They’ve begun calling it Tribeca West.
Not West Coast, though: Teaneck is a beautiful suburb just west of the New York metropolitan area. Its hometown showcase, the Northeast Film Festival, seems to be growing at almost as rapid a rate as Robert De Niro’s gem. The actor co-founded Tribeca Film Festival along with Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff back in 2002 in response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. NEFF doesn’t have the backing of an Oscar-winning actor, or as tragic a reason for creation, but, founded by filmmaker Larry Rosen back in 2013, it’s had a rapid rise as a quality filmmaker-friendly destination on the festival circuit.
In fact, the opening night film in its second year, Before I Disappear, was the feature-length version of Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short “Curfew.” After nabbing five awards—and an incredible nine nominations in the festival—the film went on to theatrical distribution from IFC Films. And it was no surprise when, in its third year, the previous year’s Best Actress-winner, Fatima Ptacek (the lead in Christensen’s short and subsequent feature, but perhaps better known as the voice of Dora the Explorer) returned to be a presenter at the festival.
I know about this festival’s charm and appeal as much as anyone. My short film “Maniac,” which I produced and directed, swept the awards for Best Short, Best Actor in a Short and Best Director of a Short in the first-ever NEFF in September of 2013. Certainly, it was a highlight among my many festival appearances. That’s saying something: I have been blessed to screen at festivals from the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival to the Newport Beach Film Festival, and have my film as the closing night feature of the Phoenix Film Festival.
My first foray into NEFF was so pleasant that the second year, I was honored to have my feature-length documentary Creature Feature: 60 Years of the Gill-Man (which I wrote and produced, and which featured Benicio del Toro and Keith David) play at a special screening in Teaneck. How could I not? The newly renovated Teaneck Cinemas are gorgeous, and there was something to be said about screening in the same theater that James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy had played in just weeks before. So, when my cousin, writer-director Daniel James, had finished editing our horror short “Wraith” (which I produced along with Aime Alonzo and Daniel McQueary, starring Melissa Archer and Gregg Prosser), we jumped at the chance to submit and screen at NEFF.
Now in its fourth year, the whole festival was so surreal, it was almost a blur. Our screening was two rows shy of a sold-out theater, and Daniel and I had much of our families there. It was like a reunion. We were nominated for Best Short up against some serious dramatic shorts, including the eventual winner, “Fragile Storm,” directed by my friend Dawn Fields and starring Lance Henriksen. And we were thrilled when Rosen called our names as the Audience Choice Winner in the entire festival. “Wraith” got more votes than any other short, documentary or feature in the entire lineup. Having friends of mine—David Harris, who played Cochise in Walter Hill’s iconic film The Warriors, and casting director Donna McKenna—in attendance that night as presenters, alongside Lloyd Kaufman and Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos, made it that much more special. It was like coming home again. How about the fact that Oscar-winner Melissa Leo was nominated for Best Actress in a Short for “Mother’s Day?” That should tell you what kind of line-up NEFF had. And, yes, there were wonderful after-parties with free food and drinks every night of the festival, but to me the filmmaker-friendly atmosphere made all the difference.
Tribeca West… a lofty comparison? After the 2016 edition of NEFF, I think the festival has certainly earned it. MM
Northeast Film Festival ran September 9-11, 2016 in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Sam Borowski is a New York- and New Jersey-based writer, director and producer. Currently he is developing a feature titled Stay Fresh that he will write and direct.