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Black Maria Short Film Fest Marks 25 Years

The Sundance Institute isn't the only independent film organization that's turning 25 this year. The Black Maria Film & Video Festival is also celebrating its silver anniversary, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends. The Black Maria takes short, often experimental films on the road.

As Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports, the festival takes its name from the primitive studio Thomas Edison built on the grounds of his laboratory in 1892. Edison originally called it the "rotating photographic building." It was covered in black tar paper to keep out the rain, causing some performers to liken it to police paddy wagons, which were nicknamed Black Mariahs.

It was in the original Black Maria that Edison shot some of his first motion pictures. The films were short -- some just a few seconds -- with titles that tended to give away most of the plot, such as Fred Ott’s Sneeze and May Irwin Kiss.

John Columbus decided to name his festival the Black Maria in part because the works he was showing were all short. He founded it in 1981 with a few thousand dollars, putting it together by himself for the first four years. Now Columbus has a small jury and a staff of three to help him sort through almost 700 submissions. The jury chose about 30 films for this year’s festival; Columbus and his staff picked the other 28.

Unlike most film festivals, the Black Maria travels, bringing its films to audiences around the country and tailoring the program to each of its 70 or so venues. Screenings continue through May.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.