KPL hosts Black Maria Film Festival


In 1893, on the grounds of his West Orange laboratory, Thomas Alva Edison completed construction of what is considered to be America’s very first movie studio. Oddly shaped, and covered inside and out with tar paper, it earned the nickname “Black Maria” (pronounced “ma-RYE-uh”), which, by the way,  is also what a police paddy wagon was called.

Homage to Edison’s pioneering work in motion pictures is today paid by the annual Black Maria Film Festival, which for 35 years has been screening and honoring short films and videos from around the world. There is a focus on the experimental and avant garde, but classic animation and documentary forms are included.

The Black Maria Festival is currently sponsoring a Hudson County Movie Tour, and on Saturday, the Kearny Public Library played host to the program.

Presented, free to the public, were eight sublimely creative shorts — narrative, animation, documentary and dance — ranging in length from four minutes to 17 minutes, and all of them prize-winners from prior festivals.  This member of the audience was mesmerized — from start to finish — but we’ll focus on our four favorites.

  • The opening work, “Virtuous Virtuell” by Thomas Stellmach of Hessen, Germany, was composed of ink drawings interpreting the overture from Louis Spohr’s 1829 opera “The Alchemist.” We can best describe it as a Rorschach test set to music — a Rorschach test full of drama and beauty and suspense. When it was over, the intricacies of the animation left us thinking, “How did he DO that?”
  • “Little Block of Cement With Disheveled Hair Containing the Sea” (we have no idea what the title means) by Jorge Lopez Navarrete of Barcelona told the story of a dog and a horse who embark on an adventure through the Spanish countryside. In six minutes, and without one word of dialogue — unless you count barks — there was more drama and emotion than in 2  1/2 hours of your average Hollywood “blockbuster.”
  •  “The Apothecary” by Helen Hood Scheer of Palo Alto, Calif., documented a Colorado druggist, who sometimes doubles as a surrogate  doctor since his is the only pharmacy in 4,000 square miles. (Think about that.) He is also dealing with his wife’s debilitating illness. This offering was inspiring and heart-rending — and also educational, offering a peek at a Colorado that isn’t all ski slopes and purple mountains’ majesty.
  • “A Place of Spirit” by Natalie Conn and Jay Weichun of Brooklyn depicted the challenges faced by Staten Island artist Andrea Phillips, who was being evicted from her home of 44 years.  Weichun, a friend of Phillips, was at the library to discuss his film and noted that “she had a loving relationship with the house,”  which doubled as her gallery. “She was more concerned with what would happen to the house than where she was going,” he said.

“Time operated on a different level there,” he continued. “She had no Internet, and she had one rotary phone, which she rarely picked up.” But Phillips was by no means a recluse. Friends were always welcome.

During the Q&A that followed the films, Weichun offered an observation on how and where potential filmmakers can find subject matter. “I feel there are stories everywhere,” he said. “You could walk up and down Kearny Ave. and find thousands of stories.”

Festival representative Clint Higgins commented, “There’s an overwhelming amount of work out there. We get hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions.”

And Weichun noted, “There’s about 12 years’ worth of footage being uploaded to YouTube every day.”

But, as you might be aware, not everything uploaded to YouTube could be considered art. YouTube has no creative “filter.”  Which is where organizations like the Black Maria come in, offering professional, juried evaluations of short films. Higgins noted that the Black Maria judges will spend months pre-screening and “whittling down” the number of entries. Their dedication obviously has paid off: In 2015, for the eighth consecutive year, the Black Maria Festival was awarded the N.J. State Council on the Arts “Citation of Excellence.”

The Festival is a project of the independent, nonprofit Thomas A. Edison Media Arts Consortium, based out of New Jersey City University’s Department of Media Arts.  Jane Steuerwald is the Festival’s executive director.

The current Festival tour has been made possible through a grant from the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs and Tourism.

Forthcoming screenings are scheduled at the North Bergen Library and the Greenville Library in Jersey City, with the program changing from site to site.

And sometime in the fall, there are plans to bring the fest back to Kearny.

The Black Maria also presents screenings up and down the East Coast, including one at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit

And if you’re an aspiring filmmaker seeking inspiration, remember Weichun’s observation: There are stories everywhere.

[Editor’s note: The original Black Maria movie studio was demolished in 1903 but today you can see a reproduction, built in 1954, at what is now known as the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange.] 

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