Reel East Film Festival – New Jersey’s inaugural homage to cinema

Festivals are at the heart of the film writer or journalists schedule – the year filled with the main draws such as Cannes, Venice, Tribeca and the BFI London Film Festival amongst others.

Yet there are also the smaller and more intimate festivals, and rarely does an opportunity come along to explore the beginnings of a festival.


Whilst “tapping into New Jersey’s historical significance in cinema history” the inaugural Reel East Film Festival spirals outwards to showcase work from as far a field as France, and therein honours the artistic ethos that art knows no boundaries, whilst also placing an emphasis on celebrating cinema past, present and future.

FLUX recently had the opportunity to interview Festival Director Matthew Sorrento, who shared with us the story of how the Reel East Film Festival began, the place of short films and the festival circuit in modern cinema, whilst also offering his thoughts on two icons from in front of and behind the camera – Alfred Hitchcock and Humphrey Bogart.

If you were asked to offer a short history of the Reel East Film Festival how would it read?

“Well, it would read as two long acts of occasional discussions between me and the very generous Camden County (NJ) Board of Freeholders representatives, Bill Thompson and Roland Traynor, followed by a fast-paced third act of bringing the festival into form, from late 2013 until now. The County was impressed with some screenings that we held at the local college and thought that a county-sponsored film festival, a lesser-known model, would be a great idea. As it came to be, Robert A. Emmons Jr. of Rutgers-Camden’s Center for Digital Studies and the English-Film Studies department at the university, for whom I teach, also got behind it. Everything was nicely interconnected, since Emmons’ earlier film, DeLuxe, was one of the prominent screenings presented by the County. Now we’re thrilled to present the theatrical premiere of his new film, Diagram for Delinquents.”

What have the challenges and surprises been in putting together the inaugural edition of the festival, and how conscious were you of using the films programmed as a means to shape the festivals emerging identity, and connection to Camden County and New Jersey?

“The best surprise which was due to timing and the hard work of one of my co-directors of the festival, Irv Slifkin (author of Filmadelphia), was booking our appearance of John Sayles on August 23rd at 8pm, who will present his recent film, Go For Sisters. Though one of the greatest living filmmakers, and a noted novelist, John is enthusiastic about festivals, supporting communal viewing of cinema, and, it seems, supporting New Jersey, one of the birthplaces of the medium. Most of the challenges have related to a lot of little things that my team hasn’t had too much experience with – certain aspects of promotion, and a lot of the work we would assign to administrative assistants could we afford them now! But my team which filmmaker/critic Brian Holcomb, filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney (who teaches with me at Rutgers), and screenwriter Faith Brody (Miss December) has been extremely hardworking and an inspiration.

While discussing our programming options, we did want to tap into the New Jersey’s historical significance in cinema history. So it’s a pleasure to present Going Attractions, about the history of drive-in, which was invented nearby in the city of Camden. We also chose to present Hitchcock’s The Lodger with live musical accompaniment by Steve Weber, and hosted by McElhinney, since our house, the Ritz Theatre, was opened in the year of the film’s release: 1927. We also named our short film awards after notable film innovators from New Jersey.”

How vital has local government support been in making the Reel East Film Festival a reality, and in the current economic climate, how vital is government support for the arts?

“The festival would not be happening without government support, both from our principal sponsor, the County of Camden, and funds from a public university, Rutgers-Camden, which was almost annihilated by Governor Chris Christie – he even had the gall to joke about it in a Seinfeld parody he did with former Newark Mayor (and current junior US Senator) Cory Booker. I believe government support is essential, but, as you can see, in some ways it’s always a struggle.”

How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers and distributors alike? If the festival circuit ceased to exist, what would be the impact on the landscape of modern cinema?

