Innovation & Education: "Welcome to Commie High" documents the history and influence of Ann Arbor's legendary school

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Welcome to Commie High

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing teachers and administrators to improvise ways to serve their pupils academically, mostly through virtual learning and online academies. Other imaginative approaches will be introduced as the pandemic drags on, spotlighting the skills of educators and showing how resourceful they can be when not stuck on a treadmill of prepping kids for standardized tests.

But one school in Ann Arbor has been using innovative educational approaches for nearly 50 years.

Ann Arbor's Community High School started in 1972 with a "school without walls" concept. A handful of other schools across the country adopted similar approaches, where structured curricula were abandoned in favor of flexible programs that best fit individual students' needs, with a focus on real-world education.

But the Community model never expanded deeply into the mainstream. 

Until now. (Kinda.)

A heavily modified variation of Community's wall-free education approach is being tested during the coronavirus pandemic, and it seems inevitable that some of these outside-the-box ideas will be incorporated into schools once this over and society deals with our new normal.

Welcome to Commie Higha new documentary by Ypsilanti-based filmmaker Donald Harrison, shows the school's unique approach to education, from its hippie-era beginnings to its place in the modern landscape, talking to students and teachers from the past and present about what makes Community special -- and effective.

The movie was to premiere as part of the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). But with the entire event being moved to a livestream on Vimeo due to the lockdown, Harrison and the AAFF are are offering Welcome to Commie High as fundraising rental. The movie will be available to rent for $9.99 from 10 am, March 30 to 10 am, April 1; each rental will be active for 48 hours. The rental fee will be split two ways: 50 percent of the proceeds will go to the AAFF to help offset costs and the rest will be put toward the distribution of the documentary. Click here to pre-order the rental.

Harrison answered some questions via email about Welcome to Commie High.

Ann Arbor Film Festival moves online, includes works by Ann Arbor- and Michigan-based filmmakers

FILM & VIDEO

On March 13 when the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) canceled all in-person events for its 58th edition due to the coronavirus, the organization stated that it's "committed to finding an alternative means to present the 58th AAFF online, which honors the filmmakers’ rights and integrity and fulfills the mission of the festival."

With remarkable speed, the AAFF has done just that: starting at 4 pm on Tuesday, March 24, the festival will be streamed at vimeo.com/annarborfilmfestival. The films won't be archived; the fest is being run the same way it would be in the flesh, with each film or program being screened on a certain day and time (albeit at different times from the calendar published when AAFF was to be its usual in-person event). The difference is there's no ticket fee for the viewing the virtual version of the festival; all films will be streamed for free, as will the various moderated Q&As with the filmmakers following certain screenings.

Click here to see the full streaming schedule for the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Welcome to Commie High, the documentary about Ann Arbor's Community High School, is the one film previously scheduled for the festival that will cost money to watch. The film movie will be available to rent for $9.99 from 10 am, March 30 to 10 am, April 1; each rental will be active for 48 hours. The rental fee will be split two ways: 50 percent of the proceeds will go to the AAFF to help offset costs and the rest will be put toward the distribution of the documentary. Click here to pre-order the rental. (Check back to read our interview with Commie High filmmaker Donald Harrison.)

While Welcome to Commie High is the highest-profile film in the fest with local connections, numerous short entries by Ann Arbor- and Michigan-based moviemakers are part of the festival. Below is a list of those films, their screening days and times, and AAFF's descriptions for each work:

Ann Arbor Film Festival moves all its screenings online to Vimeo

FILM & VIDEO

Ann Arbor Film Festival 2020 livestream logo

The Ann Arbor Film Festival announced that it is proceeding online this year:

The 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) will be presented as a free live-streamed six-day event March 24-March 29, 2020! We made the decision to suspend all in-person events for the 58th AAFF due to growing health concerns surrounding COVID-19, and instead present short and feature films in competition entirely online.

The online event is designed to be accessible for everyone and will be streamed through Vimeo. Moderated live Q&As with filmmakers will be streamed following the film screenings in order to continue discourse between filmmakers and our audience. Jurors will fulfill their commitment of reviewing programmed films in competition in order to confer the $22,500 in awards.

Each program is different. Films are not rated. All programs are intended for mature audiences, unless otherwise noted. Some films have imagery of a stroboscopic nature.

Check out the entire livestream schedule here.

Nothing IFFY about the newly announced Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW INTERVIEW

IFFY logo

Washtenaw County is renowned for its cinema events, from the predominant Ann Arbor Film Festival (March) and the Sundance/Cannes/etc.-affiliated Cinetopia (May) to the new Nevertheless (July), which focuses on female-identifying filmmakers, and all the traveling fests and U-M-sponsored foreign-film series.

But all of those events happen in Ann Arbor, primarily at the Michigan Theater.

Filmmaker Donald Harrison, who runs 7 Cylinders Studio, and multimedia artist Martin Thoburn want to make another part of Washtenaw Country an important destination for cinephiles, so they've launched the annual Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY).

"I've imagined a film festival happening in Ypsilanti for almost a decade," Harrison said via email, "but venue options have been limited. Last year Martin expressed interest in starting it with me -- it was especially appealing that the festival's identity would be IFFY -- so we set things in motion."

AADL 2019 STAFF PICKS: BOOKS, MUSIC, MOVIES & MORE

2019 Staff Picks

AADL 2019 STAFF PICKS: BOOKS, MUSIC, MOVIES & MORE

Below you will see that 41 Ann Arbor District Library employees composed 18,000 words listing arts and culture that made an impact on their lives in this calendar year. While movies, books, and music released in 2019 figured prominently among our picks, we never limit our selections to material from the past year. Not all timeless art can be discovered and absorbed in a mere 365 days, so we're like Master P: no limits.

