The Montclair Film Festival (MFF) spotlights a critically-acclaimed selection of independent features, Oscar contenders, and short films. The festival runs October 16 – 25th.
Programmer Rebecca Sokol specializes in curating diverse short films, ranging from documentaries to fiction, for the Montclair Film Festival. This year’s program also includes short films from Montclair State University students, rising New Jersey-based filmmakers, and recent film school grads.
Sokol discusses her position at MFF, what she looks for when selecting shorts, and the best way for a regional festival to spotlight local talent.
The Knockturnal: Can you please tell me a little bit about your role, both as the Shorts Programmer for the festival, but also managing Montclair Film’s year-round programming?
Rebecca Sokol: As the Shorts Programmer for the festival, I work independently to curate all the shorts programs. I also manage submissions and a team of volunteer screeners, create webpages for the festival program, and communicate with filmmakers to ensure that we have all the deliverables we need to properly showcase their films. Because of the nature of this year’s festival, I was also able to pre-record Q&As with filmmakers from near and far, from all 10 shorts programs, who may not have been able to attend the festival if it had been in-person.
We’re a small (but mighty!) team that works for Montclair Film year-round and I’ve come to wear many hats over the years. As the Program Manager, I work closely with Executive Director Tom Hall to program all of the films that we run in Cinema505 as a part of our year-round programming. This also includes creating and managing the film pages on our website, getting tickets on sale, and moderating Q&As.
The Knockturnal: Executive Director Tom Hall previously discussed transitioning the festival from May to October this year, but how did that date change specifically affect the short film programming?
Rebecca Sokol: After postponing the festival back in March, we continued to assess films throughout the year, but it was important to us that we honor as many invitations from the spring as we could. As we were quarantining and planning for a fall festival, I was really able to take a deeper look at the 700+ short film submissions that we received this year. When we started programming the festival again in August, a lot of the features that we had confirmed for May were already off the festival circuit, so we had to regroup and bring in new titles. Luckily with the shorts, we were able to bring back most of the titles that we had previously confirmed for the spring, in addition to adding in new films that might not have been available to us had we carried on with the May dates.
The Knockturnal: What do you typically look for when curating short films? What are some of your favorite shorts this year?
Rebecca Sokol: We have a few shorts blocks that are consistent every year so I’m always on the lookout for films that can fit into those categories, but above all else, I look for films that have a strong sense of place and character. We consider any film under 40 minutes to be a short film and what I love about shorts is seeing just how much a filmmaker is able to accomplish in such a short runtime. I look for films that draw you in immediately and leave you thinking about them long after the credits roll, as well as ones I know that our audience will connect with. And then once I get a sense of what films stand out and what I’d like to program, I start to look at how the shorts relate to one another, whether it be thematically or otherwise, to start to build out the shorts programs.
We have about 70 shorts in this year’s program and I don’t know that I can pick a favorite but I am so happy to have short films in competition for the first time this year! We’re showcasing 18 films in competition, from all over the world, and each one is better than the last. I also always love programming the Midnight Shorts block and this year is no exception – from obscure comedies to straight-out horror films, you never know what you’re going to get.
The Knockturnal: The festival also offers a great selection of both New Jersey and specifically Montclair-based films. How does MFF foster and support local talent?
Rebecca Sokol: We love featuring local talent at the festival, with both the features and the shorts, and each year we seem to get more and more submissions with a New Jersey connection and I’ve continued to build out our New Jersey shorts programming to be able to include even more local films in the program. Our shorts programs have always included a Montclair and a New Jersey Shorts block and when I joined the programming team three years ago, I started to build on what we’d done in the past and expand the program to include a third local shorts program.
I’m also thrilled to have programmed our very first New Jersey Shorts Competition block this year that consists of five shorts, a mix of fiction and documentary, that are made, produced, or featuring talent from New Jersey. All of our shorts, New Jersey and otherwise, are so strong this year but I’m especially excited to feature these five in competition.
The Knockturnal: With this year’s shift to a combination of virtual and drive-in screenings, how do you hope audiences will engage with the selected short films?
Rebecca Sokol: Without the constraints of an in-person schedule with strict screening times, I’m hoping more and more viewers will be able to discover the wonderful shorts in the festival, in addition to all the great features, conversations and panels.
The Montclair Film Festival concludes October 25th.