Experimental Media Artist
ALBERT GABRIEL NIGRIN
Mental Radio ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
Experimental films are personal, both to the creator and to the viewers.
They come into existence not with the commercial market in mind, often unkind; they do not have a concrete meaning that can be defined in a simple paragraph of the synopsis, and are filled with symbols that are digested differently by everyone who watches them. When there is no objective plot, the viewers become the ultimate vessel for the film, their minds create the story.
It requires lots of energy for people to connect with these works, as they must complete the work themselves. Because of these characteristics, experimental and other independent films often get ignored in the mainstream media. The creators of these types of films have limited means to showcase their work, and it is crucial that they have a sanctuary to present their works. The NJ Film Festival and Super 8 Film & Digital Video Festival run by Albert Gabriel Nigrin certainly satisfies that need.
Making films since 1983, Nigrin fell in love with experimental films because he “wanted to tell a story, or create emotion, sensations without words.” Experimental films being “poetic versus prosaic,” it was a perfect media to present his “visual poetry”.
For our second feature of the Creative Professional Interview series, Vuetelle had the honor of having a conversation with Albert Gabriel Nigrin, an award-winning experimental media artist, executive director/curator of NJ Film Festival, and a cinema studies lecturer at Rutgers University.
The Furies ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
Vuetelle: Professor Nigrin! It’s been a while! How have you been?
Albert Gabriel Nigrin: I am doing fine! I love mentoring the students here at Rutgers. Some of them are doing some very creative work.
We had a brief moment talking about cats. It is not difficult to find yourself falling into a conversation about cats with Professor Nigrin. He dedicated lots of his time and resources to taking care of stray cats. I always thought of him as a patron saint for films and cats.
AGN: Last night I watched Bohemian Rhapsody, my wife didn’t want to watch it in theaters. I like Queen, I followed them when I was a kid. Well, I am not a huge fan, but I knew about them, a lot about them. So we threw the movie on, and the very first thing you see is cats. Freddie Mercury loved cats. He had 6 cats. And he had a room for each cat! So just that alone, it was good. But it was a terrible movie to be honest. Pretty bad… Bad acting, bad hair...
V: I haven’t got a chance to watch it yet myself. I was surprised it got nominated for Best Picture.
It made so much money, almost a billion dollars worldwide. I mean, it is kind of a wonderful story, here is a man who was marginalized, he is not really English, he is Farsi. So he definitely had to deal with that. But he had a great voice, and he had a very creative side to him, so it was great to see just on that level. But as a translation of his life, it was pretty bad…
So otherwise, everything is good! (laughs)
Cold War Blues ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
V: Let’s start with the first question that I have in mind, when did you first realize your passion for filmmaking?
AGN: You know, it is interesting because I was always interested in images. I was not a good writer. And I was always drawn more towards images. And so I found myself geared towards things that are visual from a very early age.
My dad took me to movies when I was a kid. And he didn’t like intellectual films. He was into James Bond and action/adventure movies. So I got to see lots of the early James Bond films. They were a little risque for a kid to go to, but they were G rated so I guess it was ok. He took me to see this other movie called The Vikings, with Kirk Douglass. I remember that one well. I just loved movies.
Then he took my mom and I to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. After seeing that movie, they argued all the way coming home. My dad hated it, he thought it was boring. My mom, who is an accomplished pianist, so she is an artist, saw the beauty in the film. And she really enjoyed it, especially because of its soundtrack. They couldn’t agree on what the Monolith was - “What is the Monolith?!” “It was God!” They argued all the way, and it stayed with me. I was nine when I saw it, when it opened in cinema in this beautiful old theater on Staten Island called the St. George Theater - it still exists. They refurbished it like they did for the State Theater in downtown New Brunswick.
The passion probably came shortly after that.
I started to take pictures.
I was in high school, I took art classes, photography classes, and we had to get out and do photo essays. So I went to a cemetery. I don’t know why (smiles) I liked a lot of imagery there.
