AAFF 2017 | Interview with Leslie Raymond, Executive Director
The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival gets underway Tuesday, March 21, and as artists and film lovers from around the globe prepare to descend upon the Michigan Theater for six days of mind-expanding cinema, Executive Director Leslie Raymond is on a mission to take the country's longest-running avant-garde and experimental film festival back to its all-inclusive roots.
Founded by George Manupelli in 1963, the AAFF has seen its share of shake-ups over the course of the past decade. From the AAFF v. State of Michigan lawsuit that resulted in part from the controversy that erupted over Crispin Glover's award-winning 2005 feature What Is It? to the departure of Program Director David Dinnell last year, Raymond no-doubt had her work cut out for her when she stepped into this pivotal role.
Fortunately for filmmakers and audiences alike, Raymond was no stranger to either the festival or Manupelli's original vision for it as a place where all voices and perspectives are celebrated. Twenty-five years ago, Raymond began her decades-long relationship with the AAFF as an intern under Program Director Vicki Honeyman, whose enduring 14-year run with the festival was longest anyone has served in such capacity other than the founder.
To take the reigns of a festival as celebrated and prestigious as the AAFF requires genuine dedication, and as anyone familiar with Raymond's impassioned 2009 blog post lamenting the "specialized, themed-programming" that had become a primary focus of the festival during that era, there was little question as to where her loyalties lied.
Flash forward eight years, and Raymond is now in the unique position of being able to turn those criticisms into concrete action. Raymond's deep respect for Manupelli's original vision is evident when listening to her speak about her late friend and the festival he conceived, and together with new Associate Director of Programs Katie McGowan, the executive director is on a mission to steer this ship back on course.
With Ann Arbor still recovering from the devastating windstorm dubbed the "largest combined statewide event in history" by Gov. Rick Snyder less than a week before the Opening Night Reception, Raymond was kind enough to take the time out from her hectic schedule to discuss these issues and more with Pulp.
Q: Would you tell us a bit about your background with the festival?
A: This is my fourth Festival as executive director, so the 52nd was my first. I've actually been connected to the festival for a long time. I was an intern 25 years ago when Vicki Honeyman was the director. I've worn so many different hats for the festival: I've shown a couple films in the festival, won a couple of awards, done installation art. At first, it was sort of during the time of the film festival at a local gallery, and then later I started to be invited to do things at the theater, and then I started inviting other artists to do installation work. A lot of storefront window things and after-party installations. I've also arranged programs and screenings, and other special projects, and then I was a screener looking at films back when Vicki was still the director and then eventually when I moved to Texas I was invited to be on the advisory board.
Q: How would you say your new role compares to your older roles?
A: I was an artist and then a teaching artist for many years, so I was never an arts administrator and I was never an executive director before. That is a very different set of glasses to look at things through, so there are a lot of things as an artist or an educator I may have raised an eyebrow at before. Now being the person on the other side, I do a lot of things that I probably would asked myself about when I was younger. I have a much larger understanding and appreciation for what it takes to launch a nonprofit organization. When I first started, Fiat had been a sponsor. I think they had even put a car in the lobby of the Michigan Theater, so one of the first things I was doing was trying to re-engage Fiat to see if they want to do that again. Just that idea of giving over part of the lobby for commercial purposes, as an artist, that's obscene in a lot of ways, but I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the need of economic support and how that can be integral and doesn't have to be an obscene thing. I grew up as a DIY punk-rock person so the idea of any kind of sponsorship or any kind of relations with the corporate world was offensive to me. Now that I see from a practical level what it takes here in the states to be able to have such a cool thing like the Ann Arbor Film Festival, I think I've grown up a little bit. In the earlier days, I probably would have called myself a sell-out, but now I'm more adult and more integrated with the ways of the world I guess.
Q: What are some of the challenges you faced this year with the artistic director leaving?
A: We now have Katie McGowan as our associate director of programs, and I would say that one of the things that was exciting to us from the beginning about her stepping forward to be considered in this role was the kind of work she had done with MOCAD. She grew up in Detroit and left for a while to live in California and Eastern Europe and eventually came back and worked at MOCAD and she said she was really surprised at the first function of they had that the whole audience was caucasian. She was just really surprised and she made it kind of a personal mission to help develop and evolve the audience for MOCAD and she had good success. She did things that opened up the program people from the community to be a part of exhibitions and things like that. That was the thing that resonated with what we really wanted to do, which was to help expand, open, and bring more variety, and have more voices involved, and there was a sense that the founding values of the festival were in line with that.
There's a lecture George Manupelli did for the Penny Stamps series. He called it "An Unauthorized History," and he talks about when he first started the film festival. He actually starts by talking about another filmmaker named Jonas Mekas, who was a film curator and he wrote about film, and he was a Lithuanian immigrant filmmaker living in New York and he was sort of at the hub of the avant-garde film scene in New York then. He did a lot to nurture and grow the community, but as George put it, "If he liked your films, he showed them; and if he didn't, he didn't." George envisioned a different kind of a thing for the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He didn't want it to be a taste-making kind of thing; he really wanted to be open and welcoming and encouraging for everybody to make and submit films and also on the viewing side of things.
Q: So, in a manner of speaking, the new incarnation has come back around to the original intention?
