Culture- ART FEATURE- Saved! New footage splices up festival

In the old days, film festivals offered the opportunity to view documentaries and short films that otherwise would not flicker across the big screen. But ever since Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins moved documentaries into the mainstream, experimental shorts have received ever-shorter shrift.

In fact, this year's Virginia Film Festival offers only one program of shorts, the Black Maria Film Festival (yep, a festival within a festival!), scheduled for the last slot of the last day at Vinegar Hill. Curated by Black Maria director and founder John Columbus, who will be on hand, these independent films range from non-narrative to animated to documentary, all falling under the festival rubric "Revelations."

Three of the most interesting works involve assemblages of found footage. Jay Rosenblatt's 18-minute King of the Jews (2000) and 3-minute Prayer (2002) combine snippets of home movies, Hollywood productions, newsreels, and educational filmstrips in an exploration of faith, fear, and the paradox of religious contribution to human suffering. In King of the Jews, Rosenblatt shifts from an amusing memoir of his shocking childhood discovery that Jesus was a Jew to a moving cinematic elegy addressing the irony of Jewish persecution by Christians. 

Rosenblatt's Prayer, created in response to 9/11, is subtler yet equally powerful. Accompanied by music of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, the film opens with footage of Muslims bowing in prayer then moves to close-ups of 1950s-era children, eyes shut and palms together. Rosenblatt strings together images capturing the physical movement of prayer until the last series of frames– which jar the viewer with the sudden realization that, rather than prayer, the clip shows a classic 1950s duck-and-cover rehearsal.

More enigmatic but stunningly beautiful is Bill Morrison's 11-minute How to Pray (2005), which the filmmaker crafted from decaying footage to accompany musician David Lang's rhythmic and mournful composition of the same name. 

Through the black-and-white film's scratches and chemical blotches, icebergs emerge as the camera bobs with the waves rolling beneath an unseen ship. The enormity of the white ice– sometimes smooth, sometimes jagged– becomes clear when an occasional bird flies through the frame. As the music builds, darkness and the film's own decomposition combine to obscure the icebergs, leaving the viewer filled with dread and awe until a few seconds of light-filled resolution.

So say "Hallelujah!" for the chance to see what's been saved on Sunday (and remember– size doesn't matter).

The Black Maria Film Festival program with director and founder John Columbus takes place at 4pm on October 28 at Vinegar Hill Theatre. Tickets: $6.  220 W. Market St. 977-4911.