My brothers Mike and Dan are both accomplished musicians. And Mike was in a progressive rock band. We both went to see a band called Genesis, which you probably know… Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins were both in that band. They were considered progressive rock.
I was 15, and my parents finally let me go into the New York City. Back then, the city was a dangerous place. Since 9-11, the city has become more of a safe place. But back then, you had to go with a crowd. So my friend bought the tickets and we went to the show, and we went to Academy of Music, which was on 14th St near Broadway. They performed this album called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I highly recommend to check it out. It is their Magnum Opus, they had slide projections behind them, there were costumes, it was a very theatrical and visual show. And it stayed with me. It is still my favorite concert. It impressed upon me how visuals can work with music.
I was invited because of my slide shows to do something similar with a progressive jazz rock band called Lunar Vision. They were kind of a little bit like Genesis. But they didn’t have a contract or record deal.
One of the ones that I presented for my program in France was the one called Waves. It was put to a song by Richard Wright who was the keyboard player for Pink Floyd. He had a solo album. And it was basically about waves crashing. I had these slides that were given to me by my uncle who was an avid photographer. I incorporated them with my own, as well as photographs of paintings that I took in museums. I bought some smelly shellfish, and I created these installations in front of the screen with wine bottles with candles in them and I lit them up. I also put the shellfish underneath people’s chairs so the whole place smelled like it was the ocean! I played the slides, that was a real hit. I figured I could incorporate something like that when I was actually making movies. And I did too. I made movies with similar content. So the passion definitely started at that concert, but probably even before that when my dad took me to the movies with him when I was just a little kid.
When I saw The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway concert, I saw a connection to Meshes of the Afternoon. Because it is all about this one man and his alter ego. The split personality theme was there.
When I saw Meshes, I felt that this is the kind of film I want to make.
A scene from Maya Deren's iconic film, Meshes of the Afternoon
V: What makes you drawn to experimental films?
AGN: You don’t have to use words. I wanted to tell a story, or create emotion, sensations without words. I thought experimental films certainly do that.
To me, experimental films are poetic versus prosaic. I was always drawn more towards that.
Experimental films are made by individuals, not by these huge multi million dollar conglomerate corporations. That’s basically what a movie becomes, a Hollywood movie… I like to keep things small, to be in control, and in order to keep control, you have to keep things small. But small doesn’t mean bad. Small, to me, is really beautiful in its own way. It is just as valid as anything you see.
V: Lots of the Vuetelle readers wouldn’t be too familiar with experimental films. Do you have recommendations for a specific piece that they could start?
AGN: Vuetelle’s interest lies in fashion and design.
Man Ray was one of the first experimental filmmakers, and he was also a fashion photographer. But he wanted to deviate from the commercial works and create art. Experimental films are meant to challenge perceptions. Man Ray created 4 very wonderful and challenging experimental films at the same time he was doing fashion photography, paintings… that might be a good place to start. If people are alienated when they see those films, I think it was the intention of the artist. He didn't want to make films that are necessarily pleasing. He wanted to make the films for himself. I think experimental films really are personal statements.
I think in many ways, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou is another very important experimental film. It might be a little shocking for the average viewer. They were so influential to many things that we see today. As far as experimental films being cutting edge…
A scene from Un Chien Andalou
What is an experimental film - is a question that I always get.
It is not just one thing. Experimental film can be purely abstract, can just be flashing lights…The most rudimentary experimental film was alternating clear image, dark image… it’s called Flicker Film, and it was created by Tony Conrad. By alternating those two types of images, you get a strobe-like effect that becomes dizzying. It also had this cacophonous soundtrack that goes with it. If you have a pacemaker or suffer from epilepsy, you can go into a seizure from seeing something like that. The most rudimentary films are meant to challenge perception, to expand the notion of moving images and movies.
