Ramapo celebrates high school filmmakers with festival

Approximately 200 high school students, teachers and families from across New Jersey settled into Sharp Theater on Saturday night for the sixth annual RCNJ High School Film Festival. Sponsored by Ramapo College’s film program and School of Contemporary Arts, the night was filled with two screenings and a total of 42 short films in varying genres, all made by high school students. 

RCNJ’s High School Film Festival originated in 2015, developed as a way to not only spread awareness of Ramapo’s film department, but create a space specifically for high school filmmakers in New Jersey. Associate Professor of Digital Filmmaking Neel Scott, the advisor for the festival, shared that they were “filling in a gap that didn’t exist.”

“There were high school film festivals to some degree, or there were film festivals that had high school components, but there weren’t any specifically addressed to high school students in New Jersey,” Scott said in an interview. “So we felt that was a gap that we wanted to address and find a way to highlight the students’ films.” 

This year, after a two-year pause due to COVID-19, Ramapo received over 150 films, a significant growth from the festival’s first year, which received only about 50 submissions. In the festival’s opening remarks, Scott said that this was “by far the most competitive year” and “the strongest slate of films we’ve ever seen as part of this festival.”

“All of the work in this year’s festival was very impressive both from a technical standpoint and also in the storytelling,” Associate Professor of Digital Filmmaking and festival judge Kelly Dolak said in an email. 

This growth created an incredibly entertaining viewing experience for the judges, which consisted of Ramapo filmmaking and theater faculty, students and industry professionals. Festival director and digital filmmaking senior Nicole Kudlacik, who is responsible for much of the festival’s success, shared that the judges all had about one week to watch and score all of the submissions, resulting in about 40 hours of watching student films over winter break. 

“It was actually very enjoyable and I learned a lot about the patterns and ideas young filmmakers are approaching and exploring. I even saw some things I would want to try in the future with my own filmmaking,” Kudlacik said in an email. 

There were a total of eight categories that awarded the winning filmmakers with professional film equipment and software. Collectively, there were about $5,000 worth of prizes donated by the festival’s seven sponsors: Crumblepop, Writer Duet, Tilta, Zacuto, Maxon, Rokinon and K-Tek. 

Best Cinematography went to “23,” directed by Anthony Conte from Lakeland Regional High school. Best Editing went to “Why My Room is Never Clean,” directed by Sharice Lacson from High Tech High School. 

Best Screenwriting went to “Tardy!” written by Joshua Apostolico and Jarrett Jackson from Columbia High School. Best Actor went to Caroline Sheridan from Park Ridge High School for “Shreds of Evidence.” 

Best Documentary went to “Isla Nena” by Maya Zeidman from East Brunswick Magnet School – School of the Arts. Best Fiction Film went to “Obligatory Parasite” by Ross Perlman from Columbia High School. Best Animation went to “Crisis” by Leonardo Tarascio from River Dell Regional High School. 

The final prize of the night was Best of the Fest, honoring the film of the whole festival that “literally had it all, with high scores from the judges in writing, cinematography, directing and editing.” The winning film was “A Case of You” by Gabrielle Werts from East Brunswick Magnet School – School of the Arts. 

Scott said that “A Case of You” had a rare level of maturity, which has also been seen amongst many of the festival’s recent submissions. “It feels like especially in the last couple of years that we’ve just received films that are actually very mature for the fact that a 16 or 17-year old might have made the film,” he said.

The festival staff and high school participants are already looking forward to future festivals. They hope to not only reach more schools across the state, but to just continue their mission of spotlighting New Jersey’s talented young filmmakers. 

“I’m always struck that it’s one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year… You’re watching so many quality films and you’re experiencing every genre and type of film and films that are really earnestly made,” Scott said. “These films are films that are being made for the love of filmmaking and for the enthusiasm of filmmaking.”



Photo by Emily Melvin