By GWEN OREL
A young man comes over and informs teaching artist Melissa Schaffer that his grandmother had passed away recently. But he will hold her in his heart over Thanksgiving, and honor her by watching her favorite films. He’s waiting for 505 Films + Friends to begin, an inclusive film club for neurodiverse young adults and others, that shows movies at Montclair Film’s home at 505 Bloomfield Ave.
Watching a movie is something people can do at home, or on their own. But for the young adults who are part of the 505 Films + Friends club, it’s the elements around the movies that create community and spark friendship. That’s true also for the older adults who come to the Cinema + Conversation matinee series for senior citizens, at Montclair Film.
The matinee series just began this year, while 505 Films + Friends, an inclusive program aimed especially at neurodiverse young adults, ages 18-28, who have graduated from high school, has been around for a couple of years, but both have similar goals: to find an underserved audience and bring them together.
Cinema + Conversation was launched by Sarah Barrack, vice president of community relations. Both Barrack and the leaders of
505 Films + Friends — Schaffer and psychologist David Steinke — boast that people have gone on to share meals after movie-going at Montclair Film.
For Bob Feinberg, Montclair Film founder and chairman of the board, the Montclair part of the name has always been important.
“We’re coming up on our ninth film festival, in May of ’20,” Feinberg said. “We’ve enjoyed great acceptance from the community, and gotten a lot of help from other nonprofits. Film is an art that can embrace lots of different subject areas.”
Engagement is natural, he added. “We were created in and very much of a community, a unique community that supports the arts. It’s one of the things that separates us from a lot of other film festivals that have a subject matter focus or are about the marketplace of selling film. We are really tied to the community, and the community can be larger than Montclair, it’s Essex County, northern New Jersey.”
When the Montclair Film Festival first began showing outdoor films, Feinberg said, they made a conscious decision to show them on Church Street — not in a park where people would sit in their own little groups, but on the street. People brought their lawn chairs to watch the film “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And Church Street restaurant managers and workers began coming outside and offering free samples. That was just the kind of interaction Feinberg had been hoping for.
That’s one reason a few years ago the organization changed its name from Montclair Film Festival to Montclair Film. He’s proud of the big-ticket events and red carpets and celebrities but always wanted MF to be more than that.
MF has partnered with Outpost in the Burbs, Jazz House Kids, Montclair State University, the Montclair Art Museum, Vanguard Theater Company and others, and offers classes for kids and adults.
“If we’re going to ask people to support us, it should be about more than 10 days of hoopla and filmgoing,” Feinberg said. “We thought this was a really great, great way to channel those interests and to bring more to the community.”
MATINEES FOR SENIORS
There are senior matinees in town already, at the Montclair Public Library. What distinguishes Cinema + Conversation at Montclair Film is that the films are contemporary. Upcoming films this winter include “Every Little Step,” a documentary about the making of the show “A Chorus Line,” and “Art and Craft,” about a prolific art forger. Socializing is an important aspect of the experience, Barrack said.
Last year, Barrack and Lisa Ingersoll, Montclair Film’s co-director of marketing, attended Seniorama, an annual daylong event of panels and presentations for senior citizens put on by the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee. There, she connected with Fran Hecker, vice president of Aging in Montclair, a nonprofit organization serving senior citizens. Barrack, Ingersoll and Hecker agreed that it would be good to show movies in an intimate setting, and offer a discussion afterward. A discussion, not a panel, Barrack emphasized.
“I drew on my experience with my mother. She worked until my father passed away. She’s in her 80s, and intellectually engaged. I thought about the type of event she goes to, and how important it is to form community.”
She reached out to independent residences, to survey what kind of movies would interest people, figure out the nuts and bolts. The MF building is ADA compliant, but she also wanted to make sure the movie-going experience would be good for people with auditory issues: there was a lot to consider.
Tom Hall, executive director of MF, curated a film series of arts documentaries that ran twice a week in October. They were films that would lend themselves to conversation, Barrack explained.
