Documenting SJ’s Stories
Local filmmakers bring our towns to the screen
By Kate Morgan

The streets of South Jersey are filled with stories. Three local filmmakers stumbled across people and places they knew would make riveting documentaries, so they set out to record what makes our communities so intriguing.


“Pyne Poynt”

Steve Ercolani quit his dream job to pursue a project that didn’t pay and that he had no idea how to do. In 2013, the freelance journalist and Haddonfield native left a prestigious fellowship in Washington, D.C. at “The Atlantic” to come back to South Jersey – specifically, to Camden – to make a documentary about the city’s Little League. The feature-length film, titled “Pyne Poynt,” was screened in Collingswood earlier this year.

Ercolani was not a filmmaker or documentarian. He was a print journalist who’d met league president and community organizer Bryan Morton in 2012, while working on a story about gun violence in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“I was doing a piece for Al Jazeera, and I was directed to Bryan as a community voice in North Camden,” says Ercolani, 29. “I met up with a him a couple times, probably quoted him twice in the story, and I thought that was it.”

“But over the next three or four weeks, he kept texting me saying, ‘You should really come check out this Little League,’” Ercolani continues. “I was busy, and I’d just gotten back from a stint freelancing abroad, but I eventually came out and as soon as I got there I was saying to myself, ‘You’re an idiot. You should have been out here weeks ago.’”

Ercolani began spending hours at Pyne Poynt, the then-dilapidated park where Morton’s young ballplayers – the first of whom were recruited in 2011 – were just beginning to outnumber the heroin addicts and dealers who skulked along the field’s overgrown edges.

Ercolani called a cinematographer friend and asked him to come to Camden. They launched a Kickstarter campaign, which quickly raised more than $16,000, and went to work getting to know the North Camden Little League.

“At the outset, Bryan made me promise him one thing,” Ercolani says. “He said, ‘Promise me you won’t Brian Williams me.’ I understood exactly what he meant.”

The “Brian Williams effect” Morton and Ercolani refer to is the tendency of mainstream media to focus on Camden’s ugliest, darkest corners, pursuing shock value over quality storytelling. It’s been called “poverty porn.”

“Networks and publications come into the city and make these hit pieces,” Ercolani says. “Diane Sawyer did a piece that was just like a lot of crying children on playgrounds with ominous music. Every few years Brian Williams comes to Camden and does the David Attenborough safari thing where he drives around, pokes his head out the window and is like, ‘Yup, this is still terrible.’ We wanted to do something very different.’”

Over the next three years, Ercolani and his team witnessed the $4 million renovation of Pyne Poynt Park and were welcomed into the homes of North Camden Little League coaches and players. It had become a passion project for Ercolani, and he was willing to make sacrifices to see it through.

“I went to [journalism] school for a year in London, then in early 2013 got the fellowship with The Atlantic. That was the culmination, right? I’d done everything I was supposed to do,” he says. “But I was coming back to Camden every weekend, and I realized, ‘I’m really going to do this. I’m going to quit my dream job and do this.’”

“I was working odd jobs, anything I could do to make cash,” Ercolani says. “For about two years I’d work a bar job until 3 in the morning, wake up at 8 am to scrape paint off a house, shower and go out to Camden for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Pyne Poynt” was officially finished early this summer, and Ercolani is currently exploring options for distribution via streaming services. He’s unlikely to make much money off the film, but after nearly four years of building relationships with his subjects, turning a profit is the last thing on his mind.

“If you’re reporting on people you have to look in the eye every day, that changes things for you,” he says. “That makes it personal.”

Watch the trailer for “Pyne Poynt.”


south jersey movies, movies filmed in nj, nj movies, nothing down about down syndrom, down syndrome nj, how to deal with down syndrome nj, south jersey down syndrome help“There’s Nothing Down about Down Syndrome”

Julie Willson knows what it’s like to have a project become personal. The Linwood-based photographer grew up with a sister, Dina, who had Down syndrome. After Dina passed away in 2011 at age 35, Willson was compelled to do something in her sister’s memory.

In October of 2015, Willson put out a casting call on her photography studio’s Facebook page, looking for young children with Down syndrome. Eleven families from across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware drove to the photoshoot. Willson posted the photos online and they went viral, drawing a positive response from around the world.

