Black Maria Film Festival

by Andrew Elias

The Black Maria Film Festival, named for Thomas Edison’s first motion picture studio, built in 1892 in West Orange, New Jersey, and called the Black Maria because it resembled the police patrol wagons of the day. The studio had a roof that could be opened to allow sunlight to illuminate the sets, and the building itself was mounted on a revolving pivot so that it could be constantly repositioned to keep it aligned with the sun. The earliest motion picture that still survives is Edison’s ‘Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze’ (see the cover of this magazine), from 1894.

Since 1981, the annual Black Maria Film Festival, an international juried competition, has been advocating, exhibiting and rewarding cutting edge works by independent film and video makers.

After awarding 50 films and videos from the hundreds submitted, the festival launches a national tour, bringing custom-tailored programs to more than 70 institutions, from museums and libraries to colleges and community organizations.

For the first time, the Black Maria Film Festival will be coming to Fort Myers, celebrating Thomas Edison’s pioneering spirit, with screenings and discussions at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates on Friday, March 23 and at Edison College.

I spoke with John Columbus, Festival Director, about the festival, the films and Fort Myers as he prepared to launch the Festival’s 2007 tour:

Andrew Elias: Tell me about the Black Maria Film Festival.

John Columbus: At most film festivals, like Sundance, the short films are a sidebar. We show short films rather than feature length films because we want the short film to be the centerpiece. Only short films were made in Thomas Edison’s film studio, known as The Black Maria, so we thought we would name the film festival after his studio. While this film festival is not specifically about Thomas Edison, it is perpetuating his vision by showing new works, which embrace inventive and creative ideas. Generally, we show films that are 45 minutes and shorter, with the majority being 10-20 minutes.

Unlike any other film festival, we not only travel—this year to something in the vicinity of 55 institutions nationwide—but we do a custom curated program from our award-winners for each show. This year we have over 50 award-winning works and we will show one program at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates and a very different one at Edison College. Generally speaking, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates program will be a little more —we might tend to show work that’s a little less cutting edge than we may show at the college. But that’s really up to the representatives from each institution.

How do you show the films?

I will be there to talk about the films and present them, but the host institution takes care of projection.

Are there both films and videos?

No. It’ll be all video, even though they might have been made on film.

Will you also be discussing the films after their screenings?

We introduce each film and then discuss them afterwards.

You said there are 50 award-winners. How many films were submitted this year?

A little over 750.

What kinds of films?

There is playful uplifting animation, human interest stories such as Waiting for Arif, which is about an Atlantic Records record producer and his wife…

Arif Martin, who passed on last year?

Yes. It’s a lovely film and you learn something about life in the arts.

Who submits the films? Are they students, professionals?

There’s a whole world that people have not known about and that’s been our mission—to share that world. They are rarely students. They’re professionals and they are making short films either in their day job as college and graduate school professors or maybe they have a day job where they have a production company and they’re doing a labor of love with their independent films. So it’s really out of personal commitment that these people make these films. They’re polished. They’re not amateur and what I often say is these are gems—they’re not big rocks, they’re gems.

We so often overlook these films because feature films kind of took over. But in the art world, and we’re part of the art world, monumental paintings by Picasso are appreciated, but his smaller paintings are also appreciated. So that’s what we’re supporting. We always get the question, “Does anyone go on and make a real film.” I ask, “You mean a feature film? That’s a real film?” Yeah, that’s happened. Robert Rodriquez (Director of indie favorite El Mariach, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and the Spy Kids and Sin City films) would be a good example.

Really? That’s impressive.

Sure. It’s no big deal, we’re not surprised. We’re an Academy Award qualifying festival for shorts. It used to be for animation and documentary, but now they call it short subject and animation.

Have any of the films you’ve had gone on to be nominated for an Academy Award?

Absolutely. We’re juried by highly credentialed jurors who are professionals in the field. This year one of our jurors was the shorts programming curator for the Tribeca Film Festival; one of our other jurors was the Director of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the country; and another is a Curator from the Boston Museum. In the past we’ve had jurors from the Museum of Modern Art, who we’ve worked with for many years. In fact, we just had our 25th Anniversary Retrospective at MOMA in New York.

But this is the first time you will be in Fort Myers?


How did that come about?

Well, we’re closely affiliated with the Thomas Edison National Historic Site, where the Black Maria Studios are located in West Orange, New Jersey. The superintendent there was talking to Chris Pendleton, the President of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, and one of our funders is the Charles Edison fund, so there’s a certain synergy.

