There is an Oscar presenter among this year’s crop of filmmakers taking part in the Princeton Student Film & Video Festival, at Princeton Public Library Wednesday and Thursday, June 16 and 17. Jean Paul Isaacs, a recent Rutgers University graduate with two entries in this year’s festival, was one of six budding college filmmakers selected for “Team Oscar.” The group appeared on stage at the Academy Awards last March and got to hand out Oscar statuettes to celebrity presenters.
“It was amazing to be recognized and to be part of it all,” said Mr. Isaacs, who is returning to the Princeton festival for the second time. “We had to submit a short video saying how we would contribute to the future of film, and answer an essay question. Channing Tatum introduced us during the live broadcast.”
Hollywood is only one of the exotic locales Mr. Isaacs has visited as part of his burgeoning career. He shot a documentary in Zambia about women farmers in Africa, and traveled to the Cannes Film Festival when one of his short films was screened there. Closer to his New Brunswick home, Mr. Isaacs will screen two films he directed at this year’s Princeton festival: Across Dystopia and Words. He will appear to answer questions following the screenings with cinematographer Isaiah McNeill and executive producer Saajan Doshi.
Mr. Isaacs was a pre-med major at Rutgers when he decided, after a few years, that his heart just wasn’t in it. “I come from a modest background and I had this notion that if I pursued a career in medicine, I could help my mother out,” he said. “But I just wasn’t happy in it. I switched to journalism, and I took digital filmmaking and started to make some short films.”
Soon he was winning contests and making a name for himself. After he finishes editing his Africa film, he will begin a mentorship program in Los Angeles that concludes with a short film to be shown at the L.A. Film Festival.
Mr. Isaacs shot Across Dystopia, about two children of different races, in an old barn in South Brunswick. “We had limited resources,” he said. “A lot of it is luck. I knew someone who knew someone who let us use this barn, which turned out to work really well.” Words, his other film, is about a grandfather coming to terms with his past. “It’s about having the courage to not be silent and do what’s right,” Mr. Isaacs said.
Influenced by Herzog
A discussion between Werner Herzog and Ken Burns was the inspiration for Where’s da Party At?, a film in the festival by Princeton High School alumnus Zach Alexander. He was taking an advanced film production class at the University of Vermont when his teacher took the students to hear a talk by the two legendary filmmakers.
This is the first time Mr. Alexander, a recent college graduate, has participated in the festival. Where’s Da Party At? emerged after a challenge from Mr. Herzog. “After the talk, my teacher presented a Super 8 camera to Herzog, hoping he’d shoot some film and send it back to our class,” Mr. Alexander said. “He did, with the message, ‘My demand is that you now use this footage in your own short film.’ “
Mr. Alexander blended his own footage, in which he and a young woman play filmmakers in a studio, with the reel sent by Mr. Herzog. “What I was trying to get across is the general story about film versus digital,” he said. “I don’t believe one is better than the other. Each have their pros and cons. So it’s sort of a meditation on the world where both can exist without one having to be better than the other, through a kind of romantic thing.”
Raised in Princeton, Mr. Alexander graduated from Princeton High in 2010. “I’d always watched films when I was younger,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do in college. I took a film class freshman year, and the teacher was so terrific that I just fell in love with it. He got me so interested and he’s still pretty much my best friend.”
Classes at the University of Vermont were “really heavy into film analysis and theory,” he said. “Then I went to the Cannes festival and got into production on a program during my junior year. It was an amazing, life-changing experience. A lot of young kids get introduced in that environment to the development stage, and how films are bought and sold. But for me, it was just cool to see other kids my age working at their craft. It got me motivated to be serious about film production.”
Mr. Alexander currently lives in Brooklyn and is working on film and television internships. He will start work on an independent feature next month and hopes to do his own work as well. “I might start my own production company,” he said. “There’s a lot on my mind.”