Black Maria Film Festival: Panta rhei


The Black Maria Film Festival tour makes a stop in Rhode Island

Short films provide opportunities for independent filmmakers to explore the visual medium outside of the traditional constraints of narrative and documentary, sometimes becoming moving paintings. This more experimental and avant garde aspect of film dominated the two-hour Black Maria Film Festival tour stop at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence on Feb. 24, 2014, presented by its founding executive director John Columbus.

The Black Maria Film Festival presents a different selection of its winners at each stop during its five-month tour. Sponsored by the Thomas A. Edison Media Arts Consortium at New Jersey City University, the festival is named for the world’s first film studio that, according to Edison, was covered in tar paper to prevent reflections and to some resembled a “black maria” hearse in appearance. (“Maria” is pronounced with a long “i” as the accented syllable: “muh-RYE-ah.”) Now in its 33rd year, the festival has been visiting RISD for at least 30 of those years, Columbus said in his introductory remarks. According to the festival’s website, this year RISD is the 8th stop on the tour and the 2nd outside of New Jersey. Of the 10 films shown ranging from 2 to 17 minutes, four were listed on the program as made by RISD graduates or students.


The festival receives between 350 and 400 entries each year, Columbus said, and through a process of public and private pre-screenings selects 150 to be submitted to a three-member jury. There are three categories of awards given by the jury: “Stellar Awards” that qualify as Academy Award (Oscar) nominations and are limited to one in each of the four categories Documentary, Animation, Narrative, and Experimental, “Jury’s Choice” that is equivalent to first prize, and “Jury’s Citation” that is equivalent to second prize. There are also two categories of non-jury awards: “Director’s Choice” that is equivalent to third prize and “Audience Choice” that is equivalent to honorable mention.

Water Color (Fall Creek), the Stellar Award winner in the Experimental category, by Vincent Grenier, consisted almost entirely of 12 minutes of carefully edited sound and images from a fixed camera pointed at a body of water, showing it changing under different conditions of time and season with shimmering reflections and patterns of ripples, what might result if Monet and Heraclitus collaborated with a movie camera.

The Last Time, a Director’s Choice and Audience Choice winner, by Candy Kugel, a RISD alumna active in professional animation since the 1970s and who has been described as “the reigning first lady of indie-studio animation,” was a 5-minute animated narrative tribute to Vincent Cafarelli, her mentor and colleague at Buzzco Associates, who died suddenly in 2011.


The Apothecary, a Jury’s Choice by Helen Hood Scheer, the longest film shown, was a 17-minute documentary about the only druggist in a 4,000 square mile region of rural Colorado who provides the closest thing to medical care within a 2-hour drive while living in circumstances of personal tragedy.


Virtuos Virtuell, a Jury’s Citation by Thomas Stellmach, was a unique and strangely captivating 8-minute handmade animation using dancing ink blots set to the overture of Der Alchymist by 19th Century composer Louis Spohr.


Through the Tubes, a Jury’s Choice by now-alumna Sierra Urich made during her senior year at RISD, was a 12-minute surrealist film shot with a Lensbaby to provide blur and distortion focus effects to suggest disorientation as an elderly woman on oxygen goes through ordinary daily tasks.

Strange Wonderful, a Jury’s Choice by RISD graduate Stephani Swart, was a 5-minute animated film about snail-like “Little Monster” trying to fit in among human children.


Yield, a Director’s Choice by RISD alumnus Caleb Wood, the shortest film shown, was a 2-minute avant garde montage of photographs of roadkill, often “reanimating” the dead animals in flipbook style.


Also shown were Inquire Within, a Jury’s Choice by Jay Rosenblatt; Watching Waiting, a Jury’s Choice by Wesley Strick; and Solaristics, a Director’s Choice by Peter Rose.

The Black Maria Film Festival: