By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local

This article reflects just part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair. See the videos in this post for even more.

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This week’s Montclair Film Festival marks a number of important milestones.

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For starters, this is the 10th anniversary of the festival. Over the decade, the festival has grown — as has Montclair Film, the organization behind it, providing year-round cinema and activities for Montclair and the surrounding communities. Its offerings include classes in filmmaking and animation, and speaking engagements hosted by industry leaders. This year, it collaborated with PBS to present the “Front Row Festival,” a six-week television series featuring independent films created by filmmakers from New Jersey and surrounding areas, which concluded earlier this month.

This year’s festival also sees a return to in-person events, after MFF went mostly virtual in 2020, with the exception of a few outdoor viewings. The 2021 festival includes screenings with reduced capacity for fully vaccinated and masked audiences, as well as a selection of virtual programming on Montclair Film’s Virtual Cinema platform, at MontclairFilm.org. First up is an in-person screening of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” at the Wellmont Theater, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. There are dozens of events in all.

It’s a step back toward normalcy for the festival, and the community at large. 

“Opening night, I think … it’ll be very emotional to be back in a room with 1,800 people after COVID and have our first in-person event, and see the faces of those people that support us,” Montclair Film Board President Evelyn Colbert said. 

Colbert’s interview with “Our Montclair” — Montclair Local’s video and podcast series focused on the arts, activism and lived experiences of those in Montclair — was one of two conducted this week with Montclair Film leaders. (Her husband, Stephen, the host of CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” is taking part in two festival events: a Q&A with Dionne Warwick about the documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” at the Wellmont Theater on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m., and a Storyteller Series conversation with actress, writer and director Maggie Gyllenhaal about her new film, “The Lost Daughter,” at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School on Sunday, Oct. 24, at 1 p.m.)

“Our Montclair” also conducted an interview with Bob Feinberg, the founder and chairman of Montclair Film, alongside Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall. See both interviews at MontclairLocal.news/OurMontclair or Facebook.com/Montclair Local, or listen to “Our Montclair” on your favorite podcasting service. 

This week also sees the reopening of the Clairidge Theater, which had been closed since the March 2020 lockdown ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy. Then-owner Bow Tie Cinemas was one of a group of movie theater chains that, alongside the National Association of Theatre Owners, sued Murphy in July 2020, saying it was unfair and unreasonable to keep theaters shut. The lawsuit was later withdrawn, when theaters were allowed to reopen in September 2020 at limited capacity, but the Clairidge never reopened.

That changes this week, with the Clairidge now leased and managed by Montclair Film and a key part of the festival’s events. Feinberg had called the transition to virtual screenings last year “a testament to the staff’s ability to pivot,” but said he was excited that this year most films would be at the Clairidge. 

Evelyn Colbert said the organization “couldn’t be prouder” of bringing the Clairidge back — the product of a lot of research into what it would take for the nonprofit to run its own theater in downtown Montclair. And she said “just can’t wait to get my first bag of popcorn from our new popcorn maker, and my first Diet Coke, and sit in a movie theater that’s clean.”

Feinberg said Montclair Film’s founders always envisioned a year-round nonprofit arts organization. Montclair Film “really surpassed my wildest dreams from the beginning,” he said.

The journey came with its share of challenges. 

A flood in 2018 caused extensive damage to Montclair Film’s headquarters, forcing it to close for months. The 2020 lockdowns forced organizers to rethink the format entirely. And this year, Ida severely damaged the organization’s Bloomfield Avenue offices as it flooded Montclair’s streets.

“It’s in our DNA that we are determined,” Colbert said. “The people involved in this organization, we’re all passionately committed, and we have an incredible staff. Our staff is so dedicated and spent so much time getting over each of those hurdles.”

Hall said Montclair Film’s roots in the community have grown stronger as the nonprofit group has expanded its programs, providing educational opportunities for filmmakers at various levels.  

