Forget the Sundance Film Festival. Forget Hollywood, too. New Jersey was the birthplace of the motion picture, thanks to revolutionary inventor Thomas Edison.
The Black Maria (pronounced like Mariah) became the first motion picture studio, which was a small, black, barn-like structure built in 1893 by Edison in Essex County. The studio got its name from workers who saw the odd structure and were reminded of police paddy wagons, then commonly called Black Marias. Countless short films were produced there, including the first motion pictures ever made.
Today, over a century later, the Black Maria Film Festival is a celebration of independent filmmakers with a juried competition and awards to recognize outstanding independent short films and the artists who make them out of over 700 submissions each year from all over the world, including Spain, Germany, Japan, and England.
The Black Maria Film Festival
Founded in 1981 by John Columbus, festival director, of West Orange (location of Edison’s last home, Glenmont, a National Historic site), kicked off the 27th Annual Black Maria Film Festival across three Hudson County sites: New Jersey City University, which houses the festival’s base of operations in its Media Arts Department, the Jersey City Museum, and the Hoboken Historical Museum.
The next screenings will be held Feb. 10 at the AMC Theatre in West Orange, honoring Thomas Edison, and Feb. 16 at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.
Then, the festival travels around the country to an estimated 50 different locations across 20 states, including California, Florida, Alabama, and Maine.
“I proposed [to the Thomas Edison historical site] the idea to start a film festival honoring the creative tradition of Thomas Edison,” explains Columbus, adding that Black Maria has become one of the biggest film festivals in the nation. “I always say that the only difference between Sundance and Black Maria is that Sundance has Robert Redford,” Columbus laughed.
After studying film at Columbia University, Columbus’ vision of a short film festival without categories came to fruition 27 years ago, creating a unique celebration of Edison’s legacy.
Assistant Director Louis Libitz says, “What strikes me about Black Maria is its passion to seek innovative and diverse films and video.”
In this tradition, it has given many filmmakers the exposure and recognition to make a name for themselves. One such filmmaker is acclaimed cult sensation, director Robert Rodriguez. His eight-minute short, Bedhead, was a winner at Black Maria in 1992. Then, his breakout success El Mariachi screened at Sundance. Rodriguez has gone on to direct cult movie hits, Desperado and Frank Miller’s Sin City.
Jacqueline Pennewill, co-director of one of this year’s Director’s Choice selections, had dreams of entering Black Maria after attending several screenings in the festival’s history, including Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, a Jury’s Choice winner in 1993 that went on to win an Academy Award for best animated short film.
Up and coming homegrown filmmakers
Pennewill is one of the aspiring filmmakers from the Garden State whose star is on the horizon at this year’s Black Maria. She, who was born in Jersey City and resides today in Toms River, and Pete Konczal, who grew up in Bayonne and currently lives in Piscataway, directed And Then She Was Gone, a seven-minute short about how precious and fleeting life and time can be.
“The film is about a girl that sits on a park bench to relive a moment in time and her fears are taken away by a chance meeting with a stranger,” explains Pennewill. “When I created it, it came from something that happened in my life that basically shook the foundation of my innocence. I hope people come away from the film just realizing how important people are in your life, and how important time is.”
Formerly of Hoboken and West New York, Pennewill prefers the film scene in New York/New Jersey to Los Angeles, and she holds the Black Maria Film Festival in high esteem, not just for its quality but the doors it opens for filmmakers by honoring shorts.
“I think a lot of the short films are done with a feature-length film in mind,” Pennewill says, “so I think giving people a taste of what you can do as a filmmaker is an excellent opportunity to move forward.”
Some go forward by turning to the past.
Robert Hamburger, an English teacher at NJCU, and David Villavert, a video editor in New York City and NJCU alum, won for the 28-minute film, Freedom’s Front Line.
In 1965, while Hamburger was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he and other students went to Fayette County, Tenn. a week after the violence against peaceful civil rights activists in Selma, Ala., and they helped the residents of Fayette County construct a community center for their voter registration drive.
Footage Hamburger produced from the grassroots movement in 1965 and interviews conducted in 2000 went mostly unused until Villavert, his student at the time, asked to work on the film.
Villavert, a Jersey City resident with ambitions of filmmaking, spent hundred of hours editing the footage and putting together the film, which is now being honored at Black Maria.
“I’m very honored, and this is something that I never expected when I started working on this,” says Villavert. “I was very surprised, but very happy.”
Another Jersey City resident, Tatchapon Lertwirojkul, who came here from Thailand three years ago, has the distinction of his work being screened at Black Maria. Lertwirojkul’s Simulacra is a four-minute digital animation (which took eight months to create) about a humanistic robot and a flower in a futuristic world where the natural ceases to exist.
The digital revolution also inspired Gregg Biermann, a Hackensack resident and Bergen County Community College professor, but in a different way. His short Another Picture is a scene from Sunset Boulevard that pays homage and acts as opposition to the Hollywood classic through computer manipulation.
Modern technology has played a big part contemporary filmmaking, including these Black Maria winners.
“In some ways, it’s easier to make these [films] because you can bring everything under one roof [on the computer] so that you are your own everything instead of having to get prints made or developed or going to a sound stage,” Biermann says. “But in some ways it’s a lot harder, because everybody can do it now, so there’s a lot more competition out there, which maybe is a good thing.”
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