We talk to Donald Harrison, Director of Ann Arbor Film Festival, about the merits of short films, and the future of cinema…
The Double Negative: How did you get involved with Ann Arbor Film Festival?
Donald Harrison: The irony is that I grew up in that area, the Detroit area, and Ann Arbor is about 45 minutes away. I went to school there … and I hadn’t heard about the festival. I never went until I moved out to the San Francisco Bay area. I started to get into filmmaking and I started to hear a lot about AAFF. I was very passionate about documentary film, and I became more interested in political, social-driven, non-conventional documentary in the Bay area, which is rich with people making the most interesting work – appropriating footage, very political, very personal work, a lot of documentary, a lot of experimental filmmakers. I’m very much a product of that scene. There was a great media arts centre called Film Arts Foundation, where I took more than 40 classes over six years. There was no degree, or curriculum – if you wanted to take a class you paid a little money and you took it, and so it was fantastic. I got to study with some of the best filmmakers in the country. And so that’s what really got me interested in media arts. In 2006 I wanted to move back to the Midwest; I was very much drawn to a place where there was more of a need [for experimental cinema]. I contacted the AAFF to say hey, ‘I’m a freelance filmmaker and media arts professional, would you like some help?’ I was willing to volunteer, and they were very happy! It was fortuitous at that time they were going through a censorship/funding controversy, they were very much in jeopardy of continuing; very understaffed, under-funded, had less than two full time employees. So I got to be a fairly big part of the 45th festival, after which point they were really out of money and needed to do something radical or it was going to close. That’s when I came on board and we put together a campaign, a sort of: how do we rebuild this? That’s what I’ve been working on for the past 5 years. It’s more than doubled in size, staffing wise, audience wise, funding wise, and so there was a lot of room for growth. When you find something that’s down and out, usually if it’s at the bottom there’s only room for growth. It also meant there was still life there; sometimes things have their cycle and it may be reach the bottom and then they’re done. I was the oldest person and I was 34; I wasn’t used to being the adult in the room! I was used to being the person with the most crazy ideas. At AAFF I would throw out a ridiculous idea and they would want to run with it! It was a lot of fun, very challenging. We weren’t sure whether we’d be able to save the festival, but we were also excited. It was affirming to see so many people not just locally but also nationally and overseas who were contributing money and were able to save it.
TDN: AAFF just celebrated an impressive milestone (it’s 50th birthday), in which time youve built your reputation on providing a platform for visionary filmmakers, including Gus Van Sant, George Lucas, Yoko Ono, Kenneth Anger and Barbara Hammer. How will your role adapt over the next 50 yrs?
DH: Hahaha! Can we even imagine what the world will be like in 50 years?! We’ll be joking about how we used to use computers! Even in five to 10 years it’s hard to imagine some of the changes that will take place, but I think I can safely say that well into the future we will continue to be excited about artists who are working creatively outside the commercial constraints. When work has to pass through the industry and be validated and vetted, funded and budgeted, and has this idea that it must make a return and go through those channels, you still get great art, but you end up with filtered products in a way. The thing I love about our festival is these things exist outside of the film industry, outside of commercial aspirations. They’re not rated. They’re these wild films that exist for the sake of art, for the sake of being creative and what’s possible, in the realm of cinema or even outside the realm of cinema. I think that will continue for the life of the festival, whether that’s 10, 20, 50, 100 years, infinite; we don’t know what forms they will take. This year at our 50th we showed a mixture of films from our history, 1963 all the way up through the decades, and interspersed those with programmes of contemporary work. You could come on a Thursday night at 9 o’clock and you could see Telcoystems, these guys are doing amazing abstract work, digital abstraction, surround sound; these aural visual experiences through light, sound, colour. Then that being interspersed with a film from the 60s doing something obviously different, but having a relationship. You see the connection between what artists were doing 50 years ago and what they’re doing now. Really just exploring the world and what’s possible through the lens.
TDN: Is it important to you that while AAFF continues to progress, you find ways to reflect its traditions?
DH: That’s a great question because the festival is so much about looking forward and what’s contemporary, how are artists interpreting the world with new technology and old techniques – really looking at this full spectrum. And so very much for us to be forward-looking, at the same time wanting to honour and preserve our past, it becomes a creative balance or contrast that we found exciting this year working on our 50th. We are starting to do more archiving; the University of Michigan has now taken on a lot of our paper and physical materials, and Owen Evans [Senior Lecturer in Film & Televison at Edge Hill University] spent many hours there, which is exciting, as you have a new archive and then a scholar coming in and utilising it and learning from it. To go back and look at the growth, pattern, trends and history is very important to us and to the scholarship of understanding cinema and film culture, and also beyond that, in terms of social-political leaders – there’s things you can see play out in a festival like Ann Arbor. We have a digital version of the archive through the Ann Arbor District Library, so you can go and look at the program guides and posters from the 60s, 70s, all the way up to now. Those archival efforts are really important and exciting as it also helps build more of a foundation for the organisation, and we would like as part of our next steps in distribution to get films out in the world. We do this travelling tour to more than 35 cities (including Ormskirk!), and we put out DVDs, so some of the award-winning favourite short films get to sell worldwide. We’re also really interested in looking at how we would build an archive of the 5000-plus films that have played AAFF over the years, and seeing which ones are not already archived or being preserved - there’s probably ones that don’t exist anymore and are lost forever. That’s a big project for us to do the research and will be a multi-year project.
