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The joy of shorts
The Black Maria Film & Video Festival celebrates the 'other' movies
Images from Black Maria shorts

For all his business acumen and professional savvy, Black Maria Film & Video Festival founder John Columbus thinks like an artist.

“Films are like dreams,” he says. I kind of felt that with films, we could re–create dreams. We can’t make films like people can make music with their voices, for instance — we can’t project films out of our eyes.”

That’s where the festival’s name comes from. The Black Maria was Thomas Edison’s primitive movie studio, built on the grounds of his New Jersey home in 1893.

It was, in effect, the birthplace of films–as–dreams. “We needed the technology that Edison created,” Columbus says.
Now in its 29th year, Columbus’ Black Maria festival visits the Trustees Theater — it’s an annual rite of spring in Savannah — Friday, March 5.

(It’s pronounced the way Ms. Carey pronounces her first name.)

It’s a collection of shorts, created by filmmakers from all over the world. Every year, Columbus and his hand–picked jury comb through 70 submissions, and take their favorites on tour to more than 80 American cities.

“My position is, short films are every bit as legitimate as feature–length films,” Columbus says. “The difference is, a short film is the equivalent of a poem – and a feature–length film is the equivalent of a novel.”

A life–long movie buff who began making his own experimental shorts as a teenager, Columbus — who was born in Augusta, Ga., by the way — taught film for many years in the northeast (he’s lived in West Orange, near the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, since 1980).

He brainstormed the festival, from the first, as a tie–in to the memory of the man who invented moving pictures. “Only short films were made in Edison’s film studio — in the Black Maria — so there seemed to be a natural fit there.”

In 1981, the Edison Foundation provided the $3,000 needed to jump–start the event — in West Orange only, at first. Since then, it’s shown a little more profit every year, and attracted jurors from every professional corner of the movie business.

“It got bigger than I ever expected it to get,” Columbus explains. “We’re still on a very tight, really modest budget, but we muddle through.”

From the start, he adds, “I wanted to make the shorts the main point, because the filmmakers are under–served. And there’s lots of them.”

Understanding the history of short films, adds Columbus, is essential to seeing motion pictures’ big picture.

“There is a great, long tradition of experimental short films, ever since the first few years,” he says. “The French filmmakers, the early French ‘new wave,’ they started out making short films. Yes, they went on to making features, but that tradition continued — right up to my own experience and to my studying at Columbia University.

“It’s legitimate. And the trouble is, it doesn’t have the cache of features films. It doesn’t have the commercial backing, because you can’t make money on short films.”

True enough, but you can affect the world — and people’s dreams. And that’s why Black Maria continues. And flourishes.

Each program is tailor–made for the location. Savannah’s show, for example, will include a screening of The Shrimp, a short made by Atlanta filmmaker Keith Wilson, and shot in Chatham County waters.

Columbus loves The Shrimp. “It’s a wonderful film,” he enthuses. “It’s poetic. It’s a beautifully lyrical rendition of the life of a shrimp.

“It starts by cruising along against the Savannah River, along the marshes, then all of a sudden the camera dives underwater and we see the shrimp! It’s like close encounters of the shrimp kind.”

Black Maria Film & Video Festival

Where: Trutees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 8 p.m. Friday, March 5

Cost: $5 public, free with valid SCAD ID