54 short films were made by New Jersey High School students screened at the Berkley on Saturday and Sunday Credit: Ed Shin

The twenty-second annual Garden State Film Festival (GSFF) celebrating independent film and filmmakers took place on March 21-24 in Asbury Park and at the Cranford Theatre in Cranford New Jersey.  Asbury Park locations included Asbury Lanes, Asbury Hotel, Berkley Hotel, and the Jersey Shore Arts Center.  The festival included some 200 full length feature films, shorts and documentary films showcasing the creative talents of a new generation of filmmakers, mostly from New Jersey.

Lauren Concar Sheehy, the Executive Director opened the festival at the Asbury Lanes by thanking Diane Raver (founder of the festival), Kristen Dirato (Director of Operations, the Board of Directors), sponsors and all the attendees. The first night provided a sneak peek at the full line-up of films and special events and an hour long ‘Meet the Filmmakers’ cocktail hour.

David W. Schoner Credit: Brenda Hamlet

In attendance was David W. Schoner, Associate Director of the NJ Picture and TV Commission.  Schoner described one reason for the festival’s long-standing success. “We are an event that celebrates freedom,” he said. “The films in this festival are pure – nothing artificial. That is a great gift.”

Brian Reynolds, Writer/Director of ‘The Nanny’ agreed. “I think this festival is central to the success of independent film because the whole community is here. It’s all about inclusion.”

Poster ad for the film “The Nanny” Credit: Brenda Hamlet

Actor and festival goer, Joe Hadden, has been coming to the festival for four years. Last year, Hadden hosted one of the movie blocks and Q&A sessions.  This year, he came just for the community and to talk shop with film people.  His next short, The Funnel Web (2024) should be presented at the next festival.

Eduardo Garcia, Matt Grossman and Daniel Boulos of Olde York Pictures, came to network with distributors for their film, Beggarman.  Boulos says that although their film did not make the festival this year, they came anyway because they are part of the film community, and everybody lifts each other up and supports one another.  

(L-R) Matthew Modine, Lauren Concar Sheehy and Stephen Wallis Credit: Andrei Jackamets
Actor Matthew Modine with APR reporter, Brenda Hamlet Credit: Brenda Hamlet

All of the films in the festival are low budget independent films, including The Martini Shot, directed by Stephen Wallis.  He was able to get Hollywood stars such as Matthew Modine, John Cleese and Derk Jacobi on board.  Wallis said “They got paid, but not a lot. I made the film for just under one million dollars, but I find that great actors are always looking for great material. Matthew [Modine] is a wonderful actor, and he brings a kindness to the role which is essential. I’m lucky to have him.”

Matthew Modine, known for his performances in the films Full Metal Jacket and Birdy, highly recommended The Martini Shot. “Watch the film, you’ll love it,” he said. “This film is nothing like you have ever seen before. The Martini Shot is the last shot of the day – finalizing.  For my character in the film, it means he learns that the moment you embrace your own mortality, you begin to live.” 

The Martini Shot launched its premiere the next day at The Asbury Lanes. The storyline revolves around a movie director with a terminal illness who believes he’s working on his final film.  Shot mainly in Galway Ireland, the cinematography is exquisite with sweeping long shots of the Cliff of Moher and master shots at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.  Plot spoilers aside, towards the end of the film, the actors begin referring to Modine’s character as God.  Real life Writer/Director Stephen Wallis says the play came out of his own health struggles. “I wrote this when I was really sick. I wanted to do something that might be my last movie. I like the idea that we are in control of our own destinies as creators.”

I wrote this when I was really sick. I wanted to do something that might be my last movie. I like the idea that we are in control of our own destinies as creators.

Writer/Director, Stephen Wallis

Don Q, produced by and starring Armand Assante (Gotti, The Odyssey, Judge Dredd) is an equally impressive moderately budgeted film, which tells the story of Al Quinto, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, who is distressed by the rapidly changing culture of his community and longs for a return to the old ways.  Quinto slowly slips into a fantasy world in which he becomes Don Q, the heroic and chivalrous protector of the neighborhood. Assante said, “Don Q is based on the character of Don Quixote (a novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes).  Don Q is deeply affected by the mythology and movies about the Mafia in the same way that Don Quixote is influenced by the many chivalric novels he has read. Both long to live life in an authentic and passionate way, though their dreams of honor and heroism are sometimes delusionary, their hearts are true.”

Rob Ackerman, is the writer/producer for the full length feature film The Stargazer, the story of one fateful day in the life of Grad student Grace Campbell.  Grace has a burning desire to tell the story of Cecelia Payne, a forgotten astronomer, whose research on stars was initially rejected then stolen by her male colleagues. 

Throughout the course of the day in the film, Grace discovers her own true nature is also inextricably linked to the stars and the decisions she must make.  Ackerman said, “We made the film for $200,000, which was gifted to us by a benefactor in Ohio, but we could never have made the movie without Ryder University, which let us film there and provided us with some student helpers.”   

Ackerman described the storytelling techniques used as the film transitions between the present in color, the past in black and white, and the mythical when Grace and her boyfriend meet a mysterious dancer in the library. 

“Dancers were important to the movie. Using different forms of storytelling is important for a low budget film as you have to make it more interesting.” The Stargazer is available in April on Apple+.

Actor Armand Assante Credit: Brenda Hamlet

We made the film for $200,000, which was gifted to us by a benefactor in Ohio, but we could never have made the movie without Ryder University, which let us film there and provided us with some student helpers.

Writer Rob Ackerman, ‘The Stargazer’

In addition to feature films, many short films and documentaries were on view, including My Joy Has Arrived, an eight-minute docu-short made by students at Winslow High School. The film is about their classmate Ayomide Ogunsola, a 15-year-old immigrant from Nigeria who arrives in New Jersey with very little, except the desire to play basketball.  At six feet seven inches tall, Ayomide is bound for the NBA, but first he needs to learn how to make it happen.  The film follows his year long journey to make friends and compete in this all-American sport.

(L-R) Student Filmmakers Malcolm Smallwood, Briyel Brown and Terry Harris Credit: Brenda Hamlet
UArts presenting Ashley Chang with Student Award for ‘Watch Your Back’ Credit: Brenda Hamlet
Festival Founder, Diane Raver Credit: Andrei Jackamets

Millennials Alex Forstenhausler and Lee Raphael Koppel both have films in the festival for the first time.  Forstenhausler’s film called Guy Meets Girl is a short 8-minute film he describes as a dark romantic comedy, “It shows the different gender perspectives on Tinder dating.” For him, it’s great. For her, it’s a nightmare’.  Koppel’s film, The Apps also considers the pitfalls of internet dating. “It’s my passion project,” Koppel said. “A film about a guy trying to write a bio for Bumble. He never finishes it, but in the process, he learns that he isn’t ready to jump into a new relationship. That’s his journey.”

There were a total of 54 shorts made by New Jersey High School students screened at the Berkley on Saturday and Sunday. Ashley Chang was the winner of the best short with Watch Your Back.  Lauren Sheehey and Diane Raven’s short documentary, The Troger Heat, tells the story of the late Joe Troger and his enduring Classic Longboard competition taking place every September in Seaside, and This is Why We Train, a documentary account of the Sea Girt Beach Patrol’s efforts to rescue and successfully save the life of an injured surfer.

Brenda Hamlet is a journalist covering trends in the media and arts. Brenda lives in Asbury Park and teaches writing at Kean University. Her contributions will focus on the state of the Arts in Asbury Park.

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