Ridgefielder’s film will make its debut

Ridgefield filmmaker Jeff Bonistalli Jr. on the set of his film, Asabiyyah: A New Social Cohesion.

Ridgefield filmmaker Jeff Bonistalli Jr. on the set of his film, Asabiyyah: A New Social Cohesion.

Good things come to those who wait.

Ridgefield filmmaker Jeff Bonistalli Jr. hopes his patience will be rewarded when he premieres his first independent film, Asabiyyah: A New Social Cohesion on Saturday, June 15, at the Schlumberger Theater.

Completing the project wasn’t easy as the film went through a bevy of setbacks during a rollercoaster five-year-long production that included actor dropouts, disputes over filming locations and scenes lost in the editing process.

“Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong,” said Mr. Bonistalli, who self-funded production of the film. “Like most of life, there were a lot of ups and downs.”

Mr. Bonistalli says he’s been dabbling with filmmaking ever since he  was able to handle a video camera, making “little home movies” when he was six years old.

He admits the economic collapse five years ago blessed him with an opportunity to complete his lifelong goal of filming a full-length feature.

“I’ve always wanted to do a feature film and it was right around the economic downturn in the fall of 2008, when I decided to give it a go,” he recalls. “I had a reduction at work because of the economy and a lot of free time on my hands.”

Mr. Bonistalli co-wrote the script with Ridgefield resident Matthew MacDonald, who he says was in a  similar situation back in 2008.

The two brainstormed ideas throughout the fall before coming up with a plot about people overcoming difficult socio-economic situations, similar to their own, that would be the heart of their story.

“We finally came up with this idea of these people that are facing extreme adversities in these compounds —  a lot of forces working against them — and it’s about them interacting with each other to overcome all their problems for the greater good of the country,” Mr. Bonistalli said. “The timing was right in 2008-2009 to write it and it’s amazing how on the same page we were — I’ve never been in sync with somebody like that before on any project.”

The poster advertising Asabiyyah.

The poster advertising Asabiyyah.

The plot takes place in the future where a global economic breakdown has occurred and the United States government has been couped. The new regime is throwing its citizens into collective farms, which the writers modeled after “what the Russians did to their citizens during World War II and during the Cold War.”

The film’s title derives from Ibn Khaldun’s theory of social cohesion.

“Khaldun theorized that societies follow a bell curve — they rise similar to how they fall, in a repetitive pattern,” Mr. Bonistalli said. “The movie takes place at the bottom of the bell curve, with society about to kick start again and that’s the setting of the movie.”

Mr. Bonistalli and Mr. MacDonald wrote the film’s treatment — the synopsis — while they employed another Ridgefielder, Bijhan Clark, to adapt their ideas into a screenplay with dialogue.

After the screenplay was completed, Mr. Bonistalli began casting in the summer of 2009, auditioning more than 200 actors at his home.

“We met some crazy characters during that process,” he said. “But we had cast the entire movie by the end of that summer and we started filming right after that.”

And that’s when the problems began to snowball.

Because of worsening weather, Mr. Bonistalli elected to wait until the spring of 2010 to finish shooting the rest of the script.

When the crew returned in the spring, the actor Mr. Bonistalli cast in the lead role was nowhere to be found.

“The spring rolled around and the lead character of the story never showed up,” he said. “We never heard anything from him — he fell off the face of the world — and we had to scrap everything we had shot up to that point.”

Despite this costly setback, Mr. Bonistalli said the rest of the cast remained “dedicated beyond belief” to completing the film, even though more problems surfaced.

It took until the summer of 2011 to restart production due to a dispute over one of their intended filming locations — the Old Gilbert and Bennett Wire Mill in Georgetown.

“We had a summer-long stalemate with the owner of the property about getting that location, but that worked out to our advantage because we weren’t ready to shoot until the next summer,” Mr. Bonistalli said. “In the summer of 2011, all the stars aligned for us and the cast and the crew were all ready.”

Besides the wire mill, the director shot scenes at local homes,  businesses and Temple Shearith Israel.

“We had so many awesome filming locations that helped set the tone of the film,” he added. “You wouldn’t think it, but there are pieces of Fairfield County that are a good setting for an apocalypse.”

Mr. Bonistalli added one of the keys to getting through all the filming troubles was improvisation.

“There’s a lot of improv in the movie and I really enjoyed that as a director and so did the actors,” he said. “I wanted to display their talent and they got a lot out of that, which was one of my favorite parts of the process.”

Mr. Bonistalli has found inspiration from a variety of filmmakers, ranging from John Carpenter, director of 1982 horror classic The Thing, to Steven Spielberg.

“I really admire John Carpenter because he is super involved in every aspect of his movies — he writes, he directs, he does the music — and he doesn’t rely on special effects,” Mr. Bonistalli said. “Steven Spielberg filmed with little cameras at a real young age, similar to myself, and then he made it big with Jaws, which had plenty of setbacks and disasters in the filmmaking process, but he persevered to make an amazing film and an absolute classic. I hope the same can happen here.”

He shot the movie using a Nikon digital camera for video and a Cannon XHA1S camera for sound.

“Some spots had some bad sound quality and we had to work around them — nothing patience didn’t solve,” he added.

Similar to Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bonistalli wrote, directed and partially scored the film, in addition to managing an entire crew, which took its toll.

“The management part was actually the most difficult, I was doing too much,” he admits. “I had to coordinate and communicate with the entire crew and the entire cast — I could have really used a production manager, because I was juggling a lot of things and that was time consuming.”

After filming had wrapped finally, Mr. Bonistalli hit yet another snag in the editing process.

“During my state rep campaign last year, we lost all the edited scenes and I had to go back and re-edit 20 scenes, which was another gigantic setback we had to fight through,” he said.

Despite this last obstacle, he says putting together the story allowed him to complete the film and tell his story the way he had always wanted to tell it.

He believes what makes Asabiyyah different than a lot of other films is that it doesn’t have a single protagonist — the story bounces from character to character.

“How Matt and I wrote the script is not entirely how it ended up coming out after we filmed it and edited it, but there’s a good differences between screenplay and final product,” he said. “The movement was by design and in the editing process, I was able finalize that consistency of bouncing around…

“It grabs your attention right from the opening scene and that’s the beauty of switching back and forth from the different plot lines, you’re constantly in a state of suspense when you leave one character and go to the next.”

He edited the film down to 97 minutes, but he admits it could have run more than two hours.

Mr. Bonistalli said he has shown the film to a few friends and family, as well as “people I barely know.”

He estimates about 20 people have watched Asabiyyah and he’s not nervous about the premiere. Rather, he’s anxious for more to see it.

Mr. Bonistalli would like to submit the work to as many film festivals as possible, including the Connecticut Film Festival, but he realizes there will be challenges in submitting it to highly competitive festivals.

“I think the biggest challenge will be the strategy of submitting them because a lot of festivals exclude movies that have premiered at other festivals,” he said.

“The other challenge is how competitive some of the festivals are — some get hundreds, some get thousands of films.”

If there’s anything Mr. Bonistalli has become used to in this process, it is overcoming adversity. And if there’s anything he’s learned about being a filmmaker, it’s patience and perseverance should do the trick.

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