With 180 films, Montclair Film Festival satisfies diverse tastes

As film festivals go, you’d be hard pressed to find one to rival the rapid rise of the Montclair Film Festival. In just seven years, it has bloomed into what Moviemaker Magazine has called one of the 25 coolest film festivals in the world. Montclair Film Executive Director and Film Fest Curator Tom Hall knows about film festivals.

“I’ve worked at a lot of film festivals over the years. I’ve been in the film festival industry for 20-plus years, and the growth here is really staggering, I think,” said Tom Hall, executive director of the festival. “It has all to do with the community, and the board, and the community support that the organization receives. A lot of festivals have to get buy in from the town and sort of grow slowly as people learn about what they’re doing. Here, the community launched the film festival.”

Two of those community members are co-founders Bob Feinberg and Evie Colbert, both of whom admit to knowing not much about film making or film festival running. But, it didn’t take much to realize that they were not only in the right place, but that this might just be the right time.

“Montclair is a town that’s got tremendous resources in the people who live here, many of whom work in media, film, television, traditional loose papers and online. So when we set out to do this festival, we looked at all of our resources and the people of the community were really right at the top,” said Feinberg, who is also vice president and general counsel for WNET.

“We were really pleased and a little surprised, out of the gate, how welcoming people were, how excited they were,” Evie said. “And the other thing that I think maybe we didn’t quite know is how many people work in media who live in Montclair.”

Including her husband, Stephen Colbert, who’s been developing his own career in media and was convinced, quite easily, to help Evie get the festival off the ground doing what he does best, talking to people in an engaging way in front of a live audience. The couple has been living here for 17 years.

“I want a community that isn’t just a bedroom community, you know. There’s culture here; there’s a beautiful museum; there’s theater, there’s the Montclair Film Festival. Things like this make Montclair a beautiful place to live. I’m particularly proud of what the festival has created because, and I’ve said this before, I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and when I was 13 years old the Spoleto Festival started there and the festival changed my life,” Stephen said. “It sort of lit a fire inside of me. It sparked the dream that I could do this.”

On this Saturday afternoon, Colbert was kicking off the Storytellers portion of the festival, chatting with Rachel Weisz, whose new film “Disobedience” is at the festival and in theaters. There are other stars on tap, including Jeff Daniels and Ethan Hawke. But very few of the 180 films in this festival are reliant on movie stars. Montclair Film Festival prides itself on being the not-blockbuster-film festival.

“So we’re not going to be showing the “Avengers: Infinity War” or big Hollywood blockbusters here,” Hall said. “These are intimate, smaller films, where the artists are here. Eighty percent of the films in the festival this year, will have a filmmaker here to talk about them afterward. That’s a really exciting number for us because the engagement of the Q&As at the film festival is really what we’re about.”

It’s a program that is thematically as diverse as Montclair itself, some movies of means, mixed in with earnest, modest-budget productions made by industry professionals, and even college kids.

“We really didn’t set out to say this is going to be where people are going to sell their film. It was more, we want a community to come together with the excitement of an arts festival. And so I think my first thought was Montclair could really use that,” Evie said.

The results suggest that she’s right. In just seven short years, the festival has become the engine that drives Montclair Film, a year-round film-focused arts organization that not only screens films but programs a variety of arts and education events now in a brand-new facility, Cinema 505.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to see what we’ve built and to see these kids participating in the emerging filmmakers competition and to see some of our interns go on to really work in the industry. It’s fantastic,” Feinberg said.

“Just watching an organization that is malleable, you know. We’re sort of constantly trying to thinking of new things to do. It’s never boring, and I’m lucky enough to be able to spend time, and I just keep showing up,” Evie said.

As typified by the emerging filmmaker competition, which provides opportunities for student filmmakers, like Montclair University freshman Trevor Stepheney, whose short, “Elyuvi,” is in competition.

“I didn’t even know it was this big until I actually looked into it a few weeks ago. I was like, Montclair Film Festival, that’s nice. I went to Montclair, I was with my father and I see all these banners and posters. I was like yo, this is actually a really big deal. Now, I’m like this is crazy. I can’t believe I’m actually in this thing as a freshman,” Stepheney said.

Andrew Solomon is a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author. A documentary based on his book “Far From the Tree” about diverse parents dealing with exceptional children, opened the festival.

“I’m really happy I did it here. This was the perfect venue, it was the perfect theater and it was the perfect crowd. It was a really loving audience. When they started laughing a lot near the beginning, I thought, ‘these people are with us,’ so it was a great, great feeling,” Solomon said.

One of the most compelling films in this year’s festival comes from director and producer Ben Niles, whose documentary “The Five Browns: Digging Through the Darkness,” tells the disturbing story of classical pianist siblings who became stars of the classical world despite, all the while, living with a dark family secret of sexual abuse. The film is having its world premiere at the Montclair Film Festival.

“I have to say, I’m thrilled to be at the Montclair Film Festival. I’ve been here before with another film, but I’ve also been here as an audience member for many years and I’ve seen the program that Tom Hall puts together year in and year out,” Niles said. “Montclair is one of those festivals that is very much on the map, I think. And, as a filmmaker, I would tell anybody, you’d be crazy not to try to get into Montclair because it’s no longer up and coming, it’s here.”