A month after the shoot, Willson invited the 11 families back to South Jersey to take part in a short film. On camera, she interviewed parents and siblings of the 11 young models – and her own family – about their experiences with doctors, relatives and strangers, and their advice for other families expecting a child with Down syndrome. The interviews, which resulted in a tearjerker of a film titled “There’s Nothing Down about Down Syndrome” inspired Willson, 35, to found Nothing Down, a nonprofit working to eliminate the stigma surrounding Down syndrome.

“When my sister was born, almost 41 years ago, my parents were told their daughter was a mongoloid, and they were advised to put her in a group home,” Willson says. “The doctors said all these negative things. My parents ignored all that. They raised Dina, and she was amazing.”

Nothing Down’s next project took place in March for World Down Syndrome Day. Willson invited the original 11 models, plus another 10 young adults and older people with Down syndrome to a formal-wear photoshoot in North Jersey. One of the attendees, David Heller Jr., became the subject of Nothing Down’s most recent short documentary.

“David’s Story,” released in August, documents a day in the life of Heller, a student in The College of New Jersey’s Career and Community Studies program. The next Nothing Down short film, being produced this month, will feature a Somers Point man named Clyde, who is a beloved employee of a local barbershop.

“We want to tell these stories to show the world there really is nothing down about Down syndrome,” Willson says. “We want to make people feel better and help new parents realize their baby is going to be OK. They will grow into a wonderful kid with a bright future. That’s the mission, and it’s one we hope to carry out across the country and around the world.”

Watch “There’s Nothing Down about Down Syndrome” and “David’s Story.”


“Pine Barrens”

While Pyne Poynt and the Nothing Down documentaries featured subjects that are deeply personal for their creators, filmmaker David Scott Kessler, a North Jersey native, set out to make a film using an outsider’s perspective.

Over the past five years, Kessler has created what he calls a “visual poem” about South Jersey’s vast stretches of forest and the people and animals who call the area home.

pine barrens movie, pine barrens new jersey, sj magazine documentaries, sj magazine, pine barrens south jersey, pinelands documentary, south jersey magazine“My main interest in art has always been exploring perceptions of place and understanding it from different vantage points,” he says. “I’m interested in exploring as an outsider, which I am to the Pine Barrens.”

Kessler’s “Pine Barrens” is a medley of idyllic nature shots, interviews with locals and an investigation into Pinelands legend. Kessler says he wanted the film to capture both the peace and power of the Pines.

“I followed the forest fire service and went out to film a prescribed burn,” he says. “That was really intense. Fire is such an important part of the ecology. It’s beautiful and powerful. The Pine Barrens need fire, and you feel like you’re witnessing something essential.”

Kessler worked with a group of local musicians called “The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra” to compose a soundtrack for the film. At screenings throughout the fall, including one in Whitesbog in September, the band played along live.

“As an artist, I wanted to not just make a film about the Pine Barrens, but also do something that experiments with the limitations of what’s considered a documentary,” Kessler says. “By allowing the audience to shift from the band to the screen, you’re offering a layered, interesting experience.”

Kessler says his favorite moment during filming came while kayaking with some locals after dark.

“The only light was our headlamps, and with the mist on the water surrounding us it was like floating through clouds,” he says.

“Those surreal, otherworldly moments are when you can allow your imagination to run wild and start understanding where all this folklore comes from. Sometimes you get bogged down in the politics, and you start losing touch with those things that first sparked your interest.”

The politics are certainly fraught. Conservation groups, local residents, the state government and utility companies are all at odds over the future of the Pinelands, and proposed development and gas pipeline projects have caused unrest and upheaval. Kessler says the film is not political – while he has a strong opinion on the pipeline project, the documentary does not – but he does hope it will boost preservation efforts. He is presently in the final stages of editing and working to secure streaming or theatrical release options.

“John McPhee’s [1968] book ‘The Pine Barrens’ was a major factor in the preservation of the Pine Barrens,” Kessler says. “It was so widely read it sparked legislation. The idea of storytelling having that much potential power is inspiring. I’d like to think the film could change perceptions enough to spark a movement to continue to preserve it. Forty years after McPhee wrote his book, we’re facing a lot of the same issues, and maybe the population in general doesn’t understand the unique ecology and importance of the Pine Barrens. Maybe people need to take a new look and remind themselves what’s at stake.”

Watch the trailer for “Pine Barrens” here.

October 2016
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