There are a lot out there, just they are not household-type of stuff. But MTV came out in the 80s, they co-opted a lot of strategies and techniques from experimental films. Experimental films often have to tell a story - some of them do tell a story - with limited means and time frame. So they borrowed lots of the quick cutting, the abstract cinematography from the experimental films that preceded them.
V: In your interview with the Underground, you mentioned that you like to use black and white because the colors won't fade. Do you think the sense of foreverness lacks in digital color media?
AGN: The Underground publication was before there was digital.
Motion pictures using film was still the main way to communicate. Videotape was out there, but it was definitely inferior in quality to anything on film. As far as digital goes now, I think it still doesn’t have the same resolution as film. Because you are dealing with these chemical dots, and there are millions of them in the frame. And then with digital, you are dealing with electronic impulses. I always tell my students that the TV in our living room started with 360 lines of dots. It had a 1 by 1.3 aspect ratio. It was basically a square. Once that happened, Hollywood went oh my god, we need to keep ourselves viable! So they created widescreen, cinemascope.
I’ve always drawn to analog, because it is what I grew up with, and that is what I came to love. I like cutting film, physically. It is so much easier to edit with a computer these days, you just drag an image and slide it next to another. But I think it becomes too immediate. It is too immediate. Sometimes when you are cutting things, you have to think more about how you are cutting them. And when you are working with analog editing, you have to literally take the thing out and slide another piece in. I don’t think I would edit that way, and I don’t anymore. I still shoot on film, I might edit on digital. But there is nothing like actually cutting the film and putting together in your little room… it feels like you are really creating it rather than a machine doing it for you.
Don’t get me wrong, you are still using a machine to recreate the imagery. You are using a machine to cut the film, using a machine to look at it. But there is still a hands-on approach that I don’t think you have as much when working digitally. But as far as the color goes, I’ve seen some beautiful looking digital stuff.
I like shooting in black and white because on film, not shooting with technicolor stock, which doesn’t exist anymore, the colors will turn or fade. It will turn pink or magenta, as they say. Old movies that were shot on color stock, will fade after a certain amount of time.
One of my favorite stories is when we were still showing movies on film, we rented a 16mm version of Psycho from the company that provides them to universities. They sent the print, I threw it on, and it was a Pink Psycho! Because they struck the film on color stock instead of black and white stock. They shouldn’t have done that. But it was probably cheaper to do it that way for them. The print that we got surpassed the 18 to 20 year lifespan. So it turned pink. It was kind of cool, but it is still a Pink Psycho! (Laughs)
I probably said that [comment about black and white] on the article because for my movies, like if you shoot on Kodachrome, the colors don’t fade on that stock. They don’t make that anymore, although Kodak is talking about bringing it back. If you shoot on Ektachrome, colors will fade and it will turn color. So that’s probably why I said that in The Underground story.
V: There is definitely something about creating works with physical touches…
AGN: I digitized some of my works, but I am a strong believer of not putting my stuff online, because it if I do I will no longer have control of it.
Somebody will replicate it, and it is out there for anybody to use in any way they want… because it is pretty much Wild West on the internet these days. So I encourage my students not to do that unless they think of it as a throw away. Some of them use it as a way to draw attention to themselves. That’s fine, they can do that. But I think for your Magnum Opus, for the works that you really care about, you have to maintain control as much as you can. And if somebody wants my stuff they have to buy it.
/Grid/Lock/Wed/Lock #2 ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
V: You talked about your works being a study of light and the effects, and results of lights. Do you prefer natural or artificial lights for your works, or does it differ on a case by case basis?
AGN: I like both.
It depends on the situation but I always liked shooting outside. There is nothing more powerful than the sun in terms of getting nice illumination. Being able to work with sun is unparalleled. But, I also like shooting inside using lights. I think there are also things that can be harvested from that. The mix of the two is fine. But most of my films are shot outside.
V: If they are shot outside, there must be lots of obstacles… Not too much control in lighting.
