A red carpet welcomed directors, producers, actors, and actresses outside the William Musto Cultural Center for the event’s closing night. Out of hundreds of short films, only nine made the final cut for screening and awards over two days.
A gory real-life crime
The 2014 SlenderMan case-- in which two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbed another 12-year-old girl in the woods to impress a fictional online character, named SlenderMan -- inspired “Let’s Play Dead Girl,” one of the evening’s showings from director Christian Moran.
“I basically took that story from Wisconsin and made it urban, brought it to my hometown in Queens, N.Y.,” Moran said of his film, shot entirely in the New York City borough. To reflect his hometown’s melting pot essence, he hired Mexican-American, Dominican-American, and Korean-American lead actresses to play the three girls in question.
Two of the girls create a website centered around Alto, an imaginary being. They craft a plan to kill a third girl – their classmate – to make Alto come to life.
Moran, a Jersey City resident, decided to enter the festival after a friend posted information about it on Facebook. “I was like, ‘Let me give this a try,’” he said. As it happened, that was the deadline day for festival submissions.
“‘Let’s Play Dead Girl’ … promotes a lot of diversity in terms of its cast, and women are at the forefront of the film, in front of the cameras and behind the cameras as well,” said Cynthya Blandino, one of the film’s associate producers. “We’re all about empowerment of people of color and women as well.”
The film earned an award for “Best Supporting Actress” in a small ceremony after all nine films were shown.
“We want to support the local filmmakers throughout New Jersey.” – Lucio Fernandez
“The Fixer,” a comedic entry, stars a runner who uses her superpowers to fix problems in Milburn, N.J., including an underage kid getting access to alcohol. The runner has an opponent called “The Maniac” who stalks and sexually harasses a different female character.
It was shot largely using slow and fast-motion effects.
Director and writer Joe Paul wrote the film after his own experiences as a “fixer.” “At one point, I was on high-blood pressure pills, and I wanted to get off them,” said Paul, an Essex County native. “First, I was walking, then I would run a little bit, then I could finally run a lot. So I was running through my town. I encountered an old lady who had a problem with her garbage can that I stopped and helped her with. And I said, ‘What if somebody really did this stuff?’ But people don’t want to look at me.”
Krystal Pizarro, the actress who plays “The Maniac’s” female target, says her dancing background helped her with acting.
“It actually was my little foot through the door,” Pizarro, a dance choreographer and Bergen County resident, said of dancing. “Dancing is like acting, but you’re just moving around a lot more and you have to do everything at the same time. She said she would be open to being a professional actress in the future.
“It was such a fun project to play,” said “The Fixer” herself, actress Melanie Sutrathada. “The Fixer is just something – I feel like every girl wants to do something like that. It’s like Wonder Woman, but on a smaller, every day scale.”
Judges at the festival gave “The Fixer” a special award for “Best Entertainment Value” later that night. It was, indeed, a funny and quirky film.
Director Stephan Verzi entered “16 Minutes,” an apocalyptic horror film shot in Union City and Newark, into the festival. It won “Best Makeup,” “Best Titles Design” and “Best Cinematography” that evening.
The film centers on a man and a woman apparently escaping from zombies. Suffering from a zombie attack, the man has 16 minutes to administer penicillin to himself. He brings his female companion into a safe haven with him so they’ll be protected.
“It's two characters going through this world, where one is injured and has 16 minutes left to survive, and what would you do?” said Verzi, who is from France. “Is he going to make it? What's he going to do?”
“I want the viewer to basically put themselves into the characters,” Verzi said. He said he worked on the project for the past five years, due to finding suitable locations, getting permits, and finding the right script.
Jim Thalman, one of the lead actors for “16 Minutes” described the film as a “world on the edge of nothing. Ultimately what happens is, we have this excerpt of the last 16 minutes of a human being's life, and how you go through that, and all the things that you do to fight for survival. And when you know survival is outside the realm of possibility, how do you set the one you love up for their own future?”
Weehawken residents James and Toni Fakuda first founded the festival in 2008, assisted by Union City Commissioner Lucio Fernandez. It permanently moved to the Musto Cultural Center in 2011, according to the festival website.
Officials trimmed the festival down to two days from five because of the sheer number of submissions this year.
“It was growing so fast,” said Fernandez, who is also an actor and producer, and makes a cameo in one of the films. “We get nearly 400 entries a year. Just short films alone. Not only from the U.S., but we get from India, Italy, France, all over the world.”
So “this year, we said, 'Let's clean out, let's tighten up the festival structure, and then next year go back to a full week.’ Next year, we're going to add another venue to accommodate the European films, because they're great films, but the subject matter's a little strong for a public building.”
To help out independent filmmakers struggling financially, the festival does not charge for entries. “We want to support the local filmmakers throughout New Jersey,” Fernandez said. “And the best way to do it is to not charge submission fees.”
For more information on the festival and this year's winners, visit http://nohufilmfestival.blogspot.com/.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org