Happy Halaloween: Exploring horror films in the Islamic world

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW

Halaloween 2019

Marlon Brando's Perfecto leather. James Dean's brooding teenage rebellion. Marilyn Monroe's ethereal, platinum blonde beauty.

It's a testament to the power of Hollywood that so few words can summon such vivid 20th-century American iconography. 

Even no-frills popcorn fare like The Day After Tomorrow can have "significant impact" on public awareness according to a 2004 Yale study on Climate Change Risk Perception.

But if these pop-culture dreamscapes can embed in the cultures in which they were conceived, what happens when that product is consumed in foreign cultures, especially those with a different majority religion?

Two events at the University of Michigan will explore this question: Dr. Alireza Doostdar, assistant professor of Islamic studies and the anthropology of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, will discuss Hollywood Horror in Iran on Tuesday, September 24, at 4 pm in Room 555 of Weiser Hall and U-M's Global Islamic Studies Center and The Michigan Theatre will present Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest every Tuesday at 9 pm throughout October. Each film is presented free to the public with English subtitles.

Pulp Bits: A Roundup of Washtenaw County Arts & Culture Stories, Songs & Videos

Dani Darling and her band outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti

Singer-songwriter Dani Darling (far right) with her band Joel Harris, Noor Us-Sabah, and CA Jones outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti. Darling's latest release is the Nocturne EP. Photo by Kyla McGrath via Facebook.com/pg/danidarlingmusic.

A round-up of arts and culture stories featuring people, places, and things in Washtenaw County, whether they're just passing through or Townies for life. Coverage includes music, visual art, film & video, theater & dance, written word, and Pulp life (food, fairs, and more). If you're reading this in the future and a story link is dead, look up the URL on web.archive.org; we've cached every post there.

This is the vacation-catch-up edition of Pulp Bits, so we have links going back to late June -- a true smorgasbord of culture news. Feast!

Distilling the Process: Ann Arbor creatives R.J. Fox and Heidi Philipsen are working to bring "Love & Vodka" to the big screen

Love and Vodka

This story was originally published on April 25, 2019.

R.J. Fox doesn’t wait around for something to happen -- the Ann Arbor author goes out and creates his own opportunities.

Filmmaker Heidi Philipsen likewise makes things happen for herself. So perhaps it is kismet that these two talented and hardworking artists found each other and are making art together as they turn Fox’s book Love & Vodka into an independent film. 

Fox knew he wanted to be involved in filmmaking since he was in high school, and he currently teaches English and video production at Huron High School. “Everyone tells you that the odds are stacked against you, that it’s like making it to the NBA … so you have to have a mindset that you will find a way and get your work in the right hands of someone who wants to make your movie.”

Fox knew he found that person when he met Philipsen.

Starring Ron Asheton: A rundown of The Stooges' ax maniac acting in horror films

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

Ron Asheton

Destroy All Monsters: Rocker Ron Asheton (left) meets horror-movie actor Ron Asheton in Mosquito (top right) and Wendigo (bottom right).

July 17 is Ron Asheton’s birthday. He died in 2009 at the age of 60, but not before he and the band he helped make famous had one last run when The Stooges reformed in 2003.

The Stooges arose from the rich musical compost of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area in the late 1960s and while the classic original lineup (Asheton on guitar, his brother Scott Asheton on drums, Dave Alexander on bass and Iggy Pop as frontman) only lasted a few glorious, intense years, the racket they made proved durable. They were a quartet of teenage cavemen with four chords between them, amps set for aggression, gnawing at the deepest atavistic urges of the human animal. Like all geniuses, they were unappreciated in their day but went on to inspire generations of future primitives around the globe and made punk rock inevitable. 

After the Stooges, Ron Asheton enjoyed a long music career with bands such as Destroy All Monsters, New Race, and Dark Carnival. He passed away from a heart attack shortly after a high-profile Stooges reunion. The man’s legacy in the annals of rock history is secure, legitimized by no less an “authority” as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but that isn’t the reason we’re here. 

What is discussed less about Asheton is his acting career, which found him playing both major and minor roles in five low-budget, locally sourced horror films shot in Michigan between 1988 and 1995. From all reports a genuine fan of the genre, Asheton holds his own in these cheap, gory, and frankly ridiculous films, sometimes emerging as the most believable actor on the screen (the competition is hardly stiff). He’s unrecognizable as a former rock guitar mangler, opting instead for a somewhat schlubby onscreen persona, sometimes as comic relief or second banana to a more traditional lead. 

So in honor of Asheton’s birthday, let’s review his filmography:

Nevertheless Film Festival persists to show that female-identifying moviemakers are making great cinema

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Nevertheless Film Festival director Meredith Finch

Meredith Finch, founder and director of the Nevertheless Film Festival.

The film industry does not celebrate women as it should.

Only five women have ever been nominated for an Academy Award for directing. Less than a quarter of the top 100 grossing films have sole female protagonists. And way too many movies still don’t pass the Bechdel test.

But as a balm for these grim figures, we have the Nevertheless Film Festival, which runs July 11-14 at the Michigan Theater and is named after the feminist rallying cry “nevertheless, she persisted."

“Statistics are widely available about the lack of representation in the entertainment industry,” says festival director and U-M grad Meredith Finch. “But what I think is even more important than talking about the disparity in opportunities between men and women in Hollywood is saying, 'Women are out here making incredible work all the time.'”