Monday, February 25, 2008

Short Stories

By Elise Nakhnikian

Now that “independent” films often cost nearly as much, feel nearly as slick, and grab nearly as many headlines as their mainstream cousins, it can take a little looking to find a movie that reflects one artist’s sensibility -- or explores the medium in creative ways. A good place to start is with the Black Maria Film Festival, a grab bag of some of the best short films released last year.

Run out of Jersey City, the festival is named for the movie studio Thomas Edison built on the grounds of his West Orange laboratory in 1892. Like Edison’s Black Maria, this one specializes in short, often experimental films.

The quality of the films is very high, says Princeton University professor Su Friedrich, who will screen offerings from the festival on March 5. Friedrich has admired the Black Maria festival for most of its 27 years, and festival director John Columbus and his jurors return the compliment, having selecting some of her films to show in the past. “The jurors are all people who are connected to serious institutions – places like the Sundance Channel and the National Gallery of Art Film Department – so they see a lot of film,” says Friedrich. “They’re a discerning jury.”

This year’s jury culled through about 700 selections to come up with a slate of 58.

Unlike other film festivals, the Black Maria doesn’t screen its own selections. Instead, Columbus makes all the movies available on DVD and invites anyone who wants to host the festival to do so at a place and time of their convenience, either screening all 58 films or choosing among them. As a result, many versions of the Black Maria Film Festival play all over the nation, sometimes even simultaneously. “It’s a traveling festival, democratic and free-form,” says Friedrich. “I don’t know of anyone else who does that.”

For Princeton’s version of the festival, Friedrich chose a dozen films ranging from 2 to 12 minutes in length. Her lineup includes two of the festival’s four grand prize winners as well as several that won jury choice awards or citations.

“Part of the excitement for me is getting to see the work of newer, unknown filmmakers,” she says. “There are a number of better known filmmakers on the list that I didn’t include, because part of the point of a festival is to introduce the public to new work.

“The first time I brought it here was three years ago,” she adds. “There were a number of pieces we showed that year that I purchased for the school to use in the classroom – films that I wasn’t aware of before that I really liked.”

She also chose a few works by established filmmakers this year, people like Marie Losier and experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon. Solomon often manipulates his film directly, “hand processing it and scratching it – very visceral filmmaking,” she says. “This is a departure for him because he’s apparently working from video game images for the first time.”

Friedrich likes the fact that the festival’s jurors, like her, are interested in all types of films. “They don’t just focus on experimental or documentary or narrative or animation – they give awards in all those categories.”

About half of Friedrich’s selections are animated films. “Some are personal or poetic or humorous,” she says. “One is political, about the war in Iraq, and one is a diary about the war in Vietnam. There are several narrative films. And there’s a 12-minute documentary by a filmmaker named Tony Buba from Braddock, Pennsylvania. He’s been doing documentaries about that same town for years. It’s an interesting continuation of a theme.”

Friedrich acknowledges that many people make short movies only as “a kind of exercise or calling card for doing a feature,” but short is the length of choice for most of the artists represented here. “I like to show my students short works, because that’s mostly what they’re making in class,” she says. “It’s good for them to see what’s possible in a short film – to see that it’s a worthwhile challenge to get something good in five minutes rather than to get something bad in 45.”

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