More from Our Montclair

“The foundation of the organization has been through community partnership and community support. We rely heavily on local community partners, sponsors, donors, members, volunteers and staff to make the organization run,” he said. “There are a lot of national festivals that are not that way, like Tribeca or South by Southwest, which is for-profit, privately owned organizations. …  This is a completely different model from that.”

The Clairidge, Montclair Film’s leaders said, will provide even more opportunities for community connection. It’ll be a space not only to view independent art films, but a year-round education center for those interested in learning the art of filmmaking. 

Montclair Film was expecting to provide a first look at the newly renovated Clairidge to the media Wednesday night. See MontclairLocal.news for updates. The organization has also introduced a new logo for the Bloomfield Avenue theater and expanded Montclair Film’s membership program to provide discounts to screenings, special programs and events there.

One challenge that Montclair Film will likely face with opening the Clairidge is gauging just how ready the public is to get back to viewing movies in person, as the pandemic continues.

“The world is working their way back into in-person theaters, and we’re doing that at the festival,” Hall said. “There is still sort of a hesitancy. People are not flooding back into the movies, especially in the independent sector, which tends to draw a smaller audience. There are the big Marvel and DC movies that are big theatrical chain movies, but independent movies haven’t rebounded in the same way yet.”

But for now, Montclair Film’s leaders are focused on the optimism and energy this week brings — and looking ahead to continued ways to deepen their ties to the community. 

“We’re really excited to launch the Clairidge, Montclair Film at the Clairidge, with the 10th Montclair Film Festival. It’s really a confluence of tremendous events that we couldn’t have scripted to all happen at the same time,” Feinberg said.

Montclair Film Festival Highlights

See the full MFF schedule at MontclairFilm.org.

  • The Montclair Film Festival will open on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m. with a screening of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” at the Wellmont Theater. The film stars Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright and Owen Wilson. It tells the story of a group working to publish “The French Dispatch,” a fictional magazine. The screening is co-presented by Investors Bank.
  • On Friday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m. the Wellmont Theater will screen Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall,” the festival’s fiction centerpiece. The Netflix release is described as a “new school western” and stars Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Edi Gathegi, R.J. Cyler, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield.
  • On Friday, Oct. 22, at 6:30 p.m. there will be an outdoor screening of the animated film “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” at Lackawanna Plaza, as the festival’s family centerpiece. The film follows the Mitchell family driving their daughter to college when electronic devices try to take over the world.
  • On Saturday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m. at the Wellmont, in partnership with Out Montclair, will be “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a documentary about the life of New Jersey native artist Warwick. The documentary, the festival’s nonfiction centerpiece, follows Warwick’s life and career, and her work as an advocate for AIDS research. Warwick and director Dave Wooley will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A with Stephen Colbert.
  • On Sunday, Oct. 24, at 1 p.m., actress, writer and director Maggie Gyllenhaal will appear alongside the star of her new film, “The Lost Daughter,” and join Stephen Colbert in conversation. The Storyteller Series conversation will take place at 1 p.m. at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School. “The Lost Daughter” will follow at 4:30 p.m., with  Gyllenhaal presenting the film alongside star Dagmara Domińczy. Gyllenhaal will also receive the festival’s Breakthrough Director and Writer Award.
  • On Saturday, Oct. 30, at 4:30 p.m. at the Montclair Kimberley Academy Upper School will be Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dogs,” the festival’s closing film. It follows two brothers, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, as they run their family ranch together in 1925 Montana. The film is also presented in partnership with Out Montclair.
  • And that night at 9 at the Clairidge will be “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with the live debut of The Ordinary Kids Floor Show, formed in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. The Ordinary Kids and Montclair Film will be launching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as a monthly film event at the Clairidge. Live performances of “Rocky Horror” had a longtime presence in Montclair until 2017, previously presented by the group Home of Happiness, until Bow Tie Cinemas closed the Bellevue Theatre (which, too, is slated to reopen under new management).