Good things come in small packages, but it also helps to read the packaging.
For example, the Asbury Shorts USA film program, currently celebrating its 40th year, has nothing to do with Asbury Park. It is named after a Long Island address where its founders once had a tiny production company.
But that doesn’t mean this New York-based festival of brief films doesn’t still have a strong Garden State flavor.
It has always played around New Jersey (including Asbury Park). Its next big event takes place March 12 at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre, which it has visited nine times before. Later this year, it will bring its programs to Westfield and Tenafly.
While its shows are always, deliberately, a bit of a surprise — most films aren’t announced in advance — founder Doug LeClaire already predicts one of the audience favorites will be an 8-minute short from a first-time filmmaker from Waldwick, Todd Kwiatkowski. It’s called, simply, “My Uncle Eddie,” and it’s a heartwarmer.
“It will be the third time we’ve played it, and the audience always responds,” says LeClaire. “It’s a really inspirational, true-life story.”
A sort of Polish-American “My Left Foot,” the movie is Kwiatkowski’s salute to an older relative, Edward “Eddie” Kwiatkowski, who was born with cerebral palsy at a time when many with that condition faced marginalized lives or were even institutionalized. Eddie’s family rallied around him, though – and he grew up to graduate high school, study at the Cleveland Institute of Art and produce fabulous paintings, working with a brush gripped between his toes.
“The whole project started after my uncle passed away in 2014,” says Todd Kwiatkowski. “I wanted to do a little video about him, you know, for the family. My mom and dad gave me all this stuff, Super-8 home movies and pictures, and I pieced it together and started showing it. And this long-time family friend, Joan Lusko, was going to the Asbury Shorts show in Tenafly in 2019, and said, ‘You’ve got to bring a copy and give it to Doug.’ ”
Kwiatkowski did — and didn’t hear back from LeClaire for a year. He figured that was the end of it.
“Then I heard Doug had watched it and had been trying to get ahold of me,” says Kwiatkowski. “I had given him my contact info with the video, but I guess it got lost. He eventually tracked me down and said he’d really taken a liking to the film. He’s been playing it in the shorts program ever since. Here in Jersey, down in Florida, he’s given it a lot of exposure. It’s been awesome.”
“It’s a really cool piece,” says LeClaire. He adds it’s a nice fit for the two-hour Asbury shows, which usually comprise 10 to 12 films with different styles and approaches, but a strong ability to quickly connect with an audience.
“In general, we tend to stay away from dark, violent films,” he says. “We don’t do a lot of experimental films, either. But we’ll do drama, nonfiction, comedy. Animation, too — we’ll be showing ‘Balance’ in Manasquan, a claymation piece that’s an all-time favorite of mine. And ‘Cougar,’ a short feature which is really wonderful.”
They’re very different films, but they all have a story to tell — and tell it well.
“One of the hardest things to do with a short film is have an adequate ending,” LeClaire says. “Often it builds, it builds, and then it just fades away. It’s a real challenge to put together a visual story that works from beginning to end, and that’s what we’re always looking for. Anybody can be a filmmaker these days — you can shoot a film on your phone. But not everybody is a storyteller.”
No one is more surprised to find himself among those storytellers than Kwiatkowski.
“I work the overnight shift at the Stop & Shop,” he says. “When I started on this film, I did it as a one-shot deal, sort of as a hobby. I ended up spending maybe $1,000 on it. Now I’m working on a second film, a longer documentary, about a professional boxer who’s fallen on hard times. I like those kinds of stories: those slice-of-life, human interest stories.”
Hopefully, Kwiatkowski says, “my little films will connect with some people.” But however big its audience becomes, “My Uncle Eddie” has already done all that Kwiatkowski really hoped for.
“Before he died, my uncle told my father, ‘I don’t want to be forgotten,’ ” Kwiatkowski says. “Well, he’s not forgotten.”
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