WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange movie lovers once again have the opportunity to experience some of the best films of yesteryear as well as intriguing new work from independent directors with the return of the West Orange Classic Film Festival and Black Maria Film Festival at the Essex Green AMC Theater.
The 11th annual Classic Film Festival, hosted by the West Orange Film Society, launched Jan. 10, and will run through March 6. In the middle of that run, the 35th annual Black Maria Film Festival tour will conclude its premiere weekend with a stop in West Orange on Feb. 7, featuring seven of the festival’s prize-winning narrative, animated, documentary and experimental short films.
Clearly, movie buffs will have a lot to see over the next few weeks. And though people might be tempted to skip old favorites they have already seen on television, such as “All the President’s Men,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Dr. Strangelove,” WOFS President Ken Mandel stressed that doing so would be a mistake. That is because watching movies as part of the Classic Film Festival presents even much-loved works in a whole different light.
“There’s really nothing like seeing a movie on the big screen with a group of people, all of whom are there to for the same reason — to see really good movies,” Mandel told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “You’re part of a community that appreciates and understands why movies are important, you’re seeing movies the way they’re supposed to be seen and you’re getting some good conversation at the same time.”
This year, the conversation is being led by a host of local film critics, filmmakers and artists including Stephen Whitty, Michael Goldberger, Gerard Amsellem, Boris Gavrilovic, Steven Gorelick and Paul Castiglia. They will introduce the films to the audience by pointing out what they should look for while watching, and afterward will discuss why the movie is significant enough to be considered a classic and answer questions from the audience, which Mandel calls “a film course worth the price of a ticket.”
Having overseen the festival since it was founded in 2006, Mandel said he knows from experience that West Orange always attracts a very intelligent audience to these discussions. And that is a good thing, he said, because talking about a work after watching it can lend great insight into the movie’s message and film history in general.
“Film is only a little more than 100 years old as an art form,” Mandel said. “This is a new discipline. There’s so much to discuss about it — from the story to the craft of filmmaking to gossip involving film — that it’s really an opportunity to learn more about something that’s really a mostly American phenomenon.”
There is also much insight to be gained from the films of the Black Maria Festival, which is named after the movie studio Thomas Edison created in West Orange. Executive Director Jane Steuerwald said this year’s crop of short movies is among the best the festival has ever had, and those being shown in West Orange some of its most powerful.
Some highlights include “Daybreak,” which Steuerwald described as a “beautiful” animated look at the world between dreams and consciousness, and “Making a Mensch,” a “fun” and “comical” piece examining the serious theme of what it means to be a good person according to traditional Jewish ideas. The executive director also praised “We Came and Stayed,” a nine-minute documentary following three generations of Newark men — including Mayor Ras Baraka and his father, the poet and activist Amiri Baraka — which she called a “fascinating” family portrait.
Overall, Steuerwald said this year’s festival offers a variety of stories, themes and styles not ordinarily found in a Hollywood
blockbuster. This is because independent filmmaking provides directors with the ability to make their vision become a reality without the constraints a money-minded major studio would apply, she said. The result is a creative freedom that the executive director urges people to experience.
“I think there’s more passion in the work,” Steuerwald told the Chronicle in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “I think there’s more heart in the work. I think there’s more honesty. I think there’s more imagination, because there are no limits.
“These filmmakers have only themselves to please,” she continued. “It’s art in the best sense of the word.”
The problem is that there are few opportunities to see independent films, especially of the short-form variety. The Black Maria Festival provides a rare chance to do so, and it is one that Steuerwald said visitors will not regret.
“The Black Maria is a festival for the people,” Steuerwald said. “We travel to where the people live so they have the chance to share in this amazing vision of these filmmakers who are making these pieces for the love of it.”
On first glance, it may seem unusual to see such unique, sometimes esoteric films promoted together with a festival specializing in classic Hollywood releases. Mandel said there are indeed differences between the types of movies, with independent works having been made with the director’s vision foremost in mind while the acclaimed studio productions were mainly produced with the hope of making a profit.
But what makes independent films and classic films the same at their core is that both put forward a message that resonates with audiences, the WOFS president said. Whether it is an independent director toiling away on a shoestring budget or a Hollywood filmmaker overcoming producers’ demands to get his point across in a movie, both have the power to touch the hearts of viewers, he said.
This is why Mandel feels both types of films complement each other.
“When you see (the films) on the screen, they can make you think or, in the best cases, change your life,” Mandel said. “In that way, the finished product often has the same impact on viewers.”