Black Maria

When you make a film you hope it’s going to be seen by a diverse group of people, and not just by the converted,” says Black Maria Film and Video Festival director John Columbus. “We reach all kinds of people, even rural, ‘off-the-beaten-path’ audiences.”

Now in its twenty-third year, the Black Maria (pronounced Ma-RYE-ah) shuns the single-venue, one-to-eight-day screening format, opting instead to showcase its collection of animated and live-action shorts in a sixty-city tour from January to June. “Rather than letting the audiences come to us,” says Columbus, “we go to them.”

Perhaps as unorthodox as the festival’s approach to distributing work is its approach to accepting it. The Black Maria doesn’t have any categories or genres. “No pigeonholes,” says Columbus. “Each film is judged on its own merit.” Columbus admits, though, the Black Maria tends to have more poetic, less dialogue-driven work. “We’re strongly interested in visually-oriented, experimental pieces, and human revelation documentaries—when what happens unfolds, rather than being scripted or driven by preordained ideas.”

The Black Maria’s own unscripted story starts in New Jersey, where Columbus grew up in the shadows of the New York skyline and, as a kid, visited the historical site of the world’s first motion picture studio, the Black Maria, built by Thomas Edison in 1893. Edison named his West Orange, New Jersey studio after the old police vans that carried criminals off to prison. Columbus says his first visit to the studio launched his quest to become a filmmaker.

Fast Film won a Jury’s Choice Award in the 2004 Black Maria Festival.

After receiving his master’s degree in film editing from Columbia University in 1975, Columbus went off to teach at South Jersey’s Richard Stockton College, where he started a tiny film festival. The fest fizzled when Columbus left the school five years later, but after moving to West Orange and revisiting Edison’s studio, Columbus says, “A light bulb literally went off in my head. I missed the festival I was running and thought, ‘Why don’t I propose one to the historical site?’”

In its first year, the Black Maria showed at three venues, all in New Jersey—the Edison site, Montclair Art Museum, and Newark Museum, where Columbus worked at the time as an exhibit designer. The following year, a colleague of Columbus’ at Cornell University wanted to bring the festival to Ithaca. The word also spread to Syracuse and Colgate. Columbus says, “After expanding the festival to all three schools, I thought, ‘This works.’”

Up from 100 submissions in its first year, the Black Maria now annually selects winners from some 700 entries, screening between fifty to sixty shorts at various schools, museums, libraries, and theaters from Alaska to Alabama. Big-city stops include the Smithsonian in DC, the Millennium in New York, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Smaller destinations include Boulder, Savannah, and Cincinnati. Past festivals have also gone to Mexico and Korea, and this year, for the second time, the Black Maria takes its show on the road to Rome.

“The traveling element definitely gives filmmakers access,” says Thomas Torres Cordova, who’s one of just a handful of Black Maria employees. He’s also a past participant in the festival. Torres Cordova’s White Dwarf traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, with the Black Maria in 2001. “There was a great response down there,” he says, “and it helped a lot. I built connections with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met, and people saw my film who normally wouldn’t have been able to.” In addition to giving films a wide audience, the Black Maria provides an outlet for those underserved filmmakers interested in cinema as an art form and using the language of cinema in unconventional ways. “There aren’t many avenues for filmmakers who do this type of work,” says Torres Cordova, who adds, “But we don’t glorify filmmakers. We’re about celebrating work that’s extremely strong and using that work as a dialogue.”

On January 30, the Black Maria kicked off this year’s tour at New Jersey City University, its home, with an afternoon screening followed by a public roundtable discussion that ended up focusing on the similarities and differences the filmmakers used in approaching their subject matter, as well as the relationship between camera and subject. On hand were a few of the films’ directors, including Julie Haslett and Chelsea Guest Perez, both first-time Black Maria artists. New York City-based Haslett was there to support her eight-minute film Flooded, which follows a middle-aged couple’s response to a flash flood in their quiet London suburb. Chicago-based Guest Perez attended to speak about her Black Maria entry Walking In His Sleep, a twenty-three-minute video recollection interspersing memories of her grandfather and newspaper accounts of his mysterious death.

