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Film festival to see 33rd year

<p>Courtesy of Al Nigrin | “Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie,” directed by Leah Yananton, is set to be played at the New Jersey Film Festival on March 1.</p>

Courtesy of Al Nigrin | “Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie,” directed by Leah Yananton, is set to be played at the New Jersey Film Festival on March 1.

Most are aware of Jon Stewart, Comedy Central’s critically acclaimed television host and stand-up comedian. Lesser known, though, is the 19-Emmy Award winner’s bartending career, which lasted for several years at City Gardens, one of Trenton’s most infamous clubs. 

“Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens” is one of several films in the 33rd annual New Jersey Film Festival that will pull the audience through decades of new wave, punk and reggae alongside Stewart’s humble beginnings. 

Al Nigrin, executive director and curator for the festival, said the event, which starts on Jan. 31 and ends on March 1, will showcase more than 50 screenings, including new international films, American independent features and experimental and short subjects. 

Steve Tozzi, director of “Riot on the Dance Floor,” said he received widespread support when he approached City Gardens with the idea of a documentary. A Kickstarter online fundraising campaign raised $40,000 to cover the necessary expenses. 

The documentary centers around Randy Ellis, Tozzi said, who took on the alternative moniker “Randy Now” when he promoted the club in the evenings after finishing his shift as a postal carrier during the day. 

He said other clubs, especially big ones such as the former Ritz in New York City, lacked character. But City Gardens, a local establishment far from the urban cacophony of New York, had a loud personality. 

“With Randy and City Gardens, he was always available,” Tozzi said. “He was sort of always outside talking to people, talking about shows and trying to get you interested. He was really a face to the club.”

Over the years, as different generations flitted in and out, the atmosphere of the club changed accordingly, he said. 

In the 1970s, City Gardens was a bar-oriented dance club, he said. In the 1980s, the club transitioned into a punk period, where club-goers were immersed more in the show and less in the bar atmosphere. Predictably, the establishment changed again at the beginning of the 21st century.

The trend changes posed a certain challenge when filming the documentary, Tozzi said. 

“Finding people that represented each era and type of music was a challenge — not necessarily in trying to find people that are well-known, but who have just gone to shows from the beginning to the end and have a historical view of the place and how it’s changed,” he said. 

The award-winning documentary is one of two leading films scheduled to play on Jan. 31. The festival will show Tozzi’s documentary at Voorhees Hall on the College Avenue campus at 7 p.m. 

On Feb. 8, a week after Tozzi shows his documentary at the festival, producer and director Frank Hall Green will show “Wildlike,” a feature-length independent film set in Alaska. 

Nigrin, reflecting on Green’s film, said it was one of the best he had seen in the festival. 

The film, starring then-15-year-old Ella Purnell and “Star Trek’s” Bruce Greenwood, follows the journey of Mackenzie, sent from her absent mother in Seattle to her uncle, played by Brian Geraghty, in Juneau after the death of her father. 

Days after her arrival in Alaska, protagonist Mackenzie is sexually abused by her uncle, who coerces her into silence. The movie follows Mackenzie as she becomes a runaway, befriends an initially gruff hiker Renee “Bart” Bartlett and finds solace in the Alaskan interior. 

“In terms of the social issues of the movie, it was something I had increasingly become more interested in telling a story about for many years,” Green said. 

Also a backpacker who traveled to Alaska multiple times, Green said Alaska’s landscape was an alluring location to shoot “Wildlike.”

Green said the script was written in New York, where he is a resident, and he traveled to Alaska two months before his crew started shooting the film. 

His cast and crew shot the film five to six days a week for five weeks in August, he said, and trekked more than 3,000 miles over Alaska for the various scenes. 

Despite the extensive traveling, the shooting was not particularly difficult — most of the scenes were close to a dirt path, even the ones panning over seemingly never-ending bodies of water and sloping mountains, Green said.

“I just saw it as a fabulous backdrop,” he said. “I wanted to use nature as a narrative ... and [show] what can happen in those circumstances.”

The film, which has garnered considerable acclaim, is set to show on Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at Voorhees Hall. 

Nigrin said most of the films to show at the festival are largely underground “indie” movies that are sophisticated in terms of content and technical skill, yet never make it as a mainstream production. 

“That’s why the festival exists,” he said. “To show the people in our area that there are a lot of wonderful, wonderful films that don’t see the light of day just because they don’t have the marketing push or advertising dollars.”

General admission is $10 per film. Student and senior admission is $9 per film. Additional information is available at www.njfilmfest.com.

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