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Connecting With Cows, Meeting Cute, and Finding Humanity Within the War in Ukraine – the 28th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival

By Ilene Dube,

originally published: 05/18/2023

Connecting With Cows, Meeting Cute, and Finding Humanity Within the War in Ukraine – the 28th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival

Belted Galloways – they are those incredibly cool-looking cows with big white bands, or “belts,” around their middle. In New Jersey, I’ve seen a field of these sandwiched between two giant warehouses in the vicinity of Monroe. Filmmaker Michel Negroponte has found bliss with Belted Galloways near his home in the Catskill Mountains.

The Hindu proverb “Who dies if cow lives. Who lives if cow dies” appears on the opening slide of Negroponte’s documentary “Herd,” screening at the 28th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival.

This year’s festival will be a hybrid, and will take place Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from June 2-11. All the films will be available virtually via video on demand for 24 hours on their show date. The in-person screenings will be held in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick.

In 2020, Negroponte, a professor in the film school at NYU, and his wife, the artist Joni Wehrli, moved to the Catskills to escape the city during the height of the pandemic. He became enchanted with the Belted Galloways on a neighboring farm, and filmed long cuts of the animals grazing in the pasture, suckling mother’s milk, ruminating. The scenes are intercut with archival footage of Hitler, Gandhi, Buster Keaton and the Swiss alps. There is no dialogue, but we get title cards explaining some of the connections, as well as the origins of the filmmaker’s choice to eat fish and chicken but not meat. The flow is stream-of-consciousness, with reflections on inheriting a taste for the smell of manure and feeling a deep connection to cows, who are sentient beings. We get intimate views of the cows from every angle as the filmmaker continues to use title cards to impart important bovine factoids, such as that they chew their cud 14 to 15 hours a day.

Beautifully shot by Negroponte himself, the cinematography is a paean to the landscape and the animals and their shaggy fur. See the cows at sunset. See them in the snow. See them butt heads, and see them give birth.

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Negroponte, an Emmy Award winner for his Public Broadcasting Service documentaries, has been making feature-length films for more than 35 years and has been featured at the NJIFF since the 1990s. Since 2014, he’s been shooting shorter films (“Herd” is 60 minutes), often on his own, and often with no budget – he does everything himself except the music, for which he sometimes recruits his musician son.

Getting a film into the festival is competitive. For the 2023 lineup, 35 out of 711 works from around the world were selected by a panel of 30 judges made up of media professionals, journalists, previous winners of the festival, students and academics.

The festival includes feature length films, documentaries, shorts, animated films and works that defy categorization.

“Meet Cute,” an animated short at two minutes in length, has all the charm of some of the Oscar-nominated shorts. “Hedgehog,” set in Ukraine just after the Russian invasion in winter 2022 and beautifully filmed and costumed, tells a moving story of a 6-year-old, sent to live with a grandmother in a remote village, who becomes caught up in the life of a wounded Russian soldier.

Seven of the films are by New Jersey filmmakers or were shot in the Garden State. “The Answer,” by Matt Kliegman, explores the political process of demolishing the decaying and hazardous Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City, against a backdrop of a city in constant flux, beset by generations of deterioration and government mismanagement.

Among the other New Jersey films: Christopher Beatty’s feature, “Bibi,” is a psychological thriller about a mother and daughter who live in secluded mansion that is hiding a terrible secret; Alan McIntyre’s “Stargazer” is about a grad student burning with fury about the fate of a forgotten astronomer; Kelsey McGee’s “Danceable” is about three dancers with disabilities who find freedom through movement; Derek Johnson and Ali Scattergood’s “Healing Waters” is about New Jersey artist Linda Troeller; Andreana Loukidis’s “Stay Behind” is about a young woman dressed as a scarecrow in a raincoat for Halloween, who lays down on a college campus, refusing to move, until a self-proclaimed guardian angel intervenes; and in Alam Virk’s short, "Boxed," we follow the journey of a man who seeks to fill his inner void with consumerism until his order for a tiny device does not arrive and he descends into madness.

The festival was started by Rutgers professor Albert G. Nigrin, who continues to serve as its executive director. “Back in the early 1980s, I was a graduate student and a budding filmmaker,” says Nigrin. “I wanted to see a lot of the films I was reading about, but there was no home video. There was no internet and no streaming. So I set up the New Jersey Film Festival and the New Jersey International Film Festival to see a lot of different types of films that I couldn't see anywhere else.”

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Among those he wanted to see were Sergei Parajanov's Ukrainian film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” the original Cocteau version of “Beauty and the Beast,” Fritz Lang's “Metropolis,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville.” “(I) could only pray that Channel 13/PBS might show these,” he says. “A lot of the time, when they did show classic movies on commercial TV, they would be interrupted by commercials, and they would edit them.” Nigrin learned that Rutgers had a wonderful film collection and I wanted to share it with the community.

In 1982 Nigrin began a revival film festival screening old classics and foreign films. “By 1991, after premiering Julie Dash's groundbreaking ‘Daughters of the Dust’ in New Jersey, we evolved into showing first and second run art house films,” he says. “In 1996, the New Jersey Media Arts Center received a Geraldine Dodge Foundation sponsored Arts Challenge Fund Grant and that allowed us to create the New Jersey International Film Festival. The NJIFF's primary mission was to screen independent films that had not been picked up for distribution yet.”

For the past 28 years the NJIFF screens mostly independent films. Among the highlights over the years, says Nigrin, was when Martin Scorsese and his film editor Thelma Schoonmaker spoke at a panel discussion for the festival. Says Nigrin, “This was part of a benefit show to help boost the profile and raise funds for NJIFF.”

For the last two years the festival has held screenings both in person and online, which has opened up new audiences who might not be able to get to New Brunswick. “There are positives and negatives about virtual screenings,” says Nigrin. “Seeing a film with a lot of people in a movie theater with a large screen and nice sound system truly is, in my view, a better experience. Plus you get to meet many of the filmmakers who come and do Q&As after the screenings.”

While Nigrin is glad to screen films with a live audience again, the additional revenue from online viewing helps to keep the festival in the black. “As the pandemic continues to retreat, I am sure in-person attendance will continue to grow,” he says. “The positive side to screening films virtually is that now someone in, say, California or Germany can be a part of our festival.”

After all these years, Nigrin is still committed to his original mission. “In many ways film festivals like ours help fill the void left by the demise of the many art house cinemas that were not able to survive the pandemic,” he says. When NJIFF started in the 1990s, the goal was to help give independent cinema a platform. “And we are still giving a home to many films that otherwise might never see the light of day.”

About the author: Driven by her love of the arts, and how it can make us better human beings, Ilene Dube has written for JerseyArts, Hyperallergic, WHYY Philadelphia, Sculpture Magazine, Princeton Magazine, U.S. 1, Huffington Post, the Princeton Packet, and many others. She has produced short documentaries on the arts of central New Jersey, as well as segments for State of the Arts, and has curated exhibitions at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie and Morven Museum in Princeton, among others. Her own artwork has garnered awards in regional exhibitions and her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary journals. A life-long practitioner of plant-based eating, she can be found stocking up on fresh veggies at the West Windsor Farmers Market.

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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