Haslett, whose previous work has appeared in the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Rooftop Films’ short film series, and IFC Buzz Cuts, lauds the Black Maria for “providing opportunities to meet fellow filmmakers and to discuss my work in a substantive way.” She adds that the festival “takes its role as an advocate of independent film and video very seriously, which is reflected in how they treat and appreciate their filmmakers.” Guest Perez, whose previous film showed at the Toronto Short Film Festival and Chicago’s Director’s Film Festival, agrees. “Everyone involved with the Black Maria gave me encouraging and intelligent feedback, and then helped me to network and started to promote me—just because they loved my work. They wanted to do anything they could to help my new career along.” A former painter, Guest Perez only recently shifted her focus to film.

Among the shorts screened on the night of January 30, after the forum, was Bill Morrison’s Light is Calling, a hypnotic eight-minute piece constructed from damaged footage of The Bells, a film made in 1926 by James Young. Light is Calling, which played at Sundance this year, among other fests, is Morrison’s seventh Black Maria film. In 1993, the Black Maria became the first festival to program Morrison’s work, and since then he has exhibited films in more than ninety others. “The Black Maria is like my film festival family,” says Morrison. “They’ve nurtured me over the years. And I hope, in a small way, I’ve done the same in return.” Morrison helped jury the festival in 1998.

Like others who’ve worked with Columbus, Morrison praises the festival director’s dedication. “I’ve always been amazed at the tireless enthusiasm, energy, and time he devotes to the festival,” says Morrison. “The tour is mind-boggling, both in its number and geographic range of engagements.” Morrison also points out that Columbus knows how to take care of his artists: Each winning filmmaker who is programmed receives a check between $100 and $250. “That’s almost unheard of,” says Morrison.

A filmmaker himself, Columbus knows how expensive and time-consuming independent production can be. Recently, he finished a film about growing up in New Jersey called Corona, which has screened in several festivals from England to Seattle. “It’s done nothing but cost me money,” says Columbus. “I haven’t made a penny on it. I haven’t even received my VHS copies back.” Of course, Columbus realizes this is part of the process, but he also knows that filmmakers appreciate getting something in return, thus the payout to each artist. “I know it’s not much,” he admits, “but at least it’s a couple of nice dinners out in New York.”

Other films screened on opening night included New Jersey-based filmmaker Jim McNutt’s Softee (a three-minute ride inside the mind of an ice cream man); Berlin-based Jeroen Offerman’s The Stairway St. Paul’s (Zeppelin karaoke like you’ve never seen before); and Hollywood-based Chris Hinton’s animated short Nibbles (an insane trip across America with a family of fast food feasters), which was one of two Black Maria films nominated for an Oscar this year. The other piece to grab a nomination was Asylum (a Ghanaian woman’s struggle against female circumcision), by Boulder-based filmmakers Sandy McLeod and Gini Reticker.

As an Academy-Award nominating festival, the Black Maria can recommend three films for Oscar consideration each year—one in short subject documentary, one in live-action short film, and one in animated short film. Over the years, several Black Maria films have landed Oscar nominations and a couple have even taken home statues, including Joan C. Gratz’ Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1993) and Jessica Lu’s Breathing Lessons (1996).

Another film that lit up the screen opening night was Selma to Montgomery, by the late documentary filmmaker and scholar Stefan Sharff, whom Columbus studied under at Columbia. As part of a Black Maria annual tradition of paying homage to notable contributors to independent film who have recently passed away, the Black Maria revived Sharff’s documentary on the famous 1965 voting rights march prompted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to Sharff’s piece, the festival is currently displaying works by legendary filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jules Engel, who both passed away in 2003.

On the road, each Black Maria program changes according to venue, so the festival becomes a sort of ongoing curatorial process. “But we don’t just present the films,” says Columbus, “we talk about them.” To spur discussions and Q&As, which is tantamount to the festival’s mission, Columbus and his team curate shows with theme or style in mind. Often, this is dictated by the venue hosting the festival. “If they tell us they’re particularly interested in animation,” explains Columbus, “then we can focus on that. Or if they’re interested in women’s issues or social justice or fine art, we can do that, too.” Grunge work, humorous satire, and even overlapping thematic ideas—such as grunge pieces in a more poetic style—are other alternatives.

“Finding these synergies is what’s interesting about running the festival,” says Columbus. “We’re like a seamstress or tailor, threading all these films together.”

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About :

Derek Loosvelt is a Brooklyn based freelance writer.