AGN: Oh, you can use filters - once I used pickle jars, ashtrays… the refraction of light is just amazing. Some of the early stuff that I was drawn to was the reflection of water. I really liked to shoot water with the sun bouncing off of it as it creates all sorts of patterns. It becomes an art form just by pulling the camera trigger. You don’t have to do too much. I really enjoy shooting outside.
This Friday, my experimental filmmaking class is scheduled to go outside. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The weather seems like it would be warm enough to go outside. If we have to shoot inside, it is not as nice because we will be stuck in a limited space and the classroom is not as attractive.
V: You shoot primarily in Super 8 mm. Could you tell us why?
AGN: I shoot in all different types of film, but most of my stuff is on Super 8mm to this day. But I think smartphones are pretty amazing. I’ve been able to shoot some things on them too. In fact, I encourage my students to shoot on their phones. But not in a traditional way. If they are going to do a selfie, they need to stick something between them and the camera that’s transparent or translucent. I provide all sorts of things for them. For instance, going to a gem store, buy a gem, and shoot through a gem. Because the camera lens is tiny and you just need something to shoot through so you can create all sorts of interesting patterns. You can also shoot through a kaleidoscope. There are all sorts of techniques you can use. I haven’t seen much innovation shooting with the smartphones in terms of old experimental film techniques that can be borrowed… I’m a big proponent of ‘use-what-you-have’ and ‘what-you-can-afford.’
V: I think you already gave us some of the insight for this next question already. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
AGN: My first big inspiration in terms of why I even started filming was my girlfriend at the time. She was beautiful. She is now my wife as you know. (lovingly points at Dr. Irene Fizer’s photograph on his desk)
When I was going out with her, she had high cheekbones, you can see a little bit there… This photo is probably from 1988...I am not sure. I was thinking, wow, she is beautiful. She was my muse. She is definitely my main inspiration.
The very first film I made was just us… me taking her out, having her dress up - she loved going to thrift stores and flea markets to buy old clothing. She had/has really good taste. I would just film her. She was so easy to film. There was lots of love in the filming. She was the first inspiration. The first movies were really a platform for her. She liked bring filmed, but she really wanted me to work with others too. So it was inspirational how she pushed me to work with other people. In many ways, she was a partner and a collaborator. She still is to this day.
Maya Deren was also another inspiration. [Irene] looks a lot like Maya Deren. They are from the same background, both Ukrainian. Purely by accident. (chuckles) Maya Deren talked about the “controlled accidents”. It was something that I really liked.
I found that some of the most interesting stuff was the stuff that I had not pre-planned. Lots of times you plan everything, and you shoot there and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted.
V: What was your great "controlled accident" moment in your works?
AGN: I was shooting with Irene at the top of the parking deck next to Alexander Library at Rutgers. It is still there. We went to the very top. There was nobody there because it was a weekend and it was early. It was a very windy day. I sat her down on the concrete, and situated some light bulbs and an umbrella next to her - don’t ask me why, I just did. I positioned everything and the wind came and it took the light bulbs and smashed them together. They didn’t break, but they all kind of all came together. And the umbrella spun by, all while the wind was whipping her hair… It was the most amazing beautiful shot.
It was in my first movie, Stripe Tease. It was all about stripes.
She was wearing a striped dress, there was a stripe -a yellow line- dividing the traffic. And all of these things came together and the controlled accident happened in that instance. I really liked that… I try to find those moments so I like to go out and shoot on windy days. The wind can always transform your set in good ways, but in bad ways too if the things all just blow down and it creates chaos.
V: Are there any differences in your filmmaking process from your earlier days in your filmmaking career?
AGN: Not really....
V: Working and collaborating with composers to create music in your films - what is that process like? Do you provide detailed direction or do you let the composers create pieces by how they themselves interpret your work?
AGN: I worked with my brothers. They are both very talented.