Most people don’t realize how involved Edison was in film making that he was one of the first pioneers.

That’s something we hope to facilitate. We’re not educational per se, but we are informative.

Can you tell us about some of the films that you will be showing?

Afraid So, by Jay Roach, out of California, featuring a narration by Garrison Keillor from Prairie Home Companion and National Public Radio. That’s a poignant film.

There’s a beautiful film from a Pennsylvanian filmmaker Kristy Figby called The Bowl Diggers. It’s about an elderly couple who live in rural South Carolina and they make the most beautiful wooden bowls and dough trays, which is an old style cooking utensil. They cut down the trees on their own property. These folks are about 80 years old. It’s a beautiful film about life and craftsmanship.

There’s a really cool hyperealistic science fiction digital animation film about love between two rodents, surprisingly enough, but it’s amazingly inventive and clever and speaks to these times in a lot of ways. It’s really a stunning film called One Rat Short.

There’s one called Uncle Hyman Cleans Up, about a funky, bizarre, little elder guy who is obsessive about keeping his house clean. It’s really delightful.

There is an abstract film as well, like a painterly such as Copenhagen Cycles, which takes us to Copenhagen on a bicycle. It’s not a tour film—it’s sort of an impressionistic moving painting of the city of Copenhagen.

The Tiny Dancer is a very sweet, uplifting story—a narrative of a ballerina who endures the slings and arrows of life and inspires a crew of hooligans to change their ways through her dance. It’s lovely and a family friendly film. Most of these are family friendly.

Sounds like there’s a wide variety of films.

A wide variety—documentaries, animations, narratives. Something for everybody.

Maybe you will inspire some young filmmakers.

Could well be. There are some good film schools in Florida.

It’ll give people in Fort Myers a rare chance to see the kind of film and art that they don’t often get to see.
Well, I hope they enjoy it. •

from the March-April 2007 issue

Iraqi Kurdistan

I Want to Be a Pilot

Black Maria Film Festival
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
2360 McGregor Blvd.
Royal Palm Alee
March 24
Edison College
8099 College Pkwy.
Robinson Hall
Corbin Auditorium

Doors open 6pm
Films introduced 7pm
Q & A after screenings

Afraid So

Lost and Found

Edison & Ford
Winter Estates
And Found
Vibrant animated homage to the pioneers of American animation.
Study of Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrata Familia, the architect’s masterpiece.
Bowl Digger
Story of husband and wife octogenarians who create wooden bowls.
Integrates the Zoetrope with high-definition digital video technology.
Uncle Hyman
Cleans Up
Portrait of an eccentric elder doing his chores.
For Arif
Documentary about a Grammy winning producer, Arif Martin and his wife.
Alice Sees
The Light
How artificial light is obscuring and changing the way we perceive the night.
Animated with the same software used for 3D animated features such as Shrek.
Animated spoof utilizing clips from an interview with a film festival director.
Hand-drawn animation exploring the relationship between music and visual forms.
Ode to the summer: a play in 3 acts, a dance in 3 forms, 3 versions of paradise.
This And
Images of nature form an elegant visual portrait.
Edison’sMusicianless Band
Animated film featuring a young Tom Edison inventing the phonograph.
March 24
Gifted ballerina bravely endures the slings and arrows of life..
Daddy I’m
Video pastiche consisting of 13 different children’s cartoons layered over each other..
Life & Times
Of Robert Kennedy
Starring Gary Cooper

Compares the real-life saga of Robert Kennedy to the Hollywood hero Gary Cooper.
Rat Short
Digital sci-fi animation about two rodents who fall in love.
Collage animation of Victorian era cutouts of cherubs, gargoyles and womens.
I Want To Be
A Pilot
12 year old orphan wanders East Africa slum in search of food and human warmth.
A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process
Portrait of a filmmaker’s creative process plays off Raymond Chandler detective novels.
Features a narration by the radio legend Garrison Keillor.
Tribute to the great woman filmmaker, Shirley Clarke.
Visual meditation on the spark that began the Thirty Years War.
Japanese insect collector in chase to recover woman from a sushi bar.
Animation emulates the work of M.C. Escher.
Portrait of life in Kurdistan synchronized to strains of indigenous music.
March 24th
Rush Library Building
Corbin Auditorium
Edison College
‘Edison and Film’ features artifacts and images including movie cameras, a kinetoscope and an early projector.
Reception in the
Mary Jo Sanders Garden of Inspiration after screenings.