Visit the Montclair Film Festival — which just wrapped its 12th edition — and you’ll see audiences who love challenging films.
They talk about them in the cafe of the local nonprofit theater, The Clairidge, where recent fundraising efforts yielded a glow-up of the cozy seats. They gather across Bloomfield Avenue at the Montclair Film headquarters, which runs both the festival and the theater, and where guests crowd receptions, film talks and spoken-word sessions.
They talk about them on the hilly walk or drive past yoga studios and gelato shops to lovely homes, some of which have views of Manhattan from their backyards.
“People days later are still having conversations about the films that they saw,” notes executive director Beth Gottung, co-head of the festival with artistic director Tom Hall.
“The community is very sophisticated in terms of the form,” says Hall. “We have a lot of journalists who live here, we have a lot of media professionals in this town.”
With a population of 39,000, the upscale but unpretentious Montclair has long been known as a bedroom community for top journalists and other media professionals. (A resident once told Vanity Fair in 2021 that the local paper’s advisory board resembles “the Pulitzer committee.”) The strong emphasis on intellectual curiosity draws people from New York City and around the world.
“It’s a small town. It’s a suburb,” says Hall. “We’re not a resort destination. So people who come here are making an intentional effort to be here — not because it’s a touristy resort-type place, it’s really about the ideas and the people who are here to see the films. And so we have really, really engaged audience.”
A Little Montclair Film Festival History
The festival was founded by Evelyn McGee Colbert and WNET-TV executive Bob Feinberg, with support from Colbert’s husband, Stephen. He lends his star power to each edition of the festival, including this past Friday, when he led a conversation with Martin Scorsese at the gorgeous New Jersey Performing Arts Center in nearby Newark.
The Colberts’ commitment to the festival goes back to their Columbia, South Carolina roots, and their memories of attending the annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston.
“I think that had a profound impact on their interest in this organization and having a community event where artists come to town,” Hall says.
They don’t just lend the event their names: Evelyn McGee Colbert is the head of the board, and a fixture in the Montclair Film offices.
“Beth and I work with her daily — literally daily,” says Hall.
“She really cares about the artists, and she’s such a genuine person. And so that really comes through, and I think it’s allowed us to cast a pretty wide net in the community of people who who are engaged with us,” says Gottung.
Recent additions to the festival’s board includes publicist Holly Shakoor Fleischer, whose husband, director Ruben Fleischer, serves on the advisory board. Its many boldfaced names include J. J. Abrams, Dagmara Dominczyk, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jon Stewart and Julie Taymor, as well as Stephen Colbert.
Besides the Montclair, the festivals other venues include the 1,600-square-foot Wellmont, and another theater at the Montclair Kimberly Academy.
The festival’s strong backing and foundation allows it to program serious-minded and daring films, confident the audience will turn out.
“We have a large African-American community. We have a very strong LGBTQ community. We have women who are feminists and want to see strong women behind the camera and doing top line work. So we take that all into consideration,” notes Hall.
He credits senior programmer Larisa Apan and programmer Rebecca Sokol with helping to find films that will keep people thinking long after the lights come up.
One example is Four Daughters, a Tunisian documentary by Kaouther Ben Hania that Apan embraced, and which won the festival’s main documentary prize. It’s an intense film that challenges both documentary form — several subjects are replaced by actors, for reasons that prove to be very justified — and audience’s comfort levels. Very painful subjects come up for blunt examination.
But the film is also a stunning investigation of how the personal can turn painfully political. The festival welcomed the director for a deep-dive into her intentions.
“Let’s take it into the cinema and have a discussion,” right?” Hall says. “I think that is a really effective way to program challenging work — to make sure somebody’s there to speak about it, because then we can have a real, meaningful discussion about it.”
Hall has worked at some of the top festivals in the country — including Hamptons, Sarasota and Nantucket — and what drew him to Montclair was that engagement.
Gottung has been in the Montclair area for two decades, and has a deep connection to the community both through the festival and her previous experience in educational fundraising and though one of the most passionate things that can connect a community — college sports. She was the head field hockey coach at Montclair State University, and rose to become the director of development in the College of Education and Human Services and Athletics.
She joined Montclair Film last year, drawn to “how alive it brings a town that’s already pretty alive.”
The last few years haven’t been easy for Montclair or any festival. COVID was a global challenge, and though you wouldn’t know it on sight, the immaculate Montclair Film headquarters have been flooded repeatedly.
“And in a tough year of the writers strike and the SAG-AFTRA strike, we were really worried about whether we were we going to be able to fund things the way that we needed to,” says Gottung. “And again, the community steps up, the artistic community steps up, and we actually have more sponsors than we had even last year.”
Main image: (L-R) Beth Gottung, Evelyn McGee Colbert, Stephen Colbert, Martin Scorsese, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy and Tom Hall. Photo courtesy of Montclair Film.