese horror film “Haunting Love.”

“The Chinese government usually doesn’t allow any horror movies, not even ghosts,” Nigrin said.

Interaction between the filmmakers was difficult because of government censorship, Nigrin said. The film barely met the deadline for submission, and the applicants had to communicate through a third party.

Dianne Sadoff, director of the cinema studies program, said the film festival, which has been rated first among University-level festivals on the East Coast, is an important aspect of culture at the University.

“There are many interesting, off-the-beaten-path films from around the world,” said Sadoff, an English professor. “Al is one of the few people bringing film to campus. He introduces students to a whole new aspect of cinema culture.”

Nigrin said his interest in filmmaking began not with a movie, but a Genesis concert he attended.

“They showed slides to go with the concept of the music which inspired me to try making slides to go with my brother’s own band,” he said.

Later, the still images became moving images when he began making films of his own. He said he created short films throughout his career and has been toying with a new project.

Nigrin teaches cinema studies courses such as “American Experimental Film,” “Cult Films in American Culture,” “American Film Directors” and “David Lynch and the American Film Avant-Garde,” Sadoff said.

“Students love his teachings because he’s so laid back,” she said. “His classes are a lot of fun.”

Steiger said his classes helped her decide on her cinema studies minor.

“Nigrin taught me about art-based, independent films that are interesting in ways you’ve never thought of,” she said. “I didn’t know about experimental film before I came to college, but now I love it.”

Steiger said working as an intern with the festival is a good way to get a feel for the production side of filmmaking. She said she goes to see one of the films every weekend to get a different experience from a mainstream theater.

“Lots of times the directors come, and there are question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers,” she said. “It helps me to see the cogs of filmmaking.”

Nigrin said the festival is a wonderful opportunity for students looking to network as well.

“It’s right in our own backyard, and it’s only $9, including catered food and a meeting with the filmmaker,” he said.

In addition to his film work, Nigrin is known for his generous spirit, said Helene Grynberg, the administrative assistant for the Department of American Studies. She said he cares for a colony of stray cats on Douglass campus.

“While my wife and I were graduate students, she noticed many stray cats by the train station. We brought them cardboard boxes and blankets for the cold, and that’s how the colony began,” Nigrin said.

He said he estimates the number of cats he has rescued from the streets to be as high as 150. Most of the cats have been adopted, though some have joined his home, he said.

He said many of the cats are injured or sick when he finds them. One cat he rescued had been hit by a car, and had to receive an expensive emergency surgery, he said.

To raise money for the procedure, he said he posted the cat’s story online and received enough money in donations to cover the cost. One of the people who donated ended up adopting the cat after it recovered, he said.

Though they may seem random, Nigrin said he sees his two interests as similar.

“The movies we show at the festival are like stray cats,” he said. “The emerging filmmakers just need love and care to succeed.”


By Erin Petenko

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