September 22, 2019 | 77° F

NJ Film Festival screens indie films, hosts directors panel

Photo by Albert Nigrin |

Over the weekend, highly-anticipated films like "Predator" and "White Boy Rick" opened in theaters nationwide — a few more drops in the ocean of the gigantic Hollywood market. While the glamour of big-budget movie production is beautiful in its own way, there’s a flipside. The independent film industry may lack the vanity expected in filmmaking, but none of the heart. Loving the act of making movies enough to deal with all the hurdles involved is admirable, especially when there’s no huge financial incentive. That maverick spirit was on full display this weekend, as the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center (NJMAC) opened up the 37th Bi-Annual NJ Film Festival in Voorhees Hall on the College Avenue campus. 

On Saturday night, Executive Director/Curator Professor Albert Nigrin warned that proceedings would be “on the dark side,” foreshadowing the three pictures being screened. The evening started with Drake Woodall’s "Soot," a short film about a woman eagerly awaiting the return of her husband. The film explores why her husband is missing, framing the nameless female protagonist as the victim and the assailant. With a foreboding ambient soundtrack playing underneath, "Soot" uses great sound design to shape the narrative. The breaks for dialogue are refreshing and help the viewer try to decipher the events, but there was a degree of ambiguity that kept the audience engaged.

Woodall – a first-time filmmaker – made it a goal to get the film shown while he was crafting it, and cherished the opportunity given by the NJ Film Fest. 

“It’s very important to me because when I first started making this film my goal was just to be screened somewhere, so I’m proud of that,” he said.

The second film was called "It’s a Mess" by Emmy-winning Cinematographer/Director Frank Prinzi. Following in the John Cassavetes tradition, of independent directors casting family members, "It’s a Mess" stars Frank’s two daughters. Playing vampire siblings in the film, the 29-minute affair acted as a commentary on heavy topics such as war and terrorism. Based on how the picture starts, one wouldn’t expect to see mention of Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram, yet it's discussed at length. The film handles these serious issues carefully, shooting for social change through a supernatural lens.

The feature film for the evening was "The Luring" directed by Christopher Wells. The protagonist Garrett tries to rediscover what happened on his 10th birthday, a date that triggered amnesia due to a traumatic event. What was supposed to be a reflective weekend getaway turns into a psychological thriller. Various flashbacks propel the narrative, as Garrett remembers more and more of what happened. Although the film centered around lost memories, Producer Brian Berg shared his favorite memory of making the film.

“By far my favorite memory was arriving on set after I had just had surgery. I missed the first day of filming, to show up on set when the filming had already begun and to see all the work that we had put into it for the last year and a half culminating,” he said.

After the movies were shown, the directors, who were all in attendance, were recognized and opened up for a quick Q&A session. Actors from "The Luring" were also on hand, and the group of creatives gave insights on their process, influences and more. With that, the evening was over, though the gathered casts and crews carried the celebratory spirit with them out of Voorhees Hall. The accomplishments of all gathered didn’t go unnoticed, which is the whole point of the festival, Nigrin said.

“It’s very important to us, we’re here for the filmmaker primarily. We want to show their work to an audience. It’s very important for us to make them feel at home,” Nigrin said.

Berg opened up to how special moments like these are, especially for everyone involved in the filmmaking process.

“It’s super exciting for a number of reasons. Myself and Chris (Wells) and the other people who are directly involved in the production aspect of the film, we’re the ones who have seen the film. All the cast and crew members, no one has seen the film. To be able to share it with them and for them to be able to see what their hard work has turned into, is something I’m really looking forward to.”

The event was staffed by Rutgers students, who manned the projector, handled admission and accommodated the guests. Alexis DiRese, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, detailed the perks to working for the fest and how it’s helped her. “I like the ability to see a lot of independent and smaller films that I wouldn’t be able to see in theaters or anywhere else. We screen the films first before we pick them so I get exposed to a lot of different things," she said.

With screenings taking place every weekend until Oct. 7, the NJ Film Fest is a fresh cinema experience, a convenient option for Rutgers students to see the other side of the industry. Nigrin details the festival he founded 37 years ago best. “The idea is to make sure that all types of films are represented in the curriculum, not just the blockbusters,” he said.

Jordan Levy

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