My second brother -I’m the oldest of three- my brother Mike plays bass for the Buffalo Symphony. But he was a composer when he was in graduate school. He went to Carnegie Mellon and Julliard. He was working with composers at that time, and I pushed him, “why don’t you create more because I really like your music”.
In my earlier works, [music in my film] was pre-existing music that I adapted to my films. The very first few movies were like that. But then, I wanted to switch things up. So I said to him, “okay, here is the movie, create music to it…” So I’ve done both. Sometimes, I would only send snippets and a few images. I didn’t send him the finished visual product. I tried all sorts of things to see what I could get. And a lot of the time he provided me with such interesting music.
My other brother Dan is a doctor now. But back then, he was a DJ. He did techno music. I tapped into him for some of the music he created. Just to mix it up, adding a little bit more contemporary to the sounds.
I like both, giving the composers latitude and also to take pre-existing works.
Stripe Tease #2 ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
V: Is there a memorable behind the scenes story that occurred during shooting?
AGN: My favorite one is… I shot a film at the La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. You have to visit it! It’s amazing. Created by the architect Antonio Gaudí. He has all these wonderful architectural sites in the city.
He created this cathedral that looks like its facade is melting… very surreal. The spirals for the cathedral were made to look like pine cones. He was very much into incorporating nature into his work.
The spires have these spiral staircases. And as you walk your way up the spire, the balustrades became thinner and thinner and they actually disappear. The idea was that once you get closer to God, you are almost floating. Well, I almost fell to the bottom! It would have killed me. It is very interesting how it works because it is scary, but at the same time, you really feel lighter and lighter as you make your way closer to the top. That is one of my favorite stories, almost a tragedy, but beautiful at the same time. There are lots of other silly moments, but probably not worthy of publication...
The beauty of shooting is that it becomes an adventure. In the beginning, it was just my girlfriend and me. The minute you expand, you have all sorts of headaches. Most of the time, you are not paying anybody. They do it out of the goodness of their hearts. But I think the minute you ask someone whether they want to be in a movie, they think two things: one that they are going to be in a porn film, or they become really interested because the narcissism kicks in. Since we are in the era of selfie, it was even more prevalent back then when people weren’t filming themselves as much. So I had to have amazing people participating in the film. And the reputation started to grow. They knew I wasn’t a porn filmmaker. (laughs)
Brainwashing ©2019 Albert Gabriel Nigrin
V: You are the Executive Director and Curator of the long-running NJ International Film Festival. I heard that there were around 500 entries for the most recent one! It must be very time-consuming and difficult to review all of the works. What is the selection process like for NJFF?
AGN: Initially when the film festival began, it was not a call for entries festival. The festival is now in its 38th year this fall.
When it first started, it was just a revival festival. We showed old movies, because back then, you couldn’t really watch movies except on tv with commercials. There was no home video at the time. I wanted to see Battleship Potemkin. I used my measly Teaching Assistant salary for movies, and I was able to get a projector from the film department. We showed at Campbell A5 at Rutgers… one of the River dormitories, on Monday nights when there were no classes in there. It was free. People came! It was free for about a decade. It was mostly revival stuff.
And then we showed Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, which was an African-American directed film. It was in a dialect called Gullah. It was set on the islands off the coast of Georgia. It was a film that nobody would show in NJ. We showed that film at Milledoler Hall 100 at Rutgers, which sits around 150 people. It was the early 90s, and we were starting to test whether we can show more first-run arthouse stuff. People came from everywhere. We could have sold out that film screening for a month. A show every night for a month… The line went all the way around the Van Dyke Hall twice. We even had to turn away people. So we decided to do screenings all that week. This pushed us to do more first-run stuff. Then we partnered with the State Theater in downtown New Brunswick through the 90s, and showed movies there on their dark nights since they are primarily a performing arts center.
We had Martin Scorsese come, D. A. Pennebaker, who is a famous documentary filmmaker who made Monterey Pop… he came 3 or 4 times to show other movies that he did. These people all came for free. They helped us put our film festival on the map. When we stopped showing there, it was ok because we were already an established program.