Aging in Montclair helped publicize the series. The next series will be in January. Michelle DeWitt, the senior citizen coordinator for Montclair, will arrange for a senior bus to take people to and from the Edgemont Memorial Park House, so attendees will not have to worry about parking in Montclair Center.
Barrack said she wants the program to continue year-round, and is constantly thinking about how to enhance it. “It’s a place to build conversation,” she said.
505 FILMS + FRIENDS
“It’s very hard for young adults after they leave the school system to find ways to engage and socialize and make friends,” Schaffer said, as a 505 Films + Friends socializing time began this past Sunday. The film to be screened was “The Biggest Little Farm.” Schaffer approached MF Education Director Sue Hollenberg about having a program at MF, and suggested including Steinke, whom she knew from Montclair High School, where Steinke was the school psychologist.
“In my private practice, I see a lot of kids who are on the spectrum and they’re older. And so once they’re out of high school, there’s not a lot to do,” Steinke said.
Schaffer would be able to lead discussions about the film from an artistic point of view, and Steinke has a lot of experience with the disability community.
“All films pretty much have to do with interpersonal relationships,” she said. Steinke agreed. “They need to be able to practice, and be in some way some modeling good social skills. To watch a movie where people address the same kind of struggles that they might have in their personal lives, or things that go on thematically in a movie that relate to things like the ability of people to change.”
“And perspective,” Schaffer said. “In ‘Ferris Bueller,’ we talk about light the way that his mother sees Ferris, or the way that his girlfriend sees things, the way that the siblings he’s in and how everybody sees everyone differently. And how do you think people see you and how do you see yourself? And we talk a lot about aspirations and dreams and his goals and taking steps to make your dreams come true.”
The program has about 29 members, who come from all over New Jersey. A version for younger people is set to have its pilot program in December. A bonus is that the three hours of club is a good chunk of time, allowing caregivers to have some time to shop or eat in Montclair, she said.
And genuine friendships are formed: some of the participants regularly go out to eat afterwards, and have exchanged cellphone numbers.
Making friends is a process that they talked about in the club, and tried to model, Steinke said.
“We would see somebody say, we should get together sometime. And then they would walk away. And we would say, ‘No, no, no, no. This is where you say, hey, can I have your cell number?’” Steinke would teach them that someone could be busy one nignt, but not another, and they could try making another plan. The simple things we take for granted. And now we have a group of boys that go out, probably every other meeting to dinner together. One of the kids talked to me on the street the other day. He had just gone to a movie with another boy from the club.”
Schaffer sends out an email with thoughts about the films in advance, and on the day of the meeting, she gives an intro, and there is discussion. Sometimes there are guest speakers. After a screening of “Moonstruck,” audience members read scenes from the script. After a showing of “Grease,” there was a dance party.
“Big Little Farm,” a documentary about a small farm in New York State, was chosen because it fits with thinking about Thanksgiving and where food comes from. The club has an annual food drive. Last year 505 + Friends brought donations for Toni’s Kitchen; this year the members brought food for the Human Needs Food Pantry.
Ezra Rifkin, Schaffer’s son, is 19, and a member of the 505 + Friends club. “Going over these movies before and after and seeing them is a true way of learning from them,” he said. He’s also found the club a good way to make friends and relate to people. He’s gone out to eat and even gone to public movie theaters with people he’s met. And the films have left an impression on him: “One movie that I did enjoy a lot is ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ I got to see what it means to be different, and also come together with others.”
The movies are a big draw for Sam Riley, 28, himself an aspiring filmmaker. He’s taken classes at FilmAcademy360, which is part of Spectrum360, an organization that supports people on the autism spectrum, in Livingston. Riley is making a film series about mishaps in speaking a foreign language, he said. He’s noticed different camera angles, and said, “I’ve learned to see myself as others see me. Sometimes I do things unconsciously that I’m unaware of, unless others point it out.”