Thursday, September 1, 2011

Happy Anniversary, NJFF

Crazy Beats Strong Every Time is a powerful 24-minute, black-and-white short about the dilemma faced by Markees (Dante E. Clark, pictured), a young African-American man who finds his estranged African stepfather passed out on the doorstep when he comes home one night with friends. It’s also the second short film by Moon Molson, whose Pop Foul made such a strong impression on me at the 2007 South by Southwest film festival that I recognized his name in the credits of this one even though I hadn’t read anything about him or seen anything by him in more than four years.

In both films, Molson plants us at the intersection of poverty and inchoate machismo in an American city and then watches closely as his frustrated characters get sidetracked by the threat—or, worse, the reality—of a life-threatening beatdown or gun battle. Crazy Beats Strong never leaves any doubt as to what Markees is feeling, yet it creates an unsettling sense of uncertainty. As in certain charged moments in real life, we feel as if anything could happen at any time, creating a tension that pulls us deep inside the story. The acting, cinematography, sound, and other technical elements are also impressively assured and nuanced, especially considering that they're being overseen by a relatively inexperienced director.

You can’t see Crazy Beats Strong Every Time in a theater or on DVD, but you can catch it on September 9, when it opens the fall 2011 New Jersey Film Festival with Molson (one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2007) in attendance. This is the festival’s 30th anniversary, making it the state's largest and longest running non-profit film program as well as one of the first film festivals to run nearly continuous programming year-round, according to founder and executive director/curator Albert G. Nigrin.

Nigrin started screening films on the Rutgers campus as a graduate student. Enamored of movies in general and the French New Wave in particular, he was frustrated by the lack of local alternatives to the big Hollywood movies on the big screen. “The Garden and the Montgomery had just one screen each then, and there was the Brooks in Bound Brook, and that was it,” he says.

Using $300 of his own money, Nigrin launched a free film series in “a smelly classroom,” equipped with uncomfortable plastic chairs and without a proper screen. The next semester, the school gave him a small budget and he created the Rutgers Film Co-Op, bought a screen and projector, and moved to the more hospitable graduate student lounge.

At first, he showed just old classics like Man Ray movies, Man with a Movie Camera, and Metropolis, but he soon started mixing in first run movies that weren’t going to make it into an area theater. After VHS, DVD, the Internet, and cable movie channels started making it much easier to see old movies, he changed the focus once more. He still shows a few hard-to-find classics, like Dreams That Money Can Buy, a personal favorite that he screens at the beginning of every season. But mostly, he shows small independent films, many of them experimental and many of them short, that have never been shown in a commercial theater and probably never will be.

Nigrin calls his series a film festival because filmmakers so often attend the screenings and because the offerings are submitted by filmmakers and chosen by judges. The committee picks 30 to 40 films to show out of the several hundred submitted each year.

One of the best in this year’s lineup is Sandman, a surrealistic subtitled German feature about an arrogant stamp store employee who slowly rediscovers his humanity, with the help of a waitress in the restaurant downstairs. Mixing tones in a movie can be tricky, but Sandman pulls it off, balancing gracefully in an absurdist sweet spot somewhere between humor and pathos.

More uneven but ultimately fascinating is In God We Teach, a homegrown documentary about the battle over teaching religion in class that played out recently in Kearny High School. The conflict started when 10-grader Matthew LaClair made an audiotape of one of his teachers, David Paszkiewicz, proseletyzing about Christianity in history class. LaClair took the tape to the school board, asking it to put an end to a practice that he knew was illegal (LaClair’s father is a lawyer) and believed was inappropriate and coercive. Instead, most of the members of the board turned against LaClair and his parents. So did his fellow students and the town as a whole, ostracizing and demonizing him and even issuing death threats.

LaClair makes a surprisingly unflappable and articulate spokesman for his cause, his poise trumping the acne and braces he sports at the start of the film. Helping make his case are powerhouses like Alan Dershowitz, Barry Lynn of Americans United, and Anderson Cooper, who covered the situation on his CNN news show.

Paszkiewicz, who had chosen not to speak about the charges before the movie was made, preferring to “let the community speak for me,” offers the camera his side of the story as well. Good-looking and soft-spoken, he seems reasonable and likeable too, so at first, as Paszkiewicz denies having said what LaClair keeps saying he said, this looks like a he said/he said standoff. Then the camera catches the teacher in action, talking at his church about his obligation to evangelize wherever he goes and leading the kids in the school’s Christian Club by the nose in a faux Socratic-method discussion,.

Clearly, Paszkiewicz is using his classroom as a pulpit, and he’s clearly convinced that he’s right to do so, even if it violates the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. “I don’t believe that my religious beliefs trump the constitution, but I do believe the word of God does,” he says.

This is, of course, a widespread view in the United States these days, and In God We Teach debunks it with the speed and precision of a sushi chef assembling a tuna roll, cutting between Dershowitz and Lynn as they explain what we mean when we talk about academic freedom and the separation of church and state, and why the founding fathers thought they were needed.

On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center towers, the festival will show a pair of documentaries about the aftermath of that horrific day. New York Says Thank You documents a program of the same name, in which New Yorkers grateful for all the volunteer help the city got in the aftermath of 9/11 take time off every year in September to help victims of other U.S. disasters (mostly tornadoes), joined each year by people from the places they went to in previous years. Too many of the same points are made too many times, and there’s too much talk about how paying it forward this way is “what America is about,” as if nobody in other countries helps neighbors in need. But some of the stories survivors tell of the disasters they lived through are inspiring, as is the generosity and grace with which they respond to adversity.

So are the projects we learn about in From the Ground Up, all created by 9/11 widows, which include helping orphans and funding group homes for autistic children. After getting over the shock and initial paralyzing grief of losing their husbands, these women set out to serve their communities. Their achievements may be remarkable, but they treat what they do with a lack of self-importance that is just as impressive. As one of them says, the best way to honor the dead is not by devoting your life to mourning them; it’s by doing good works in their name.

Molson’s is not the only interesting short on the schedule. Enter the Beard uses blaxploitation-style music and a charmingly goofy lead character to explore the oddball world of the 2009 World Beard and Mustache Championship. It may end with flags and fireworks too, but it does it in an un-self-serious way that’s a refreshing contrast to the jingoism the 9/11 films occasionally lapse into.

Other strong shorts include The Confession, a touching tribute to the kind, beautiful women who soften and brighten a sensitive young Latino boy’s life, and Melt, a beautifully shot performance by dancers, choreographed by director Noemie LaFrance, who perch on ledges attached to a cement wall below what looks like an elevated train track.

“There are so many films out there now, with the digital revolution in full swing,” Nigrin says. “Our mission is to try to find a really original film that we think is deserving of an audience.“

Written for TimeOFF

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