3rd SOMA Film Festival: Keeping the ‘Indy’ in Independent, March 16-18

There’s been a huge explosion of local film fests over the last few years – and yet, strangely, a lot of them look alike.

They spotlight small movies from big studios, and maybe a documentary that’ll soon be on cable. There’s a party, underwritten by some liquor company, and a donors gala, hosted by some local millionaire, and a few almost-A-list stars. And after three or four or five days, the posters come down, the red carpet gets rolled up, and it’s all over and forgotten.

SOMA has a different model.

The South Orange/Maplewood Film Festival returns for its third year on March 16 and it does not feature a lot of Hollywood product or sneak-peeks at next month’s TV schedule. Star-studded galas and black-tie soirees? Sorry, no. In fact, it’d be pretty surprising if you’ve even heard of any of the films or filmmakers being featured.

And that’s just the way Matt Smollon wants it.

Rather than a mini Cannes festival, his vision is of a major can-do festival – celebrating the persistence of artists around the world (and around the state) who somehow manage to realize their visions and get them on the big screen – even if it’s only for one weekend in Essex County.

“It’s a truly independent indie-film festival,” says SOMA’s founder. “We have no board. We don’t work with the studios. We’ve had offers to spotlight some bigger films, sure, but our first commitment is to quality filmmaking. If I have a choice between running a great Iranian film with nobody you know, or some terrible film that has a couple of name actors? Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to run the Iranian film.”

See the full schedule here; buy tickets here.

The festival is expected to draw about a thousand people over its three days as it unspools 100 cutting-edge shorts, documentaries and features. Some come from as far away as Asia and Australia; a number are from emerging New Jersey directors, including local student filmmakers.

That hometown connection, Smollon says, has been part of SOMA from the beginning.

“The whole thing started when I became friends with someone working at SOPAC [South Orange Performing Arts Center],” says the South Orange resident, producer and writer, “and I said, ‘If any town needed a film festival it’s South Orange and Maplewood.’ And that’s how it started.”

As few of these films arrive with major names attached, let alone major ad campaigns, it can be difficult to decide what to see. But against his better judgment – after all, no film-festival programmer wants to admit to having favorites – there are a number of titles Smollon doesn’t mind pushing.

“We have ‘At the Drive-In’ on Friday night, a doc about a theater outside of Allentown that’s facing some tough times and then sort of gets adopted by some Temple University students,” he says. “That’s really a lovely story. I like ‘44 Pages,’ too, a doc about Highlights magazine. ‘Tragedy Girls’ is an edgy little horror comedy. And ‘Life Hack’ is a really good little indie, a modern-day love story. That kind of movie is really hard to even attempt and they kind of pull it off.”

Of course, part of the fun of a film festival like SOMA is not taking anyone’s recommendations, but just leaving yourself open to possibilities. Intrigued by the title? Curious about the subject matter? Take a chance.

“We’ve got a lot of great shorts programs,” Smollon says. “Sunday morning, we have a whole program of international films, too. I really liked ‘Reverse Diaries’ from Japan, which has a great story, and a good twist ending. The filmmaker is even coming in from Tokyo for that.”

The festivities are spread over the two towns, with most of the screenings happening at The Woodland in Maplewood, where SOMA has a state-of-the-art projector and big screen; other events are held at the Maplewood Theater and South Orange’s Bow Tie Cinemas. And not only is there special children’s programming, there’s special parents’ programming, too – on Saturday afternoon, moviegoers can drop off their kids at the Woodland for arts-oriented childcare, $10 for two hours.

Other events include a casual, opening-night party Friday at the Woodland and a free screenplay reading on Sunday afternoon. Screenings often end with a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker, some of whom are flying in for the shows. Afterwards, continue the discussion down the block, over a pizza or a couple of pints.

Keeping that dialogue going is one of Smollon’s real goals at the festival. That and maybe, just maybe, brightening the local mood.

“This year, I made a concerted effort to lighten it a little with the programming,” he says. “We’re really engaged with the community and it’s no secret that, after the last election, a lot of South Orange and Maplewood was really depressed. So this year, I tried not to go too dark.”

After all, cinematography itself is a way of telling stories with light. Shouldn’t the movies themselves chase away some shadows?

“It’s easy to be depressed about the state of the world, and sometimes you need a little break from that,” Smollon insists. “I’m not saying that the subject matter isn’t important, that people shouldn’t make films about it, but movies are first and foremost escapism. And I like to think, for a few days, we offer some hope and maybe a little bit of a break.”

For a complete schedule, or a chance to buy tickets, visit the festival’s site at https://www.somafilmfestival.com/