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.