Field Trip #5: Ann Arbor Film Festival, USA

Owen Evans, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Edge Hill University, makes a trip to the longest running US film festival…

“Are you here for the film festival?” asks the barrista in Starbucks, a few doors down E. Liberty Street from the Michigan Theater, before admitting that she has never been. “What was your favourite film?”, she enquires. As Rick Cronn, one of the stalwarts of the festival for about 36 years, tells me: “the community is proud of the event even if they never attend. They want it to do well.”

This year, perhaps more than any other, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has been very much a presence in the city with films and video installations exhibited on fifty screens dotted around in shops, galleries and University of Michigan buildings. The reason? America’s oldest showcase of independent and experimental cinema is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Founded in 1963 by University of Michigan lecturer George Manupelli, the AAFF quickly became the principal hub for film artists who, as the first programme proudly declared, viewed ‘cinema as art’. Originally based around a small, yet dedicated, group of artists, supporters and volunteers, the event steadily grew, receiving ever more entries each year. This year, 183 films were selected from more than 2600 entries from 65 countries.

In 1980 the event moved to the renovated Michigan Theater, a beautiful 1920s movie palace complete with an organ in both of its screens. As this year’s opening ceremony underlined, the festival derives so much of its charm from the venue. There can be few other places in the world where avant-garde cinema is screened in such splendour. Russ Collins, Executive Director of the Michigan Theater and AAFF Board member, proudly tells me that 10,000 people will have passed the doors of this grand old building by the end of the festival, many of whom might not usually be expected to attend, let alone enjoy, such varied, and often challenging, films.

Current Executive Director of the AAFF, Donald Harrison, exudes a calmness that belies the rigours of orchestrating such a pivotal moment in the festival’s history. He presents programmes, leads discussions with filmmakers and meets the demands of the sponsors with an easy charm that suggests that the festival is in excellent hands. Indeed, Harrison, and his predecessor Christen McArdle, have been credited with steering the event through troubled waters, following a funding crisis in 2006 that threatened to sink it. One hopes that its future is now secure. Certainly, Harrison is excited by what lies ahead, telling me how much he relishes the way the festival can ‘engage audiences in ways that mainstream cinema cannot’. It seems both fitting and symbolic that the festival received the key to the city of Ann Arbor at its closing ceremony.

“Each programme contains unexpected gems, which makes the AAFF experience such a pleasure”

The event is divided up into several programmes a day, each one comprising a dizzying mix of genres and styles, of short and feature-length films in competition, interspersed with screenings of previous winners and audience favourites from the past, retrospective collections of work from this year’s jury members and key avant-garde filmmakers, who have helped cement the AAFF’s reputation as the oldest festival of its kind in the USA, indeed one of the longest-running film events in the world. In addition to the screenings, the festival schedules panel discussions, including one about film preservation featuring Martin Scorsese’s personal film archivist, Mark Toscano, and an oral history of the AAFF with contributions from Manupelli himself along with other key figures from the event’s past. On opening night, the festival’s founder led the packed auditorium in a moving rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. This event clearly means a great deal to all who have been here.

If there is a frustration, then it is in being forced to choose between such diverse, interesting film programmes over six days, with two or more events running in parallel. Often, it is best simply to be carried along with the throng in the magnificent lobby of the theatre. Each programme invariably contains unexpected gems, which makes the AAFF experience such a pleasure. The trick is very much to go in with an open mind, to be prepared for baffling images on screen, if indeed there are any images on screen!

Audiences here are generous and patient, and the odd heckler is frowned upon. Yet Juan Camilo González, an animator from Colombia, welcomes even the negative comments. “It is great that they feel able to be so honest”, he tells me. “As an artist, you need to have that feedback too”. The AAFF has a special place in his heart: his graduation film was selected in competition and raised his profile as a filmmaker overnight. Tianran Duan from Beijing avers that ‘it is very special for experimental filmmakers to be able to get together like this and talk about each other’s work’, and UK filmmaker Stephen Connelly, one of the AAFF jury members in 2011, admits to me that he has found inspiration for his latest project by being here.

The full listing of this year’s award winners can be found on the festival website. For what it is worth, this reviewer’s favourite films did not quite tally with the jury’s choices. I was especially captivated by Tomonari Nishiwara’s visual fugue Tokyo – Ebisu, Hope Tucker’s cleverly conceived The Sea [is still] Around Us, and Andrew Kötting’s This Our Still Life. My overall favourite, though, without any doubt, was Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s poignant The Strawberry Tree, a moving documentary of life in a Cuban fishing village that was destroyed, just weeks after filming, by Hurricane Ike. It was pleasing that Casanova subsequently won the Most Promising Filmmaker award.

In truth, however, the awards are merely an incidental part of the Ann Arbor experience. As Rick Cronn reinforces: “The festival is all about community, about a shared experience”. He is absolutely right! It is a privilege to be here…

Owen Evans

Donald Harrison, Executive Director of the AAFF, will be talking about the festival at Edge Hill University on 25 April at 5pm. All welcome! 

Posted on 19/04/2012 by thedoublenegative