Montclair friends and neighbors: filmmaker Reuben Atlas
By GWEN OREL
In “Friends and Neighbors” we will spotlight interesting Montclairites doing interesting things. Some of them you might have heard of, others you might not. Some answers have been edited for space. Got someone you think we should write about? Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reuben Atlas’ film “ACORN and the Firestorm,” about the controversial community organization and the rise of Breitbart, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, and played the Montclair Film Festival. His other films include the feature music documentary, “Brothers Hypnotic,” and the wine fraud documentary, “Sour Grapes.” A native of Montclair, Reuben, his wife and two children moved back to town from Brooklyn this past summer.
So did you go to Montclair High School?
I went to Nishuane, Hillside, Glenfield, then MKA High School. I remember being on a bus throwing stuff at kids sitting on the lawn. I ended up really liking it.
When you were a kid, what was your Saturday morning routine in Montclair?
I was super excited about soccer. I think of the fall, there’s something nostalgic about it, fall soccer games.
What made you pull the trigger?
We were looking at how much rent we were paying in Brooklyn. We wanted to buy something. More than that, I really loved growing up here. I would joke with people that it is the greatest place in the world to grow up. It’s a mix of the best things about suburban life, but it isn’t a lily white suburb. It has a lot of culture, and it’s close to the city. At the end of the day, we wanted to move here for our kids.
When did you decide to be a filmmaker?
I don’t think I still have decided. My mom was a filmmaker. She had a steenbeck [editing machine] in the attic. I did not go to film school. I studied political science. I did that because I didn’t have to commit too much. I ended up going to law school.
I lived in South America for a few years after college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I lived on an island called Bonaire, and ended up as a bartender, living on a windsurfing beach, living in the Caribbean.
You were a beach bum!
There’s something about that life that’s really alluring. I’d meet so many expats who’d seen way too many sunsets. They’d tell you how happy they were but in that statement there was so much sadness. Or maybe it was in their eyes. It just didn’t seem like anythingI wanted to do. You can see how you get sucked in by the sand.
I worked in a windsurfing beach. I ended up going to Costa Rica. I started teaching English, and ended up working in a newspaper for Cuban expats. Originally I was helping him sell ads to American newspapers. I ended up throwing Cuban salsa parties.
I wanted to come back to the U.S. I was sort of interested in the music industry. I thought law school, and thought becoming a music lawyer would be the route to take.
I think if I had a good voice and could sing I would have tried to be a professional musician.
I went to law school and it was not for me at all. At the time, I was going through the
motions and really trying to do it. I did it, graduated, passed the bar, and practiced for a little while. I started working with Rockefeller drug law inmates who I thought were unfairly incarcerated. I was trying to make advocacy videos to help them get released early. Guys could get caught with a gram of cocaine. It could be their third strike. They’d be in for 15 years for like nothing. That started it I guess. That was in 2005-2006.
What would you be if you weren’t a filmmaker?
I had hoped to be more than a filmmaker. One of the things I want to challenge myself here in Montclair is to be part of, be involved in a community. Film-making becomes very isolating for large stretches when you’re editing. There’s a myopia to it. I just worked on this film about community organizes and I was very inspired by these 60-70-year-old women I would meet who at their age were willing to lie down in the streets for what they believed in.