In 2002, not long after he’d begun teaching at BMCC, Philip Weisman attended a screening at the New York Film Festival. That’s where he first met John Columbus, the founder and director of the Black Maria Video + Film Festival, which exhibits and promotes the work of independent film, and videomakers.
A filmmaker himself, Weisman had submitted some of his own films to the festival over the years, and in the mid-80s he received a jury citation for one of them.
“I’d just moved to New York, and the Black Maria Festival had just relocated to New Jersey,” Weisman recalls. “Knowing a bit about my work, John invited me to become a trustee member.”
While trustees of the festival normally serve for a 3-year term, Weisman served for six years and remains a senior board member to this day. Last month, on behalf of the Festival, he accepted the Citation of Excellence from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts—the highest honor the Council awards.
Sending outstanding films on the road
“This was the second year in a row that we were recognized by the Council,” says Weisman, an associate professor in BMCC’s Media Arts and Technology department. “Joining John Columbus to accept the award was an incredible honor.”
Founded in 1981, Black Maria selects 70 films each year from more than 600 entries and exhibits them at some 65 venues across the nation. The annual festival opens in February and runs for two weeks in and around Newark, Hoboken and Jersey City before going on the road. “Every possible cinematic genre is represented—animation, dramatic narrative, documentaries and experimental films,” Weisman says.
If Black Maria has a particular emphasis, it is on shorter works that reveal an inventive, insightful and uncommon spirit. “These are works that challenge the boundaries of conventional media,” Weisman says, adding that short films should not be thought of as a precursor to making feature films, “but as a complete entity unto themselves.”
While short films don’t receive the commercial exposure they merit, he says,“many of us in the field believe that this form, in its various genres, is as essential to American culture as Hollywood feature films full-length, well-funded documentaries.”
The fact that Black Maria is headquartered in New Jersey is not without historical significance, Weisman says. “Black Maria was what Thomas Edison called his film production studio—the first in this country—in West Orange.”
A Black Maria was a 19th-century slang term for a police paddy wagon, used to cart prisoners off to jail. “Black Marias were dark, cramped and uncomfortable—and apparently, so was Edison’s studio,” Weisman says. The Black Maria Video + Film Festival is the primary program of the non-profit Thomas Edison Media Arts.
“The mission of the Black Maria Festival has always been to provide talented film, and video makers with an avenue for presentation,” says Weisman. “By the same token, the Citation of Excellence from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts gives a critical measure of visibility to our organization.” At a time when funding for the arts is imperiled, “it is more important than ever to support organizations like Black Maria.”