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NJ Film Festival celebrates independent filmmaking

In 1982, Albert Nigrin, a Rutgers graduate student, rented some movies using his salary as a teacher’s assistant. He didn’t feel like watching the films himself so he had some free showings, setting up a projector and opening viewings to the public. He decided to call these showings the New Jersey Film Festival, and 37 years later Albert’s viewings have blossomed into a celebration of independent filmmaking that takes place twice a year. Co-sponsored by the Rutgers Cinema Studies program, this year’s fall festival kicks off on Sept.14 and runs through Oct. 26, in New Brunswick.

The aforementioned graduate student was Professor Nigrin, who teaches several Cinema Studies courses in the Department of American Studies and Department of English at Rutgers, and serves as the executive director for the festival. Nigrin was the head of a selection panel consisting of journalists, academics, students and more. The group selected the 23 films showing over the next month, chosen from 507 entries from all around the world. There’s no lack of variety in genre, ranging from horror flicks to documentaries. The visuals are just as diverse, including animated films and a project shot in the Sahara Desert.

One of Nigrin’s favorite entries this year is "Soot", by Drake Woodall. "It’s a very very atmospheric, mysterious, experimental film by a first-time filmmaker," Nigrin said. Woodall is a writer who adapted the film from one of his own short stories, creating a beautifully eerie short film about a woman waiting for her absent husband to return. Nigrin said the film reminds him of a David Lynch picture and kept him guessing throughout.

The films that were screened around the festival’s inception were usually legendary pictures with long histories, shown because people simply didn’t have easy access to films like we do today. The overall mission of the festival has changed over time, starting to shy away from the classic canon of cinema. A shift of focus to independent films has helped the festival adapt to how film is consumed, Nigrin said. 

“Now you can see anything you want. The old films you can see on the internet, you can rent them, you can stream them, you can get a Blu-Ray, so it’s not as important for us to show those types of movies. It’s more important to try and show the independent filmmakers because they don’t get the same kind of attention as the old famous historical films or the big Hollywood multiplex blockbuster,” Nigrin said. 

The projector days are long gone, and Nigrin is fully embracing the new direction the festival has taken in the last decade. This year he estimates that about 90 percent of the films shown are indie productions.

For any Rutgers students who may want to learn more about the filmmaking process, the festival is noted for having directors of selected films present at their screening. While visionaries like Martin Scorsese have graced the festival in the past, the participating directors give a ground-floor view of the industry and can potentially lead to opportunities.

“A lot of Rutgers students who have come to see the films have ended up talking to the filmmakers and some of them actually end up working on their next project. So it’s a really wonderful networking opportunity and it’s also a way to see great films,” Nigrin said.

Tickets are $10 for students, with the movies being screened at Voorhees Hall on the College Avenue Campus. The standout short film "Soot" will be showing this Saturday along with two other films and Q&A sessions with some of the directors. A full schedule for the festival is available at www.njfilmfest.com.

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