By the end of the 90s, we were showing movies every night on the weekends. We were now in Scott Hall 123 at Rutgers… we could sell out that space all the time. But home video started to encroach and the window would get shorter and shorter between theatrical and home video releases, which meant that showing first-run, second-run movies became less viable. You know, a movie comes out and it becomes available on Netflix at the same time… I smelled the roses, I knew it was time to shift the Festival's emphasis. We started doing call for entries for independent films that had not premiered anywhere other than other festivals. But it had to premier in NJ. We started that around 2003.
Now the films in the film festival are selected by a jury. We get anywhere from 200 to 500 entries per festival. As you know, it is a biannual festival. One in the Fall and one in the Spring. And there is also the International one in June. So we get close to 1,500 entries total for a year. Interns help to weed out the bad stuff, remove the ones that we know that are not palatable for a paying audience. And then whittle them down to the best 100 per festival. And then there is a different type of jury that consists of journalists, previous winners, academics and students that pick the 20 or so films that we show each Festival.
It is pretty hard to get into our Festival. It is not as competitive as Sundance, but certainly very close to it. We show about 3% of what we receive. If your film is shown, that is very prestigious. But we always keep an eye out, give a little bit more slack to NJ submissions since we are a NJ film festival. We have to be there for the local community.
So, that is how that is done! It’s been like that for the last 15 years.
V: From the NJFF submissions, you receive works from all around the world, are there differences among different countries in their method of storytelling that you noticed over the years?
I know especially my students and interns love the works that come from the other countries, because they see a different sensibility, and I think some of them are very in your face, very graphic sexually or in terms of violence. There are definitely differences from the works from the USA and it is noticeable. It is something that we embrace. We love to promote good films from other countries. We recently screened this film by a Japanese filmmaker, and the aesthetics were so different from ours. Sometimes it is slower-paced, more meditative, more spiritual, and sometimes it is just plain wacky.
It depends on the country, depends on the film and the filmmaker.
V: This might be a bit of an abstract question, do you think there is a shared experience through the act of watching films together? Like live theaters, something that can only be shared among people because they exist and share an experience in a shared space…
AGN: You know, I’m a big proponent of that. I believe in the social experience of the movies and some of my fondest memories are from seeing movies with lots of people. Sometimes, they are not great moments, like a loud person talking through a whole movie. That happens more often these days… these can ruin your experience. But for the most part, we went to see the premier of Star Wars, the most recent installment. We went to the first show with fans, and it was just a wonderful experience because everybody is cheering, and it really was kind of a religious experience.
Lots of people these days are content watching a movie on their smartphones… I always thought the movies were meant to be seen on a big screen with lots of people. That was the way that used to be, and I’m all for that. Film Festivals that I run are meant to foster that environment.
V: What is your philosophy in life?
AGN: Well, I was asking my wife, what is my philosophy. And I think it is a very simple thing. I really truly believe that one must make their own little corner of the world a better place, and that is something that I adhere to. I do a lot of humane work, I have saved lots of stray cats. I’ve saved some dogs too. It is all about making my corner of the world a better place. It is about giving back to society. The Film Festivals I run are also a way of giving back. My films are meant to be the expression of that as well. My teaching is a part of that. I pass down my pearls of wisdom to my students and make them try to always put themselves in others’ shoes. I guess that is also a cliche that we can use to describe my philosophy. If you do something to somebody, you should want that done to you. We, as people can make the world a better place.
It is cheesy, I know. But I truly believe this.
V: Your plans for 2019?
AGN: Keep doing what I’m doing. It is a marathon. And I used to say I will do film festival like the amount of miles in marathon. I said I will do it for 26 years. I’m in a second marathon. (laughs) So maybe two marathons. Can I do it for 52 years? I don’t know. 52 years, I would be closing in on 80 almost.