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West Orange Resident has Long Career in Short Subjects

Filmmaker, Black Maria Film Festival founder, director rewinds the reel

Longtime West Orange resident John Columbus has spent much of his adult life in shorts — short subjects, that is — independent films and videos that say what they have to say in under a half an hour. Columbus grew up in Hasbrouck Heights and has lived and taught art and media in New England, New York and Pennsylvania, but his is a West Orange story.

Columbus will bring the seventh annual "You Be the Judge" into the New Jersey Arts Incubator at the Essex Green Plaza Sunday at 2 p.m. Hosted by the West Orange Film Society and its co-director Ken Mandel (who first suggested the idea), film lovers from all over New Jersey and the metro area will view an afternoon of short films submitted to Columbus' world renowned Black Maria Film Festival. The festival is an international juried competition and award tour.

The "Audience Selection" will become part of the 2011 repertoire of approximately 50-60 films from which Columbus will custom design film programs to be shown nation and worldwide.

We caught up with Columbus earlier this fall, after his return from presenting 30 animated short features during a weeklong festival in historic Potsdam, Poland.

Q. John, what was the week in Poland like?

A. It was an amazing experience, the entire city was involved. There were film students, college students, film makers, film curators from all over the world — Australia, Russia, New Zealand. I got to catch up with famed American animators George Griffin and Ron Diamond; I first met them while I was getting my Masters of Fine Arts in film at Columbia University in 1975.

Q. You travel the world to introduce the film programs that you present each year. Why is yours is a West Orange story?

A. At age 13, I visited the Edison site — now the Thomas A. Edison Historic Park in West Orange — with the cub scouts. Edison founded his film company in 1893 and its Black Maria was the world's first film studio. They only made shorts and they were very innovative both creatively and technically.

After touring the Black Maria,  I cajoled, begged really, my parents to get me a movie camera.

I later earned my Bachelor in Fine Arts from Hartford School of Art and taught art many places, including at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I worked in scenic design and was the head of media at a New York museum and elsewhere. I was also making films, including a poetic one about the children of migrant workers done when I was teaching at Stockton Stage College. I started a film festival there and co-founded the Atlantic Film Society.

About 30 years ago, my family and I settled in West Orange; my sister-in-law lived here. We found a fixer-upper and made it work. Then a light bulb went off in my head. I approached the Edison people and proposed the Black Maria Film Festival to honor and promote innovative short features.

Q. What happened next?

A. The then head at Edison arranged for the Charles Edison Fund to give us the seed money — $3,000 — I think I paid myself $100. I used my contacts in the museum world — The Montclair Art Museum, the Newark Museum — and along with the Edison site, that was our first festival. 

In those days, at other film festivals, shorts were always the side bar to what was considered the main event — the feature films. So, my concept was completely new. Our next big break was a series of nights in and near Ft. Myers, Fla., at the Edison-Ford Winter Estates. One night was for families, another was edgier. Soon we were showing in Boston, the National Gallery in D.C., the Museum of Modern Art and it grew from there.

Q. You have directed the Black Maria Film Festival and kept it going for 30 years. Why the devotion to short features?

A. In all other arts, short form works — poems or wall size paintings and etchings are appreciated and valued. There is a varied and vital world of independent shorts out there that richly deserve attention.

For more information about "You Be The Judge," click .

Lisa Suss November 20, 2010 at 09:26 PM
"You Be The Judge" is so much fun! And we all get to vote and choose the actual Black Maria shorts. Very cool.

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