NJCU Filmmakers Earn Recognition for Short Film on Local Graffiti Artist
Nandy Santos was a brand-new college graduate. And a double major, too, from New Jersey City University: business management and media arts. So last May, why was he going back to work on his senior project, a documentary short co-directed with Makisha Rodriguez?
“Our professors, were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so good, I want to see more, I think you guys should continue working on it,’” says Santos, 24. “And I was up for it.”
The extra effort paid off, as Santos and Rodriguez’s film, AKA Cheese, took first prize at the college level in the New Jersey Young Film & Videomakers Festival this fall. The approximately 10-minute documentary profiles veteran Jersey City graffiti artist Juan Vasquez, who — as you might have guessed from the film’s title — is also known as “Cheese.” (You can find out why in the film, which is embedded below.)
Before they met, Santos and Rodriguez were already very interested in film. “My hobby was always media,” says Santos, who grew up in Jersey City and lives near the NJCU campus. “I used to always love making videos.”
Rodriguez, also 24, is from Worcester, Mass. and lives in Bayonne. She came to New York to attend an acting conservatory for film and stage. During her training, Rodriguez gained more exposed to the writing and post-production aspects of the industry, which began to pique her interest. This led her to NJCU, where she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in media arts in the spring of 2013.
Early in her film studies, she crossed paths with Santos. “He actually had to tutor me on [film-editing software] Final Cut,” Rodriguez recalls. She says they soon worked more and more together, “learning from each other what we could: Me, more the writer, more the words; and he’s the techie.” The impetus for the documentary came last school year when Rodriguez did an experimental video on graffiti art. A professor suggested elaborating on the topic for her next class project. Santos needed a concept for his senior project, so it seemed like a good opportunity to collaborate.
Santos’s brother was friendly with Vasquez, and lining up the artist as their documentary subject wasn’t too hard. “Nandy called me one day and I was, like, sure, why not,” Vasquez recalls. What followed this past spring and into summer were countless hours devoted to interviews at Vasquez’s studio, filming additional footage around Jersey City (primarily downtown), editing, mixing audio and selecting music. A couple friends helped with cameras and lights, but overall it was a two-person operation.
And all the effort had to be sandwiched in between their day jobs: Rodriguez works at a restaurant in Hoboken, while Santos works at MTV and a Secaucus movie theater and runs his own event production company.
By the beginning of this school year, the duo had a finished product that they were both proud of. And the enthusiasm didn’t end with Santos and Rodriguez. “I was very impressed,” says Vasquez. “The editing was amazing. And they asked the right questions.”
Their professor, filmmaker Jane Steuerwald, urged them to enter AKA Cheese in the New Jersey Young Film & Videomakers Festival. The competition, in its 38th year, is administered by the internationally renowned Black Maria Film and Video Festival, which is coincidentally headquartered at NJCU. (“Black Maria” was the name of Thomas Edison’s movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey.) The festival is open to people between the ages of 12 and 28 who are based in the state. Submitted films are generally 20 minutes or less.
This year, the college-level category received approximately 20 entries. Of these, judges selected five for awards: two honorable mentions and first through third prize. In late September, Santos and Rodriguez learned that their film earned the top spot. Santos says Professor Steuerwald jokingly gave him a hard time, because he “won first place and second place.” Indeed, the entry from NJCU’s Media Arts Department, Jersey City: 24 Hours in Public Places, nabbed second prize, and Santos was its editor.
The honored films at the college and high school levels were then publicly presented during a mini-tour. The premiere was held at the AMC Theater in West Orange, followed by screenings at the South Orange Public Library and the Hoboken Historical Museum. Kerrie Young, the festival’s tour coordinator, says, “Seeing that excitement on their faces as they see their films on the big screen for the first time really puts a big smile in my heart.” Rodriguez seems to back up that observation: “I’m not going to lie, it was pretty cool to see it on the big screen.”
Santos feels that the honor vindicates the time and effort they both put in. “I work hard on all my projects, I try my best and I practice so much. I just try to perfect my craft,” he says. “To get recognized, it touches me.” He also says the award will motivate him and Rodriguez to make more films together. Having examined the world of graffiti, they may move on to documentaries of the other three “pillars of hip-hop” culture (famously outlined by legendary DJ Afrika Bambaataa): DJing, MCing (rapping), and B-Boying (breakdancing).
But first, they’re taking a brief pause to reflect on their accomplishments and what they’ll take away from the experience. “I think my favorite response to the video was Cheese’s wife,” Rodriguez recalls. “She gave us a big hug and said, ‘You got him. You got him perfectly.’ She was so happy with it. That’s when you know you did a good job.”
Photo of Makisha Rodriguez and Nandy Santos by Jack Silbert