A: Yes, with the caveat that it's my interpretation and understanding through what I've heard George saying, what I've heard others say, and what he and others have written about it. From my own experience of having attended for 25 years, yes, we're trying to bring back some of that original vision of the festival. I think, frankly, what really made it great and what a lot of people responded to was that we have such a great audience here in Ann Arbor and it's unprecedented for an avant-garde film festival to be showing in the 1,700 seat theater. It's hard for us to fill 1,700 seats, but still, our largest audience is a thousand people who will come out for the animation program, which is incredible.
I think some of why we've been successful is because we've been able to take avant-garde and experimental film and put them into a configuration that is attractive to a broad audience. Granted, I'm talking about the broad audience of Ann Arbor for the most part, but we do have a certain type of audience here that's very open-minded and looking for the alternative, and willing to try something different and are seeking something different. We do also have a national and international audience who do come and see the festival, so we do want to remain attractive and in service to them as well.
Q: What do you think it is about the Ann Arbor crowd that makes this particular festival so appealing to them?
A: We're a college town and we have this counterculture history from which the festival sprang from. The values of the counterculture in 1963 was very idealistic and was willing to move into a communally based mindset of operation. It was willing to be inclusive and embrace variety and diversity. It was willing to have its mind expanded and try different things, and experimental film is a great place for mind expansion!
Q: I think more than a few locals were surprised by the SNL parody earlier this year. What was the reaction from the festival organizers?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, that was great! We all loved it! We all saw the humor in it. It was pretty exciting and we've all been trying to find out who wrote it. We were just thrilled that A) it was hilarious and B) it was on Saturday Night Live so those who are in the know about the end of the film festival -- because they didn't call it that, of course, they call the Ann Arbor Short Film Festival -- but it was obviously a parody of us.
Q: How has the 10th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival versus the State of Michigan lawsuit impacted this year's festival?
A: You noticed in the program that Christen Lien is going to be back here 10 years later. She had been directing the festival for a few years during the lawsuit. She's going to come back and be in conversation with one of the ACLU lawyers she had worked with then. I think that was a really defining moment for her in terms of her leadership of the film festival because it really galvanized something to focus on and rally around. That's something that was very important for the foundation of the film festival and everything that it stands for. In terms of how that has been playing out since she left, we're thrilled that she's coming back and is going to talk about it because, frankly, that story has just kind of quieted down. I don't think we as an organization have held it quite front and center. Now, in the current political climate, is a great time to do that, so I was really excited when she reached out and contacted me and told me that she was working on this current campaign of coming out and telling the story and re-engaging with that work that she did with this 10 years ago.
Q: Would you talk a little bit about the "Off the Screen" events and how you're incorporating the town in the festival?
A: This was an idea that started out last summer. Of course, we've always off-and-on done things that are in storefront windows and try to bring a little extra visibility to the things we do. This year over the summer we had talked about it having some kind of pop-up information stand and ticket booth and maybe we could incorporate an installation with it, and we want to find a way for the film festival to have more of a presence in the weeks leading up, because there are so many people who are here and they don't recognize that it's happening, and then it comes and goes. So we were wondering how we could we call some attention to it. It essentially came out of that. Then the Washtenaw County Community and Economic Development Department gave us an Act 88 mini-grant to do the project.
Q: What are a few of the "Off the Screen" events that the community can look forward to this year?
A: I'm actually heading into the Ann Arbor Art Center right now and we've got a piece in the Aquarium Gallery, which is their window on Ashley, and I'm about to see it for the first time in just a minute. It's one-half of a piece by two artists -- one who teaches at Vanderbilt and the other who is in Turkey. Part of it is down on a monitor in the window and the other part is a video projection on a painting upstairs. My understanding is that it remixes images of contemporary military conflict, so it'll be interesting to see that.
We've also got a piece by Matt Wilkins and Shea Law that's in the storefront window of Arbor Brewing Company and our pop-up ticket booth is in Curtain Call, which is the former Arena. They're letting us use their foyer to hand out information and talk to people and sell tickets and passes. We're about to launch a promotional event to get more people into Curtain Call to try to drive more traffic there in the final week and a half or so before the festival hits.
Then the other piece that's down there is in the 111 South 4th storefront window is by Holly Fisher. She's shown in the festival a few times before. She had a piece called Bullets for Breakfast that won Best Experimental Film in 1992.
Q: What other aspects of the festival should the public know about?
A: Keep an eye out for the different film tracks, the different series. That's something new that we're excited about and getting good feedback about. People are happy to have suggested themes of things to check out. We did set the programs first. Later when we looked back at them, we recognized some recurring themes and some things people would be interested in that we could pull together -- a few different film programs. People have told us that it's great and it can really help them to figure out what they want to do at the festival.
Q: If you were talking to somebody who lives in town but has never attended the film festival, what would you say to encourage them to check it out this year?
A: The festival is a whole lot of fun! It's a great place to go and see alternative media, to hear the voices and stories of a wide variety of people. Not only the stories and the voices but also the way that those stories. It can be a mind-blowing experience, and it's also a really wonderful communal experience. Not only do you have your mind blown but you have it blown with hundreds of other people at the same time so you can then turn to them and compare notes!
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
➥ Return to "AAFF 2017 " A Guide to the 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival" for a full list of our coverage. For another interview with Leslie Raymond by Pulp contributor Patrick Dunn, check out Concentrate Ann Arbor.