By Lenore Holz

The Black Maria Film Festival recently celebrated its 35th Annual Festival with a special Anniversary Premiere Weekend in northern New Jersey.  Established in 1981, the Festival showcases independent short films to “promote innovation in the art of the moving image.”

The Festival tour kicked off with a trio of screenings, on February 4th and 6th, in Jersey City at New Jersey City University and Art House Productions. On February 7th, West Orange, NJ cinephiles were treated to screenings at an AMC Dine-In Theatre sponsored by the West Orange Film Society, with “Edison cake” even.  For a fundraiser-gala-premiere, tickets for the Art House event were easy on the wallet, costing $12 in advance and $15 at the door, and programs at their “home” at NJCU are free for students and faculty.

The Black Maria Film Festival’s mission connects at the root to Edison’s cutting-edge vision of exploring the medium’s potential through simple conceptual vignettes.  With a focus on short works, Black Maria celebrates cross-genre works, animation, narrative, experimental and documentary films that explore contemporary social issues and struggles related to race, class, health, and the environment, for example.

The Festival’s initial screenings took place at Thomas Edison National Historical Park’s visitor center and the Montclair Art Museum.  Assistance from the Charles Edison Fund helped produce three shows from a hundred submissions, all in 16mm.  Not a bad first year for launching an experimental film festival in 1981.

Brown bag popcorn. Zero pretension. Photo by Lenore Holz.

Brown bag popcorn. Zero pretension. Photo by Lenore Holz.

Just 12 miles away from West Orange, the Festival calls New Jersey City University, Jersey City home, although as a nomadic Festival it tours throughout the US and overseas, visiting audiences at universities, museums, libraries, community organizations, and arts venues. Transcending the notion of a location-based festival, Black Maria reiterates its populist values by bringing screenings to a community, especially ones where audiences rarely, if ever, enjoy any film festivals.  The Festival proactively supports and advocates accessibility to all programming for those experiencing disabilities, and their liaisons.

To date, 44 hosts will exhibit the traveling Festival in 2016 in major and minor US cities like Montgomery, Alabama and New Port Richey, Florida. Overseas dates are scheduled for the American University of Rome, Italy, and the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, UK, where a 2016 selected filmmaker is based.  Ticket prices are set by the venue and typically range from $5 and $10 to free.

Black Maria has consistently championed women filmmakers, starting with active recruiting efforts in the early days.  Over half of the submissions chosen for this 35th anniversary season were made and submitted by women.  The Festival promotes the work of diverse filmmakers to diverse audiences, and this year the Festival received submissions from every continent except Antarctica.  In alignment with the Festival’s independent ethos, films enjoy an open competition where selections are chosen on less rigid, more democratic criteria.

Left to right: Suzanne LaRosa, Bill LaRosa, Jane Steuerwald, Exec. Director, Theresa Loong, Filmmaker.  Photo by Lenore Holz. 

Left to right: Suzanne LaRosa, Bill LaRosa, Jane Steuerwald, Exec. Director, Theresa Loong, Filmmaker.  Photo by Lenore Holz. 

With William LaRosa, division director of the Hudson County Division of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, acting as emcee, the line-up at Art House Gala screened:

The Bravest, the Boldest was awarded Jury’s Choice.  The short film explores a mother’s worst fears as she watches two Army Notification Officers arrive at her door in the Harlem projects, presuming news of her son fighting in the Middle East.

Notes for My Homeland was awarded Jury’s Stellar award.  This documentary captures a Syrian-American composer’s powerful response to the horrors of the civil war in Syria, and the risks of confronting a fascist regime in support of a popular revolution.

A project of the nonprofit Thomas A. Edison Media Arts Consortium, the festival is named after America’s first motion picture production studio. Constructed in West Orange, New Jersey in 1893, Edison is traditionally celebrated with inventing the medium, although popular history credits a member of the “Wizard of Menlo Park’s” staff, W.L.K. Dickson.

Edison’s Black Maria Production Studio, circa 1894.

Edison’s Black Maria Production Studio, circa 1894.

The size of a small, narrow house, the studio itself was a curiosity to behold, wrapped in black tar paper inside and out, and built on a revolving platform, with a retractable roof to capture the profuse sunlight required by the Kinetograph to shoot celluloid film strips to be viewed on Kinetoscope viewers in Kinetographic parlors and nickelodeons.  Workers there nicknamed the facility “The Black Maria” [mah-RYE-ah], a colloquialism for the nineteenth century police paddywagon (and funeral hearse), echoing the building’s appearance and challenging, cramped working conditions.  Constructed for $637 (about $15,270 in today’s dollars), the studio produced hundreds of films over its eight-year existence.  What did the world’s very first movie depict?  Three “actors” playing blacksmiths. The novel medium intrigued and entertained the masses with popular subjects of the day, among them boxing cats, magic shows, vaudeville performances, a Sioux Ghost Dance, and Annie Oakley’s shooting skills in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  I imagine even the silent scenes of everyday life in the early twentieth century must have been incredibly powerful for audiences to experience from this new perspective.

Michael DiFeo  of Jersey City provided a solo acoustic guitar performance and as well as an abstract photographic art exhibit.  Photo by Lenore Holz. 

Michael DiFeo of Jersey City provided a solo acoustic guitar performance and as well as an abstract photographic art exhibit.  Photo by Lenore Holz. 

The Thomas A. Edison Media Arts Consortium also heads the NJ Young Filmmakers Festival project to “recognize, celebrate, and encourage emerging young talent in New Jersey.”

The award-winning nonprofit Consortium is funded through private foundations, federal and state grants (with support from New Jersey City University), and individual contributions.

Black Maria’s future plans include full support to filmmakers in all of their endeavors, creating opportunities for programming and establishing relationships with screening venues.

Part-time filmmaker Theresa Loong won the Jury Stellar Award in 2014 with her documentary Every Day is a Holiday, about her father’s recollection of his survival in a POW camp in Japan during World War II.  Loong grew up in suburban New Jersey knowing little about her father’s past until she discovered his secret diary written during his experience.  Her parents live there still.

Her 56-minute film toured 14 states with the Festival in 2014-2015, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and a public library in Alabama, and has been broadcast on public television.  Loong expressed an appreciation for a shared viewing experience as “really powerful” during a time when so much content is viewed by individuals online.  “It reaches an audience that’s hungry for content.”  She adds, “I feel especially welcomed by Black Maria Film Festival because the people there just love film and are incredibly supportive.  I don’t have much festival experience, and Black Maria has a special community feel.”

Edison built a glass-enclosed rooftop movie production studio in New York City, prompting the closure of old Black Maria in January 1901 and demolition in 1903.  Good news, though: a reproduction of Black Maria built in 1954 can be found at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, NJ.  I definitely need to make a day trip to the site after learning its history. Who wants to join me?

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About the Writer

Lenore Holz landed in Jersey City in July 2001 and hasn’t looked back.  She helps others solve problems as Brownstone Concierge, crafts organic teas and fresh lemonade as Iced Tea Fusion, and teaches yoga as Lenorative Yoga.  A self­-identifying progressive, Lenore is committed to her community through advocating for animals, the local economy, and keeping Liberty State Park free and green.  Lenore can be reached at  #SaveLSP