Film Festival Brings the World to LBI, and LBI Back to Sandy

Documentary on Sandy Recovery Evoked Strong Emotion
By MICHAEL MOLINARO | Jun 11, 2014
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

“It’s a complete sellout,” newly christened Executive Director Eric Johnson was happy to announce Thursday night from the Surflight Theatre stage preceding “This Time Next Year,” which opened the sixth annual Lighthouse International Film Festival to celebrate independent cinema all weekend long.

Part of the draw that filled those seats – unique to this year’s festival – was the fact that much of the audience, including this reporter, found themselves in film. The documentary from co-directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman explored the year-long struggles of Superstorm Sandy victims living on or around Long Beach Island.

The film opened, appropriately enough, with crisp, stunning aerial views of the Causeway, where the entirety of ongoing construction, filmed from a biplane, hints at the fragility of the Island. The cinematography and score throughout the film created a striking tribute to the barrier island that many referenced as their little bit of paradise.

Ultimately, “This Time Next Year” created a somber tone in the packed audience, with many visibly driven to tears, or gasps of emotion, as the film immediately took them back, well... there.

Hope Gardiner, also the administrative director for LIFF, was shown during a portion of the film that followed a support group for those impacted by the storm.

“The experience was really tough because I didn’t know if I’d be able to sit through it,” said Gardiner. “But I’m one of the lucky ones. It took me seven months to get back home. There’s a lot of people in that film that still aren’t home.”

“I can tell you that anyone I spoke to that was in that film, or anybody that was really out of their homes and suffered, all said it was opening up old wounds,” she continued. “We don’t want to hear ‘Stronger Than The Storm’ anymore. Anyone who went through it and experienced it, it’s really difficult to have anymore Sandy stuff. And it’s not that we’re moving ahead and we want to forget it. It’s just that we can’t have it keep pounding us down.”

Gardiner spoke with The SandPaper about the film’s choice to focus completely on people’s stories rather than governmental and political factors or statistics. “It really was the community that you see moving people forward, not the government. It was the community that helped us out, not government. It was START … it was our support group,” she said, referencing the acronym of a spontaneous volunteer group. “We couldn’t have got through it without that group. We’re still meeting, and now it’s just an evolution of dealing with the red tape.”

“You allowed us, with this film, to relate to other people. Because throughout that year, we became isolated in our agony,” said Tony Bakum, whose wife, Joni, was featured in the film, as the couple was unable to rebuild and forced to demolish their home. “Everyone was going through the deals with FEMA and this, that and the other thing.

“This allowed us to all breathe,” he added. “Like my wife said, nobody’s been able to breathe that sigh. This (film) allowed us to breathe that sigh.”

All the victims’ stories blast forth an unabashed, palpable sense of humanity that compounds upon itself as the film rolls through its seasonal sections. Many prove to be true heroes along the way. The film does a remarkable job showing the resolve and righteousness of people in our area and the power of true community.

The film’s emotional apex occurs perhaps when Joe Mangino, before his wife, Beckie, consoles him, can barely get out the words of a Thanksgiving toast upon his family finally getting back into their Beach Haven West home.

Beckie, nicknamed “The Rudder” in the Ann Coen Photography exhibit depicted in the film, and Joe, “The General,” along with countless others, launched START (Stafford Teachers and Residents Together) and labored at hundreds of damaged homes, saving storm victims millions of dollars.

The film ended with a dedication to Zaman’s father. During the question and answer session that followed the screening, Zaman welled with emotion as she explained her dad was killed in Afghanistan during the making of the film.

Those who want to learn more about the film should head to thistimenextyearmovie.com.

The festival’s strongest sense of internationalism came during the awards ceremony at the Dutchman’s restaurant on Sunday night, when a filmmaker from another island – Iceland – received the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. You could hear a pin drop when director Thoromar Jonsson began to speak, as only a few filmmakers who won awards were able to stay for the festival’s duration. “This is my first festival with a film in the United States,” began Jonsson to the delight and applause of the crowd. “My DP (director of photography) is a guy from Germany who got an Oscar in 2009 for a short film. He still has a smile on his face, he says, every single morning that he wakes up. And I don’t care what you guys say: for me, this (award) will keep a smile on my face.”

A Volunteer Award followed, as the non-profit organization that is the LIFF relies completely on the work of its loyal helpers. This year it was given to Maggie O’Neill, a Realtor at Century 21 (Mary Allen Real Estate) in Ship Bottom. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she began jokingly. “This is an honor. This festival has moved our community forward, and I believe, as a resident of LBI, we are better for it.”

Finally, Gardiner presented a community service award to Steven and Sondra Beninati, owners of The Gables restaurant and inn, a Beach Haven historic landmark. “We’ve been around since the beginning (of the film festival) and this has brought a welcome bit of class and culture to the Island,” said Steven. “Whether you know it or not, if you are a filmmaker, there’s a lot in common with anyone in the restaurant business. Anytime I’ve ever written a business plan and gone before a bank or a lending source, every person has always told me the same story: ‘We would love to lend to a small business person, but if you’re in the film business or the restaurant business, we can’t do it.’ And that’s a big struggle on your side, so thank you so much.”

The night, and the festival, ended with former Executive Director Charlie Prince passing flowers and his thankfulness to best friend and heir Johnson, who spoke with The SandPaper during the event about the moment when he realized all the work put into the festival was worth it.

It happened before the festival even started. When filmmakers were notified their film was selected for screening at LIFF, Johnson received an immediate email reply from John Kurash, who was flown to LBI for the festival with his film “Letters on a Record Home.”

“It’s a six-minute short film about these old World War II Army soldiers who, right before being shipped out, instead of writing letters they would do audio recordings onto a record that would be sent to their families as basically a letter. An Army historian unearthed these records and some of them had never been heard before – where this was a time capsule for some of these guys that went off to war and never came home. We notified him that his film had been in. He wrote an extremely enthusiastic, passionate email that, basically, we had made his dreams come true having his film in the festival. He came into the festival, he had a great time, he had the premiere here at Island Baptist Church on Saturday and left today. He left me an extremely great note, and stopped by the headquarters and told a volunteer there what a great time he had, how much he was thrilled to be here, how much he loved not only the screening but also LBI, the people and everything about the festival. That’s what we strive for with every filmmaker, and it was encapsulated with him this year.”

michaelmolinaro@thesandpaper.net

The full list of Golden Lighthouse Award winners for 2014 follows:

• Grand Jury Award, Best Narrative Feature – “Ferox (Falskur Fugl),” director Thoromar Jonsson

• Grand Jury Award, Best Documentary Feature – “One Child,” director Zijian Mu

• Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography in a Documentary Feature – “A Life Outside,” director Catherine Brabec

• Grand Jury Award, Best Short Film – “Down in Flames,” director William Stribling

• Special Jury Award, Short Film – “Trauma,” director Ethan Young

• Grand Jury Award, Best HS Student Film – “Symulove”

• Special Jury Award for Directing in a HS Student Film – “Thoughts”

• Audience Award, Narrative Feature – “Life Inside Out,” director Jill D'Agnenica

• Audience Award, Documentary Feature – “Riot on the Dance Floor,” director Steve Tozzi

• Audience Award, Spotlight Film – “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus,” director Madeleine Sackler

• Audience Award, Short Film – “Free 2 Be Me,” director Jeannette Godoy

• Community Leadership Award- Sondra and Steve Beninati

• Volunteer Award- Maggie O’Neill

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