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Small Films, Big Impact
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Some revolutionary and unusual films are coming to Savannah in not one, but two, film festivals.

The 25th Black Maria Film and Video Festival will be Friday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. at Trustees Theater. And the 2006 Joan & Murray Gefen Memorial Jewish Film Festival is Feb. 18-19, 23 and Feb. 25-26 at Trustees Theater.

The Black Maria Festival’s mission is to exhibit and reward cutting-edge works from independent film and video makers. A rigorous jurying process selects the 50 or so films and videos and in January, those films begin traveling to more than 70 institutions, with each stop being custom-tailored to the venue.

Michael Chaney, SCAD professor of film and television, has more than a passing interest in the Black Maria. In 1995, his own film, Rock of Ages, Putt With Me, was accepted into the festival.

“This year’s festival has all kinds of fun stuff,” Chaney says. “There will be three films, two animation and one documentary, made by SCAD students.”

The documentary Band of Sisters was created by SCAD grad Joel Fendelman. The animation shorts are Seed, a claymation short by SCAD animation student Bennett Cain, and 30 Ways to Walk by SCAD animation student Jeff Gill.

Viewers will see Emily Hubley’s animated short, Octave, a lively and colorful offering. Flag Day is a documentary by Kristy Higby that depicts a man who has created a garden of flags that represent the soldiers lost in Iraq.

In At Hand, Andrew Busti has burnished and liquefied the emulsion of the film to create unforgettable images. Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green takes a look at the murder of a black man by the Hell’s Angels at the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

For sheer fun, there’s Here by Fred Worden. “It’s really crazy,” Chaney says. “He takes clips from other movies to make a film that feels exciting and fun.”

Although the subject matter and techniques used vary, the films all have one thing in common: They’re short.

“The longest film we have is 12 minutes,” Chaney says. “Most run 7 to 8 minutes. If you don’t like one, just wait 5 minutes and there’ll be another one.”

SCAD has hosted the festival since 1999. Tickets to the festival are $5 for the general public, and free for SCAD students, staff and faculty with SCAD ID.

The festival takes its name from an invention by Thomas Edison. In 1893 Edison created the world’s first known motion picture studio, an odd-looking structure with a hinged roof that rotated on a circular wooden track. He called it “the Black Maria,” pronounced “Mariah.”

The Black Maria is an important festival, because it is recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an Academy Award qualifying festival for short films.

The term “groundbreaking” has been used so often to describe new films, it’s lost much of its impact. But the film that opens the Jewish Film Festival, the Israeli film, Ushpizin, truly has broken new ground.

“It’s the very first time that the Orthodox community has been involved in working on a feature film,” says festival organizer Lynn Levine says. “The film industry in Israel is very strong, but it is mostly a secular industry.”

The star of the film, Shuli Rand, was a secular film actor. “He rediscovered his religious roots and became an Orthodox Jew,” Levine says. “He had gotten away from the industry.”

When approached about doing the film, Rand agreed, but only after two conditions were met. One was that his real-life wife, Michal Bat-Sehva, portray his movie wife, the other was that the film not be screened on the Jewish sabbath.

In the film, Moshe and Malli are a poor, childless couple who pray on the Sukkot holiday for a miracle. The film is in Hebrew with English subtitles, but its theme is universal. “It’s something we felt could appeal not only to our community, from Reform to Orthodox Jews, but to the community at large,” Levine says.

On Sunday, Feb. 19 at 2:30 p.m. at Trustees Theater, A Cantor’s Tale will be presented. This documentary follows Cantor Jacob “Jackie” Mendelson on a voyage that explores the American roots of hazzanut, Jewish liturgical music.

The Senior’s Matinee on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 1:30 p.m. at the Jewish Educational Alliance will feature To Be Or Not To Be, a 1942 comedy with Jack Benny. On Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8:30 p.m. at Trustees Theater, King of the Corner, a comedy-drama by Peter Riegert, will be screened.

Watermarks, a documentary, will be presented with bagels and coffee on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 11 a.m. at the JEA. It tells the story of the Jewish sports club and its champion women swimmers.

This is the third year the festival has been presented. It began after Levine approached the JEA about developing an annual Jewish film festival.

“I grew up here, but lived in Washington, D.C., for a long time. There’s a tremendous Jewish film festival there. When I came back to Savannah four years ago, I wanted to see something like that started here,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed good movies and I decided to do something about it.”

Individual ticket prices are $8 for adults and $5 for students (with the exception of Watermarks, which costs $6 for adults, and To Be or Not to Be, which is free for seniors). However, the Full Festival Pass costs a mere $18.