There is a special skill in telling a story with brevity. Consider how the process of creating a short story, poem, or haiku is different from writing a novel. It’s the same with making a short versus a feature film. Not all filmmakers have the resources to make a sprawling tale, such as the films Steven Spielberg or James Cameron have directed, or multi-part epics, such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy.
Interestingly, many filmmakers don’t have any desire to attempt a saga; they are just as happy to tell a story in 15 or 20 minutes, even three minutes or less. For John Columbus, filmmaker, cinephile, festival organizer, and longtime educator in film studies, the short film is just as important to our cultural experience as the feature film.
“Short films are just as legitimate as features, but they are underplayed and underappreciated,” Columbus says.
That’s why he founded the Black Maria Film Festival (BMFF) more than 30 years ago and continues to direct the festival, which will makes its only central New Jersey stop on Saturday, February 25, with screenings at 4 and 7:30 p.m., at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton.
Taking its name from what is said to be the world’s first motion picture studio, built by Thomas Edison in 1893 and pronounced “black muh-RYE-uh,” the BMFF operates as an independent non-profit organization. The festival is the primary endeavor of Thomas Edison Media Arts.
BMFF has won acclaim for promoting independent filmmaking by exhibiting works by both veteran and emerging film and video makers. The festival’s annual juried competition results in 40 to 60 works for its annual tour, which has grown nationally and is now a feeder festival for the Academy Awards. The tour visits some 65 diverse institutions in more than 20 states and kicks off with its premiere each season at New Jersey City University, in Jersey City.
The tour has made stops at such institutions as the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the New York Public Library, as well as the Rhode Island School of Design, the Savannah College of Art and Design, Princeton University, the University of Chicago, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
The audience at Grounds For Sculpture will see a variety of films specially curated for the venue by Columbus — selections that feature insightful, free spirited, humorous, experimental, even poetic works. For David Miller, executive director at Grounds For Sculpture, it’s an exciting first for the venue and a special event he hopes will return, perhaps even annually.
“This is a new addition to our roster of performing arts activities we have had here,” Miller says. “We tried something this year that was bold — our ‘Winter Wonders’ series of events and special programming — and it is working really well. We are building so many more reasons to come to Grounds For Sculpture in the cold weather months.” Miller says “Winter Wonders,” which is organized around themes for each month — December was the holidays, January, was “How do you stay warm?” — closes out February with the first Black Maria Film Festival
The films run the gamut in subject matter. “Hip Priest,” a black and white film set and shot in Brooklyn by Gregg de Domenico, was inspired by an iconic photo taken in New York by photographer Paul McDonough, sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s. It shows a priest whose sunglasses, Trilby hat, and cigarette give him a kind of movie star-hipster look.
A perfect fit for the Grounds For Sculpture venue is “Installation,” in which Stanford University MFA students and filmmakers Paul Donatelli, Laura Green, and Sara Mott document the construction of sculptor Richard Serra’s huge labyrinthine installation, “Sculpture Sequence,” at Stanford’s Cantor Center for the Visual Arts. “This is a really interesting collaboration between fine artists and blue collar guys,” Columbus says. “You see these roustabouts lowering these giant pieces of steel, very artfully and carefully.”
Perhaps the film that is the most “of the moment” is “We’re Part of the City, Occupy Wall Street 4th Movement,” by Brooklyn-based filmmakers Stanzi Vaubel and Lucas Segall.
“A Declaration of Interdependence,” a four-and-a-half minute piece by Tiffany Shlain of Mill Valley, California, also conjures the “Occupy” events. Shlain’s other short, “Yelp (with Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’),” injects a potent dose of humor into the global technology craze and is narrated by Peter Coyote.
One of the most moving films is “No Wine Left Behind,” by Kevin Gordon of San Francisco. The less-than-15-minute documentary tells the story of a young Iraqi war veteran, Josh Lain, who returns home to California looking for a job. He lands a lowly position at a winery where he learns the business and art of turning grapes into wine, then goes on to launch his own winery, hiring unemployed vets for his staff.
“You hear so much about vets, shell shock, unemployment, and other problems, but this is a wonderful, very uplifting film,” Columbus says. “(Josh Lain) is such a positive, can-do guy. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, started by packing boxes of wine, and then decided he could learn how to bottle wine for himself. So, he bought land and began hiring vets who couldn’t find jobs. It’s the true, ideal American story.”
A resident of West Orange, Columbus grew up in Hasbrouck Heights, where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was a homemaker. Both parents were free spirits who would sometimes drive the family to the shore to go fishing in the middle of the night.
“My parents were romantics, and if it wasn’t a trip to the shore, it was a trip to the drive-in movies,” he says. “I would go in my pajamas and fall asleep in the back seat. I remember seeing ‘The Red Shoes’ at the drive-in. There were also wonderful theaters in Hackensack. We would get there at noon and get out at 6 p.m, after seeing shorts, a newsreel, a travelogue, animation, and then the feature film last. I always like shorts the most.”
As a youth, Columbus visited Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Film Studio in West Orange. Shortly thereafter, he acquired an 8mm movie camera and started experimenting on his own.
In 1969 he earned a BFA, cum laude, with a major in graphic design, at Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford, which was where he started making films. He created two short works, which were exhibited at the Ann Arbor and Chicago film festivals. He then studied at the film division of Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts, where he collaborated on two additional films.
After earning his MFA in film directing in 1975, and completing several Ph.D. credits in film studies at Columbia, he joined the arts faculty at Stockton State College in Pomona (now Richard Stockton College). There Columbus became the founding vice president of the Atlantic Film Society and started an annual spring film festival. Columbus also completed two short films that aired on New Jersey Public Television.
He launched BMFF in 1980, and the following year he became an adjunct faculty member at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, subsequently completing two more films. He retired from teaching a few years ago and has made the BMFF his priority.
He and his wife, Ellen, the head librarian at the South Orange Public Library, as well as a film enthusiast, have been married for more than 40 years. The couple has two grown daughters, Erin, who lives in Brooklyn, and is an administrator for the national headquarters of CancerCare in Manhattan; and Gillian, who lives in South Orange and is an environmental specialist with the Quantum Management Group, an environmental consulting firm in Clifton.
Naming such influences as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, Columbus is still a filmmaker. His 2002 16mm film, “Corona,” has exhibited in many festivals, as well as at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. It takes a surreal look back at his childhood stomping grounds of Hasbrouck Heights, originally named Corona.
“Film is the greatest art form because it combines all the other arts,” Columbus says. “It’s complex. You can do things in film you can’t do in other media. For example, in film you can manipulate time. I also have always loved dreams, and the closest thing to dreams is film.”
Black Maria Film Festival, Grounds For Sculpture, Seward Johnson Center for the Arts, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Saturday, February 25, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Two screenings with selections of short films curated by John Columbus, a founder of the festival. Members: $5; non-members, $15; park admission after 3:30 p.m. is included with your ticket price. 609-586-0616, www.groundsforsculpture.org, or www.blackmariafilmfestival.org.