Young filmmakers often dream of their movies featuring a cast of celebrities amid a backdrop of dollar signs and flashy Hollywood lights.
Nicolás Pereda, the new director for the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking, understands fame’s allure. But Pereda, an award-winning filmmaker, hopes his students also recognize film as a realm of endless possibility.
“I’m interested in creating students who are free, independent thinkers, but at the same time are the most appealing people for the industry,” says Pereda, who is also Mason Gross School’s first Henry Rutgers Professor this year, a prestigious professorship President Robert Barchi initiated last year as part of the University Strategic Plan.
After teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and premiering his films at the Toronto, Cannes and New York film festivals as well as the MOMA, Pereda has a unique set of skills and experiences he brings to the classroom.
Born in Mexico City, Pereda, 33, has been obsessed with cinema since he was 17. As a teenager, Pereda frequently visited the local university checking out films that were more obscure and innovative than the Hollywood fare Blockbuster offered.
“I was consumed. I would watch three films a day,” Pereda says. But it wasn’t until an uncle gave him a video camera that Pereda found his craft in making movies.
Pereda began shooting everything. After graduating high school, he even convinced his physics and English teachers to star in a film, along with his friends, about lost British tourists ending up on the beach.
“It was kind of a romance, and it was pretty bad,” Pereda admits, but he kept at it.
Enrolling in film school at York University in Toronto, he discovered his subject matter: class dynamics and social issues in Mexico.
Pereda, who was raised in a household with domestic workers, has always been sensitive to the large divide that exists among social classes, an awareness that inspired him to tell stories of hard work and survival.
“I grew up more privileged than the majority Mexicans,” Pereda says. “In a way, growing up with a maid has marked me. I escape to that subject matter. There’s always someone in my films representing the realities of the working class.”
Pereda also uses a form of staging in his documentary-like films that includes sometimes telling his subjects what to say. Although some filmmakers perceive documentaries as unvarnished reality, Pereda doesn’t see it that way.
To Pereda, a documentary is like any other story – a construction from beginning to end. “It’s a personal medium, not an objective point of view,” he says.
Ambiguity in filmmaking is essential for fostering active participation, Pereda says. He is not trying to lecture, telling people how to think or what reality is. Pereda wants viewers to think for themselves.
“Films should not end when the lights come on,” he says. "They should continue in the minds of the spectator, and each viewer should be able to build a personal film for themselves.”
Pereda’s approach to filmmaking is closely linked to his artistic upbringing. His father, a philosophy teacher, and his mother, a music composer, exposed Pereda to art at an early age.
“Growing up, we had dinner parties a couple times a week. I became close to poets, philosophers, musicians and actors." he says. "My parents’ world pretty much determined my decision to become an artist.”
And so, Pereda has never been drawn to a world where a certain shot was decided by traditional industry standards.
“The industry that generates a lot of money has decided how films should be made in order to be as profitable as possible,” Pereda says. He believes this discourages many filmmakers from taking risks, inevitably producing the same mundane plotline.
“That’s why we get the same superhero movies over and over,” Pereda says. “They are all the same – even the eighth one because they know people are going to go watch it, and it will make money.”
This doesn’t mean he discourages his students from aiming for Hollywood. On the contrary, Pereda tries to encourage them to pursue whichever film industry avenue they choose.
He just wants his students to know what cinema is capable of.
“Those that want to work within a commercial film setting will hopefully be the most innovative ones within that setting after going through this program,” he says.
Pereda insists that being a part of Mason Gross offers a unique opportunity for students to talk about film in a way that wouldn’t always fit the standard at other educational outlets and universities.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m teaching and I’m running the film program within an art institution that gives me the freedom to talk about these things.” Pereda says. “Being in a film program within an art school is quite liberating.”