May 17, 2023

Local and International Films on Bill at Nassau Film Festival This Weekend

“THE WITHERSPOON-JACKSON NEIGHBORHOOD”: Welcome Weekend in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was the impetus for a film being shown at this year’s Nassau Film Festival, to be held May 20 and 21 at the Princeton Garden Theatre, or virtually May 22 through June 15. The festival, run by Lew Goldstein, is one of a handful for short films. (Film still courtesy of Nick Kochmann and Patrick McDonald)

By Wendy Greenberg

Having grown up in Trenton and Princeton, Rebecca Pack Burr returned to Princeton from the South to attend to her mother. That’s when she met a Trenton High School student — a caregiver’s daughter — who described the deteriorating physical conditions at the old high school.

Dismayed at the high school’s conditions, and the political process, Burr, who has been a filmmaker, video producer, and journalist, decided to document the sometimes contentious process that resulted in a new high school. The film, We Deserve Better; The Kids are Alright, takes the audience through the political process and closes at opening day of the new Trenton Central High School.

The documentary film is an entrant in the Nassau Film Festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 20 and 21.

It is one of 63 short films selected for the festival, which is in its eighth year, and held this year at the Princeton Garden Theatre between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day. There is a virtual screening of films between May 22 and June 15.

The festival’s founder and director, Lew Goldstein, a former assistant superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, has seen the festival grow from some 30 submissions in 2015, screening 20, to about 500 submissions this year.

Goldstein’s own filmmaking start occurred in 2014 when he made the documentary film, St Louis Cemetery Number One, about the history of New Orleans through well-known and not-so-well-known political figures, entertainers, citizens, and families interred in this famous New Orleans cemetery.

Looking for places to screen it, he realized there were few festivals for short films, so he started one. In 2015, the first year of the Nassau Film Festival, he had 30 submissions and only 30 people came. But he kept his focus on short films, 20 minutes or less. During the third year, he opened it up to international filmmakers, and the festival began to grow.

“Short films have exploded over the last three years,” he said. One significant aspect of the Nassau Film Festival is that all proceeds are donated to a nonprofit — this year the Family Resource Network, which provides programming and care for New Jersey residents living with epilepsy, autism, developmental disabilities, and chronic illness, as well as support for their caregivers.

Since its inception in 2015, the Nassau Film Festival has raised over $35,000 for various nonprofit organizations, donating proceeds from ticket sales and sponsorships.

In this year’s festival are student filmmakers from Princeton High School, Princeton Middle School, Rutgers University, and Princeton University, and films originating in Australia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Iran, and South Korea, among others. Topics range from coming-of-age tales, three individuals with autism in Denmark, mysteries, relationships, self-discovery, intergenerational stories, and Joseph Bonaparte, the story of the former King of Spain who lived in Bordentown.

Four filmmaker panel discussions have been added this year, for the audience to ask questions and interact with the filmmakers. The audience will choose their favorites in the various categories (fiction, documentary, animation, horror, music video, episodic, and student films) and the Princeton Tiger Award will be awarded to these films. Judges will select the Best of Fest winners in the seven categories after the conclusion of the festival.

Burr, who won last year’s Best in Fest award for her film Sunday Afternoons at the Candlelight, also Trenton-centered, said her film about getting the new high school built shows “the power of community. There are moments that let you know who is boss, the people. You can’t underestimate the power of community. And the kids made things happen.”

Community collaboration is featured in the film The Great Connector — writer, film director, actor and producer Tom Bentey’s film about the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, which spans Lawrence and Hopewell townships. Bentey was curious about the 22-mile-plus trail for bicycles and pedestrians. “As someone interested in cool stories, and an avid bike rider, I was riding along the trail and got interested in how it got started,” he said.

Bentey learned the trail was an outreach project of Bristol Myers Squibb employees and then eventually included volunteers from the Educational Testing Service. He was impressed. “It’s consistent with my worldview,” he said, “and also there is the story of the county and government level coordination.

“It’s a beautiful part of New Jersey, and I wanted to tell the story. Local people know about it but it may be overlooked outside the area.”

Bentey, who is an adjunct professor at Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media, hopes that the audience will see “how corporations and municipalities can really do good. And, also the importance of going outside, and being in nature for well-being. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.”

Princeton viewers may recognize the scenery in The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood, by filmmakers Nick Kochmann, a Princeton High School (PHS) graduate, who studied at the New York Film Academy, and Patrick McDonald, also a PHS graduate, who studied film directing at Farleigh Dickson University.

Kochmann, who now lives in Brooklyn and works as an associate producer at a documentary production company, said that when the neighborhood was having its inaugural Welcome Weekend in May 2019, “I decided I wanted to film it and felt this was a great opportunity to learn more about it. I went with my co-director Patrick McDonald and we filmed both days of the Welcome Weekend and then later filmed more events and interviews with important people in the community over that summer. As this all came together, I was struck by people’s feelings of pride toward the neighborhood.”

McDonald, who returned to Princeton after college, created a television program, Princeton NOW, which highlights family friendly events around the Princeton area, and created his own production company called Princetonia NOW Media Group.

“After Nick told me about this video about this neighborhood he wanted to do I jumped in as codirector, coproducer, and editor,” he said. After filming the first Welcome Weekend, “throughout the summer we filmed multiple interviews with the community leaders and important people in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. After filming for a whole summer I learned about all the wonderful people and rich history surrounding the neighborhood that I didn’t know much about.”

The filmmakers hope others will learn about the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, and “and keeps its history alive.”

The Nassau Film Festival is an in-person and virtual event. The screening schedule, along with information on getting tickets and reservations for both formats, can be found at