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The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies


By Christopher Benincasa, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 06/03/2021

The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies

The Lighthouse International Film Festival begins its first post-lockdown, not-virtual festival on Thursday, June 3. The four-day celebration of filmmaking takes place once a year on New Jersey’s famous Long Beach Island and features cutting-edge, thought-provoking international and independent feature films, narratives, shorts, documentaries, episodics, comedies, surf films, and more.

We recently spoke with LIFF co-founder and Managing Director Christine Rooney about turning an 18-mile island into a movie-lover’s paradise, how the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the festival, and being “bold and fearless” in making a comeback.

The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies

“Lily Topples the World,” SXSW Jury Award Winner for Best Documentary, will close out the  festival with a drive-in screening on Sunday, June 6. Watch the trailer here.

 

When we spoke last year around this time, things were still very much in the air because of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown conditions, and the Lighthouse International Film Festival had not yet made the call as to whether or not it would be happening. So, looking back, how did that all go?

Christine Rooney: As it turned out, 2020 was an amazing year for the festival. We made national and international news – not just because of the great films we featured, but also because we were the one, the only, and the very first film festival to show new cutting-edge films on the big screen at drive-ins. We did five nights, three locations, over 30 films. So, despite COVID-19, it was spectacular.



 
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It was a real break from the doldrums of a very scary time. But this year we are moving towards the future. We’re still doing a drive-in, but this year we're also back in the theatres – safely. Masked, social distanced, with limited ticket sales.

It's time to come back. It's time to make the connection with the big screen again, and sit in the theatre and watch a movie and just be just engulfed by what you're seeing on the screen. We have tons of films. We have lots of filmmakers coming. And we've got a drive-in every night.

The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies

A drive-in screening at the Lighthouse International Film Festival during the 2020 lockdown. Check out the NBC story about it here.

 

Lighthouse was really the first full drive-in film festival ever?
Ever. We wrote the book. And we shared the book after we finished writing it. NBC did a whole segment about it. It was beautiful. A drive-in by the bay with the sun setting right on Long Beach Island is a beautiful thing.

 

Going back to 2020 one more time – with 2020 hindsight – what stands out to you about last year’s festival now, when there finally seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel?
What the Lighthouse International Film Festival really learned was that there is no stopping people who are committed. And we, as an organization and our volunteers in our community, are committed to making sure that the arts on Long Beach Island, and in New Jersey, thrive. The lights went out all around us, but they didn't go out on Long Beach Island. By working together, we put out a great program, and brought lots of people in to see films. People had a wonderful time. We had a blast doing it.



 
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So, I guess what we learned is, if you're committed, resilient, and creative enough, nothing is impossible. And we're very proud to say that the Lighthouse International Film Festival was given an award from the Ocean County Cultural and Heritage Commission for our creative response to the COVID emergency.
 

With safety mandates being lifted, we're already sort-of losing sight of how uncertain those first few months of lockdown were. As someone who's covered arts and culture in the region for a long time, it was like a big experiment playing out – the way people adapted and found ways to reconnect. Before this interview, I revisited the last interview I did with you, and this quote, from you, stood out to me: “In other times of crisis, people have risked their lives to preserve the arts because it's part of who we are. Supporting the arts is important in good times, but it's essential in difficult times.”
It’s true. I love independent films. And I think one of the reasons why I absolutely love independent films is that they tell our story. Our stories are important. They remind us of who we are or who we could be, or why we are here and what we are doing. We're doing all kinds of films this year, including a whole section on COVID-19. It's fabulous. Some are funny. Some are crazy. Some just make you think. It's an important time in history. We’re here to share each other’s stories.

 

The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies

The documentary “Playing with Sharks,” which premiered virtually at Sundance Film Festival and was recently picked up by National Geographic, is being screened at LIFF this Saturday.

 

What films are you looking forward to this year?
We have headliners that I just love. “Playing with Sharks” is one of them. We're a beach community. Sharks and all that are part of our environment. There are myths about them. People are scared of them. But if you watch a documentary like “Playing with Sharks,” you’ll learn something new about them.

We're doing “Swan Song” at the drive-in. It's a story of hope. It's a story of joy. These are all stories – whether they're documentaries, narratives, or shorts – that reflect our life and times. It’s one, big, global snapshot, maybe even a snapshot of the universe.

 

What events that are not film screenings are you looking forward to?
Well, we’ve got Q&A's, panel discussions, breakfast with the filmmakers, and a big party at Bird & Betty's restaurant on Saturday night with the filmmakers, festival organizers, and the press. We recommend getting the In and Out Pass for full access. And I just can't say enough about how proud we are of this year selection of films.

The Lighthouse International Film Festival Leads the Way Back to the Movies

The comedic drama “Swan Song” is LIFF’s opening night drive-in feature.



 
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Long Beach Island is a really unique and beautiful place. What role does the setting play for this festival?
There’s nothing like coming to the shore, watching movies, taking a walk on the beach, and going to our great restaurants. We have amazing hotels here. I mean, how much better does it get?

We started 13 years ago. We made MovieMaker Magazine’s list of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World. It’s just a unique, fun experience for any moviegoer.

 

As an arts leader, how does it feel to be coming back, and to see other arts organizations coming back?
I'm hopeful, terrified, and excited. I'm excited that we are opening our doors and that moviegoers are going to have the chance to come back into theatres. I'm hopeful that people are going to feel comfortable and come out.

Every day is a new day, every day brings new news. And we want to just say that we have so appreciated all the support that we've gotten from our community – our donors, our supporters, and the businesses who have stood behind.

We are a week before Tribeca. I wouldn't say we're the only, but we are one of the first film festivals happening this season. So, in a way, Lighthouse International Film Festival is leading the way. Bold and fearless, I guess!

 

The Lighthouse International Film Festival starts Thursday, June 3, and runs through Sunday, June 6, 2021. For more information, visit lighthousefilmfestival.org.




About the author: Christopher Benincasa is an Emmy Award-winning arts and culture journalist. He produced content for NJ PBS for a decade before co-founding PCK Media. Christopher currently works as a freelance producer, video editor, writer, and communications specialist for a diverse set of commercial, non-profit, and government clients. His work has been featured on various PBS stations, and in American Abstract Artists Journal, The Structurist, Paterson Literary Review, and JerseyArts.com.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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