“In many ways, film festivals are keeping the communal viewing experience alive. Many small films now have the option to stream their films online, which I can’t completely disregard, since the format supports artistic expression. But still, it eliminates the communal experience of filmmaking – the ritual of gathering together around a glowing screen in the dark, which has replaced the campfire narratives that people have shared after a hard day’s work since the beginning of time. Noir programmer Eddie Muller asserts that films are not museum pieces, and that they take on different lives each time they are played, depending on the audience. The prolific critic/film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon notes that films can only be experienced in a theater, and that viewing on disc or stream is a copy, like a reproduction of a painting. Again, I won’t dismiss home viewing since with it we can experience Hollywood history and international cinema regularly, but there’s only one experience. If the festival circuit would cease then many established distributors would lose a pre-release promotional strategy. But more importantly, small films would never get the exposure they need. Some of my favourite films I discovered at festivals included György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, and James Bolton’s Dream Boy, and I may have never encountered them without the festival experience.”

You are screening a classic Hitchcock film, along with a lost Bogart classic. How do you view the contributions of these two men to the story of film?

“Bogart is a universal favourite, at the heart of late 30s gangsters and helped solidify the noir tradition in the early 40s, while writing the book on tragic romance. We considered his prominence when programming that film, and I have the pleasure of hosting it. We would like to attract the film buffs out there who know and love his work and other classic films, but may have never been to a festival. We are in suburban Philadelphia, where most of the festival action and indie programming happens. We’re thrilled to add another event for them, while tapping into potential festival goers. As for Hitchcock, his career is so full of classics that every film buff can’t ignore him. Though Vertigo (1958) seems to have taken the top spot, I still argue for the importance of Psycho (1960) for its importance in genre, and commenting on the failure of traditional family values.”

That said, some of Hitchcock’s cameos are particularly iconic – your favourite (mine is Frenzy)?

“Ah, the Frenzy one is great, though I have to say Marnie, when he gets caught checking out the backside of the title character in her black wig. Getting caught by the camera, and then turning away when he’s busted comments on the voyeuristic theme that he’d been developing for years, though he originally nabbed it from Fritz Lang. Then again, your favourite is about looking too!”

How essential is it to take the time to celebrate cinema’s past, to focus on short and feature films, genre cinema as well as both documentary and narrative filmmaking in order to discover films heritage and the art form in all its guises?

“As I get older, I find myself looking into older works and filmmakers more and more. I feel that film fans who aren’t into older works will find ones they like, with some exposure. So we need to bring in classics and undiscovered ones as much as possible. As a writer on cinema, I specialize in genre film, and I’m fascinated by how these traditions are contemporary versions of myths and earlier literary, artistic and cultural traditions. Though I do have special fondness for personal narrative films, and all documentary forms. We have a major asset in Emmons as a boardmember, since he makes docs and teaches doc filmmaking.”

On the subject of short films what do you think is the place of the short in modern film?

“Short fiction is as important as the novel form, though holding a different place in publishing. So I believe that short film narratives and documentaries present artistic expressions that cannot be done in the long form. Whist some shorts eventually get expanded into features, I see these shorts as experiments on the way to their proper shape. We have some excellent short films this year that were meant to take on that form, like Extreme Pinocchio, a bizarre treat from France, and Local Girls, a revisionist genre work.”

What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of the first edition of the Reel East Film Festival, and how has the experience impacted you both personally and professionally?

“I want people to discover the unique festival experience, and to leave with memories of a least one film that blew them away. Of all the festivals I’ve attended I always have that one film that on its own, was well worth making the trip. Along with that one work, you find a variety of films that remind us of how much interesting work is out there, and can be viewed in a group setting.”

The Reel East Film Festival interview by Paul Risker.

Matthew Sorrento teaches film studies at Rutgers-Camden, authored The New American Crime Film, and is Interview Editor for Film International along with his role as Festival Director of the Reel East Film Festival.

The Reel East Film Festival takes place in on the 22-23August at the historic Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn, New Jersey. For me information visit reeleastfilm.org

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