By Robert Levin
Albert Nigrin is the kind of person you want at the head of a film festival. If he sees a problem or discerns a need, he takes matters into his own hands and resolves it. In 1982, while a graduate student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, he decided the campus was desperate for a venue for revival films. So he took $ 300 out of his pocket to rent a few projectors, rounded up a few moviegoers, and screened Man Ray shorts – with half the image on a makeshift screen and the other on a blackboard in a theater. sterile class on campus.
So the Rutgers Film Co-op began.
Twenty-eight years later, the co-op, now known as the nonprofit New Jersey Media Arts Center, graduated, so to speak. Still run by Nigrin, hosted and partially sponsored by Rutgers, it hosts a roster of first run and cover shows every year (including everything from the classic Orson Welles to the latest arthouse hits).
The festival, which takes place primarily in a state-of-the-art facility at Voorhees Hall, draws crowds from across the state and boasts a strong collection of sponsors, dedicated members, and funding from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and of the National Endowment of the Arts.
“We started out as a cover-only program and have now grown into the state’s oldest arthouse festival,” says Nigrin, who lives in Somerset.
The Co-op introduced jury film festivals in the mid-1990s, and its annual program now includes two: the New Jersey Film Festival in the fall and the New Jersey International Film Festival in the summer, which takes place. this year takes place over three weekends between June 4 and 20. Movie buffs attending the festival’s 15th anniversary edition next month can expect a unique and comprehensive experience that definitely stands out from those offered by major festivals such as Sundance or Tribeca. When he’s not running the cooperative
or teaching film studies at Rutgers, Nigrin works as an experimental filmmaker. His impressive credits include “Brainwash”, filmed in a car wash, which he describes on his website as “a hypnotic film that functions as a metaphor for drowning the soul”, and “Peanuts and Grain” , a “minimalist truth video piece” about feeding wildlife, “squirrel shot”.
So, while he won’t admit it outright, the festival’s devotion to quirky and interesting films surely owes a lot to this background. There is no standard for an NJIFF film except this: it must deviate from the standard.
“We are looking for work that we believe challenges the viewer and is unique,” says Nigrin. “Works that might be inferior in quality but that attempt to do something that others don’t are closely considered by our jury. “
As independent filmmakers find it harder than ever to break through and get their work seen, NJIFF aims to create a collegial atmosphere that gives them that chance. The rewards are awarded but not overestimated. The juries provide written feedback to each participant who requests it, whether or not it has been accepted. Screenings and post-screening Q&A have a low-key and relaxed atmosphere.
NJIFF is not a market festival, like Sundance or Toronto, where films without distribution agreements are screened in search of buyers. Nigrin eschews the politicized, celebrity-driven frenzy of these events, so many Jersey festival films fall under the mainstream radar. NJIFF may not have achieved the upper echelon of festivals cachet, but the film community has taken notice. Submissions have doubled in the past six years to reach 700 admissions from around the world. The juries select the films to be presented.
“We have to feed these guys and we have to make them comfortable,” he says. “We don’t just do it for a weekend. We do this all year round.
This off-the-beaten-path mentality was well reflected at the 2009 event. Among the 39 films competing was a 3-minute short film about vampires titled “The New Girl in Town” – directed by Emma Kenney, 8 years old, from Fanwood. Going to the festival “was really exciting for me,” she says. “I was interested in directing, but other than my parents, nobody really took me seriously. Being accepted made people realize that I was serious about achieving.
There are films that have played at NJIFF that have had theatrical lives. For example, “Heart of Stone,” Beth Toni Kruvant’s take on the late principal Ronald G. Stone’s attempts to reform Newark’s deeply troubled Weequahic High School, won the Best Documentary Award at the 2009 festival and was acclaimed by criticism last summer.
“As a native of New Jersey, it was very important to attend the first New Jersey film festival,” says Kruvant, who lives in Montclair. “I was honored to be a part of the festival and winning the award for best documentary was a crowning recognition for which I am deeply grateful.”
The screening of “Heart of Stone” embodied why Nigrin dedicated his professional life to building his cinematic oasis in the “desert” of central Jersey. Stone, who never dropped out of school even when he had to wear a bulletproof vest every day, touched many lives in the community. Tragically, he died of a heart attack during production.
Many of those who knew and loved him were at NJIFF the day Kruvant showed his film. As the end credits rolled, in what Nigrin calls “an incredible moment,” tears flowed as the sold-out crowd erupted into a standing ovation.
“At the end of the day, our films are humanistic,” he says. “We are trying to be a humanist film festival and to celebrate man and his achievements.”
It was the kind of moment that best epitomizes what NJIFF is, a local festival that strives for the best in cinema. This is why Nigrin does not intend to leave the cooperative he started with this fortune projection in 1982 and the community of central Jersey that he calls home.
“I don’t want to poop other festivals. They serve a niche, ”he says. “They do well what they do and I think they are necessary. But I think we are more needed, as far as the film culture goes in the state.