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Lights, Camera, AC!

Calling all movie fans! The 12th annual Garden State Film Festival, April 3-6, will make Atlantic City the center of the celluloid universe.

“All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” – Steve Martin

If the comedian (and recent Oscar winner) is right, the Garden State Film Festival is a three-day blitz of entertainment, enlightenment, therapy and theology?served with a side of popcorn.

The festival will screen more than 180 films in 72 hours at a number of venues around the city, including Resorts, Trump Taj Mahal, and Dante Hall. It will include panel discussions with the filmmakers, and an open call for aspiring performers. It will be bookended by a splashy opening reception and a star-studded awards ceremony (featuring Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Ed Asner, and Bebe Neuwirth, whose first directorial effort, “Jerome’s Bouquet,” will be shown Saturday, April 5, at Resorts Superstar Theatre).

For movie lovers, this is truly Cinema Paradiso.

Home-Grown and Beyond
“We have foreign films with English subtitles, we have horror, we have comedy, we have narrative, we have the most fantastic documentaries,” says Executive Director Diane Raver, who co-founded the festival in 2002 with the late actor Robert Pastorelli. “These films come from all around the world, but of course with a special emphasis on those produced in New Jersey.”

For locally made films, look for the tag “Home Grown” on the festival website:

Starting with some 700 entries, an expert panel selected the final festival lineup. It includes movies from seasoned filmmakers with multimillion-dollar budgets, and student filmmakers with no budget at all.

The subject matter at times can be solemn: 9/11, the JFK assassination, the lynching of Emmett Till, and the New York Times/Jayson Blair scandal.

It is sometimes satirical, as in the mockumentary “A Convenient Truth.” That film, riffing on former Vice President Al Gore’s climate-change alert “An Inconvenient Truth,” features a California politician who proposes the U.S. harness energy by strapping illegal immigrants, hamster-like, to bicycles. For a preview, see

Some of the films are whimsical, like “Solemates,” a 3-minute cartoon about a shoe in love with a foot.

And some are just out of this world. In “The Ninety-Nines,” an animated short from students at the University of Colorado, Amelia Earhart is presented as “a Rocketeer in the super-secret Scientific Strategic Reserve (who) hunts down the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele.”

High Fliers and Blues Wailers
The films are also illuminating. Among the local entries is a 28-minute documentary about a female aviator who preceded Earhart, yet is largely unknown today. Through stills and vintage film clips, Egg Harbor Township filmmaker Dawn Brown’s “Lady of the Air” tells the story of Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed female pilot. Famed in her day, and all but forgotten now, Quimby was the first woman to fly the English Channel in an era when flight was not only perilous, but frequently deadly.

“Once you started flying, your life expectancy was a matter of months,” says Sterling G. Brown, producer of the film and author of a book about Quimby. “These things were like flying lawn mowers, made of wood and held together with piano wire.”

Like other pilots of her day, Quimby, a onetime model, journalist and aspiring scriptwriter who worked with silent-film director D.W. Griffith?commanded huge fees to perform at air shows. Her Channel crossing in April 1912 might have made history if not for another newsworthy event.

“The Titanic sank the next day,” says Sterling. “It got all the headlines and Harriet was relegated to the back page.”

Quimby’s daring antics continued to raise eyebrows? “There was enormous cultural and social bias against women doing things like that,” Sterling says?but the intrepid pilot could not outfly the odds. During an exhibition later that year, her open monoplane pitched suddenly forward in mid-air. She and her passenger were thrown from the craft and died.

Quimby is fascinating for many reasons: her notoriety, her willingness to challenge the social mores of her time, her tragic death just 11 months after she started flying, and also by her footnote status in aviation history. “She was enormously brave, foolhardy probably, but willing to take these risks,” says Brown. “People think Amelia Earhart was the first woman pilot. But Harriet Quimby beat her by 20 years.”

To view the trailer, see

Another local team is behind the film, “Mama’s Got the Blues.” This 74-minute musical documentary was created by Jean Antolini of Ventnor and musician-singer Ruth Wyand, originally of Venice Park in Atlantic City. It’s a multimedia performance, with Wyand onstage to introduce the film and provide musical counterpoint.

“It gives us the history of women in the blues, and how their foremothers created the genre,” says Antolini. “Those well-known riffs that Chuck Berry played? Sister Rosetta Tharp was playing them when he was just a baby. Big Mama Thornton did ‘Hound Dog’ first, not Elvis.”

“Mama’s Got the Blues” starts out in the bayous, brothels and churches of New Orleans and chronicles a century of music, from barrelhouse blues pioneer Ann Cook to Thornton to jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone to latter-day blues wailer Janis Joplin.

For the trailer, see

‘Team Oscar’
One festival filmmaker actually graced the stage at this year’s Oscars telecast, delivering statuettes to the celebrity presenters. Rutgers University senior Jean Paul Isaacs was among the half-dozen members of “Team Oscar,” a group of gifted young filmmakers who helped hand out Golden Boys to the Academy Award winners.

Isaacs is well-represented at the Garden State Film Festival this year, with his short film, “Lunch with Larry,” about two hit men grabbing a bite between bloody acts of mayhem, and “Against the Grain: The Story of Stan the LX Bus Driver.” The latter, a moving 17-minute documentary, tells the story of Stan McNeil, former campus bus driver. The relentlessly optimistic McNeil used his transit bus as a pulpit to deliver daily love, affirmation and encouragement to his passengers. He was asked to resign last year, reportedly for praying with a student in a wheelchair. Rutgers students have since started a petition on to bring Stan back.

“Part of my advanced documentary class was to find a compelling, dynamic story, and the best story I could find I already had?Stan the LX bus driver,” says Isaacs. “He was beloved by so many Rutgers students. I started making it in September, and Stan was fired in October.”

While Isaacs has few resources to distribute his film, he believes showcases like the Garden State Film Festival are an important way to share his work with a wider audience. Beyond that, he relies on the power of the story. “Any project with themes that are universal, that resonate beyond the screen will find an audience,” he says.

Watch “Against the Grain: Stan, the LX Bus Driver” at

Thanks to today’s technology, even young filmmakers can create minor works of art. Seventeen-year-old Elia Lichenstein, a student at Atlantic City High School, is a featured filmmaker at this year’s festival. His film, “Lucy the Elephant,” salutes the Victorian era pachyderm-shaped structure in Margate, Lichtenstein’s.

“I’ve been a tour guide there for four years, but I’ve been going there since I was two, so I know all about it,” says Lichtenstein. He thought a current documentary about Lucy could use an update. Hence his 4-minute film, made with a JVC camcorder and Final Cut Pro editing software.

“More people are being able to make films through more readily available software and hardware, such as the Vine App and better smartphone cameras,” says Lichtenstein. “I do think that the more experience and education in the field that you have, however, increases the quality of the film.”

For the aspiring aerospace engineer, having a place at the Garden State Film Festival is “very exciting.”

Good Move
The festival originated in Asbury Park, but is moving south this year, lured by a $300,000 grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the opportunity to reach a wider audience. And it’s affordable: an all-access weekend pass is just $60 plus tax. Pass-holders can cram in as many movies as possible in those three days, as well as the Friday Night Gala Cocktail Party and screening, panel discussions, screenplay reading, after-parties and more.

“We try very hard to make no barriers so everybody is able to come and can afford to come,” says Raver.

So mark your calendar, pack a box of Raisinets, and indulge your love of movies at the Garden State Film Festival. Weekend passes are available at