AAFF Wrap-Up: Dispatches from a Longtime Attendee
The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the longest running independent and experimental film festival in the United States and an event I have been delighted to attend annually since 1998. I wait all year for AAFF, which to me functions as a local holiday. I take the week off from work and fully immerse myself in the films, in my friends, and in getting to know new people. I was lucky enough to attend much of this year’s festival with a friend who was experiencing it for the first time, while I have been going since middle school. I attended every day of the festival and maximized my time in order to see as much as possible.
AAFF always begins with the Opening Night Reception, which took place on Tuesday night, and ushers in the start of the event with an appropriately celebratory atmosphere. Many are decked out in all their best and there is always food and drinks from local businesses, and great music being spun by a local DJ, and an atmosphere of anticipation. The overall feeling is that finally, the local holiday you have been waiting for all year has arrived!
The festival is made up of many screenings over the course of the week and, because of the overlapping screenings, it’s always impossible to see everything. However the Opening Night screening is made up of shorter films and gives the attendees a taste of the majority of what will be featured in the days to come. Some of my favorites of the evening included Life with Herman H. Rott by Chintis Lundgren, a cute animated story of a tidy cat and rowdy rat in a dysfunctional relationship, as well as a sobering documentary called Hotel 22, about a 24-hour bus line in California that ends up serving as a mobile sleeping spot for the area’s homeless population. The short film A Visit to Indiana by Curt McDowell gave us all a preview of the McDowell retrospective scheduled for Thursday.
On Wednesday, I saw News From Home, the first of three Chantal Akerman films being shown as part of a retrospective of her work. This retrospective, along with the retrospective of Curt McDowell, wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. News From Home was about an hour and a half of slow-moving, meditative, immersive footage of street scenes of New York City in 1976, with letters from Ackerman’s mother being read by the filmmaker over the footage. I especially enjoyed the sweetness of the letters and the great people watching as pedestrians, dressed in classic 70’s attire, strolled through the streets.
On Thursday, I caught the Curt McDowell retrospective. McDowell passed away in 1987, but his sister, the star of one of Curt’s longer films, Beaver Fever, was in attendance. Many of McDowell’s works were featured in earlier Ann Arbor Film Festivals. Most of the films were quite explicit, dealing with issues and representations of sex, the human body, and orientation. Some were simple, short, and funny, filled with dark humor and musical numbers. A few had never even been shown anywhere before, making their screenings at this year's AAFF their world premieres. Afterwards, the audience was able to ask questions of Curt’s sister, Melinda, who was gracious enough to introduce the event as well.
Late Thursday night is designated AAFF's Out Night, and there was a good selection of queer-oriented films. My favorites included Reluctantly Queer by Akosua Adoma Owusu, about his experiences as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, and his feelings of being out of place both here and in Ghana, and I Remember Nothing by Zia Anger, which told a haunting short story about a young queer softball player dealing with everyday life with the added complications of epilepsy.
To cap off an evening of great film, every night of AAFF is followed by an afterparty at a local bar, venue, or space. The Out Night afterparty, was held at the Aut Bar in Braun Court, where an endlessly entertaining conversation was fueled by the excellent nachos!
Though AAFF has a reputation for its plethora of shorter, more experimental films, I find myself drawn to the longer documentary works, which are often experimental as well. On Friday, I saw Chantal Akerman’s still and quiet D’Est, featuring captured footage of the Eastern Bloc nations around the time of the fall of Communism. This was Akerman’s effort to get footage of that way of life and aesthetic, before everything changed. However, the film, shipped all the way from France, had shrunken significantly and sections of the reel ended up burning in a few places, leading to the screening’s unfortunate cancellation halfway through the program. The first hour we were able to screen was absolutely worth it, and since it was non-narrative, I didn’t feel like I was missing too much.
Next I saw Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables, which was an experimental historical documentary of Illinois in chapters. Each chapter was like a mini experimental film about a different chapter in Illinois history, ranging from collages of newspaper clippings about local natural disasters to a reenactment of the murder of Black Panther Party Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton. I love this kind of film, which is experimental in nature, but also applies elements of education and history! This piece was proceeded by a short film from 1969 about the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, called Police Power and Freedom of Assembly: The Gregory March.
Later that night, I caught the screening of Animated Films in Competition, a total of fourteen films, all of which were very short. Among my favorites were Pearl Pistols by Kelly Gallagher, featuring speeches about civil rights, social justice, and revolution by legendary activist Queen Mother Moore with experimental revolutionary animation accompanying it, TVPSA by Brendt Rioux and Zena Grey, about the creeping commercialist effects of watching too much TV, and Dawït, by David Jansen, about a man raised by wolves who struggles with generational violence.
On Saturday, I caught two longer films again. The first was Fragment 53, by Carlo Gabriele Tribbioli. This was a meditation on the atrocities of war, focused on interviews of former generals from the Liberian Civil Wars. These men, now middle-aged (many were very young during the conflicts), reflected on their involvement in the war, the result of which was quite harrowing. The Host, by Miranda Pennell, was both a personal family narrative and a study of the activities of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) in Iran, with which Pennell’s family was involved.
On Sunday, the final day of AAFF, I woke with anticipation for the films of the day, but with some growing sadness, knowing that the end was near. Bright and early in the morning, I caught the Regional Films in Competition, which focused on films by local filmmakers featuring southeastern Michigan and northwestern Ohio. Among my favorites were How to Rust by Julia Yezbick, a medium-length film about Olayami Dabls and the African Bead Museum in Detroit and Toledo, My Father by Carson Parish, a sweet film that followed Parish’s father as he reminisced about long-gone movie palaces and theatres in Toledo. How interesting to watch that in the historic, beautifully restored Michigan Theater!
Later that day, I saw the third and final Chantal Akerman film of the festival, No Home Movie, which captured the last months of her Holocaust survivor mother’s life, and, sadly, the filmmaker’s life as well. The last film of my AAFF experience was another feature-length documentary called The Event by Sergei Loznitsa. This documentary covered an event I knew little about, in 1991, after Mikail Gorbachev's introduction of glastnost and perestroika, there was an attempted coup by Communist Party hardliners. This prompted a large popular reaction in the form of public protests and uprisings. Loznitsa's documentary was put together from archival footage of the days of these events, which really put the viewer in the moment. With all the revolutionary fervor all over the world these days, it was interesting to see this peaceful uprising, which captured the energy of the time, and ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union.
Overall, this year’s AAFF brought another full week of incredible films. The festival experience, different but familiar every year, is so incredibly joyful and essential for me. I always walk away with the same impression and the same thought: I can’t wait until next year!
Shoshannah Ruth Wechter is a librarian living in Ypsilanti and was not afraid to take off both shoes and sprint in order to be on time for the D'Est film screening.