To me, the Black Maria Film + Video Festival, coming to Richey Suncoast Theatre at 8 p.m. on Friday is Sundance in the Sun.
Whereas Utah's Sundance Film Festival shows feature-length films in several venues scattered across a usually cold, snowy Park City, the Black Maria (pronounced muh-RYE-uh) is six or more short films in the cozy confines of the recently restored Art Deco theater in downtown New Port Richey. And tickets are just $6 for all six films.
The 31-year-old worldwide competition/festival honors Thomas Edison's first movie studio, a boxcar-sized, tarpaper-covered contraption with a flip-up roof to capture sunlight as it rotated on its axis. It was built in 1893 in West Orange, N.J., at a cost of $637.67, which used to be the price of a pair of high fashion shoes but these days probably wouldn't buy the bow on the toe of one shoe.
The first movie ever made in Edison's studio was "Fred Ott's Sneeze," a super-short black and white film of a man sneezing. This was followed by movies of cock fighting, boxing matches, and, of course, scantily-clad women cavorting about provocatively.
Black Maria got its name from the infamous paddy wagons that came to haul off miscreants in and around West Orange. Residents dubbed Edison's boxy, black studio Black Maria because they thought it looked like three such wagons linked together.
In 1982, the Edison Media Arts Consortium out of New Jersey City University launched the festival, sending out a call for all independent filmmakers to submit an entry. It started out small, then grew to more than 700 entries from around the world — documentaries, comedies, animations, stop action, poetic, serious, whimsical, avant garde, all of them creative and intriguing.
From those, highly-qualified judges chose anywhere from 50 to 70 winners in several categories, then began offering showings at prestigious venues around the United States and Europe.
Each venue gets to choose the six or so short films for its show. Marchman Technical Education Center instructor Rob Meteja went to school at Jersey City, and he convinced the Black Maria organizers to come to Richey Suncoast three years ago.
The Black Maria organizers simply fell in love with Richey Suncoast Theatre, which managers Charlie and Marie Skelton and a host of volunteers and donors have transformed from a serviceable community theater into a sparkling, gorgeous, magnificent (am I gushing? okay, I'm gushing) theater.
That's why little bitty New Port Richey is one of 50 or so venues across the U.S. that include the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University and Newark Museum to host the world-famous Black Maria Film + Video Festival.
Trust me, it's a Big Deal. And are we lucky to snare it.
Mateja and one of the curators from the consortium pick six or seven short films from the top winners that they think Upper Suncoast audiences will like.
Right now they include:
Hip Priest, 27 minutes, a Jurors' Stellar Selection and a gritty narrative in black and white about a street-smart clergyman;
Places Other People Have Lived, a 6.75-minute mixed media animation incorporating old photos and recorded interviews of people who lived in a family home over a period of 25 years;
Dziad I Baba, a 9-minute, stop-motion, animated dark comedy based on an old Polish fable, with characters created from "found" objects like seedpods, animal skulls and crustacean claws;
No Wine Left Behind, a 14.5-minute documentary about a young Iraqi war veteran who returns home looking for a job (hint: it's upbeat, for a change);
Live Outside the Box, a 4.25-minute jazzy animation about modern life;
Penultimate, a 4-minute documentary about an artist who asks people to send him unwanted pens and then wonders what to do with the thousands he receives.
The neat thing about Black Maria is that if you aren't particularly in love with the film you're watching, you know there will be something coming up that you will love.