TDN: That will be a great legacy.
DH: Well, AAFF has drawn a really unique cross-section of work; you’ll have some films that have gone on to festival success [Gus Van Sant showed his student films at AAFF]. I noticed the AND Festival had some of the features that we showed last year, and these are great films that made the circuit. Then there are the films that really only made their way to AAFF. That’s how AAFF ended up with filmmakers who only ever made one film; maybe it was a three minute film that was brilliant in its own right, and becomes the whole story for that person as a filmmaker. It doesn’t diminish the importance of their role within cinema and the fact that other people saw [their film], that’s exciting. It becomes these very fleeting moments to discover.
TDN: The film Lack of Evidence won the Ken Burns Best of Festival Award. Owen Evans was most struck by The Strawberry Tree when he wrote about his experience at AAFF for us. Was it a tough choice to pick a winner?
DH: That was a special screening - Simone Rapisarda Casanova [of The Strawberry Tree] came over to do a Q&A. We don’t pick the winners – we bring in three jurors that watch all the films and make the selections for the awards. I was glad to see that Hayoun Kwon [who made Lack of Evidence] got recognised for the award. Simone said in the Q&A: “Well I just wanted to have my little voice out in the world.” Its a way in which you see a film like that, The Strawberry Tree, about a little fishing village, and this filmmaker who sees himself not as this ego driven, ‘I’m going to come and tell the story to the world’, but more like, ‘I’m going to do this small, quiet film’, and yet it can resonate on a really wide level. It was one of the films that affected our audiences the most, and I hear from people a month after the festival that that was a really powerful film.
TDN: How did the link with Edge Hill come about?
DH: Owen Evans contacted us six years ago, as he was doing research on film festivals and got really fascinated by AAFF and its unique history. He wrote an enquiry and the director at the time invited him over, was very excited that he had that interest and wanted to write about AAFF, so he came for a few days back in 2008. We’ve been in touch since I took over. He’s been working to get our travelling tour to come over here, and when he transferred over to Edge Hill as a lecturer, he transferred that interest over and that relationship that he’d built. He also came over to AAFF for the whole week. It was great to have him there for the whole experience, meeting filmmakers from around the world, artists mainly working in short film. Having an experience that is going to be pretty unique as he goes to more festivals in Europe and England and the US; he’s not going to see many festivals with those qualities.
TDN: Your touring talk is entitled The Next New. Can you tell us a little about what that means?
DH: For me the idea of The Next New is like an existential question, which is about that relationship between commercial cinema, and artists who are working creatively. And so within commercial cinema you have to always come up with ‘new’, there will be a ‘new’ no matter what, because you have to. You are always having to sell the next film, next project, next brand. When you’re working in arts, you’re also exploring what’s new but not in the same way. It’s not the same push for something to always outdo itself or be the new hot thing. You could go back to actually something that’s not pop, that had it 5 years ago when Napster was the big thing, and working with technologies that have fallen out of favour. For me it was very much a question that we talk about as an organisation that is committed to working and supporting non-commercial arts, but in a commercial world. We do need funding, we do need sponsorship, and we actually really like working with sponsors. We aren’t anti-commercial but we just really want to make sure that there’s more emphasis on art that isn’t judged by its commercial viability. There’s not enough platforms for that, or enough celebrations for it within the world of film. I think when you’re talking gallery or fine arts, you have Tate, you have a system. As long as you’ve made it or been validated enough to get into an art gallery or fringe galleries. But in cinema, it is so dominated by Hollywood and the studio system and this model for an hour and a half film, that it really has very much constricted those artists that are doing incredible things with colour, sound, and light. We just want to make sure that’s being fed. The next new is very much a discussion of that balance between commerce and art.
TDN: AAFF received the key to the city of Ann Arbor at the close of this year’s festival. What was that like?!
DH: It was very playfully done. The mayor stages a mock-kidnapping, there was a giant puppet festival happening the same day. Someone made a giant mayor head – it’s weird! It’s part of our festival. It was unexpected and that’s something that’s carried on through the festival since day one. The founder George Manupelli saw AAFF as an art project. The Velvet Underground came with Andy Warhol in the 60s and did live cinema – there’s always been the unexpected, out-of-the-box-type events and happenings. It was fun. The key was a lot heavier than I expected, I was wearing it around my neck!
Experimental filmmaker? Submissions for the 51st AAFF will open July 1, 2012, submit here
Image courtesy Edge Hill University