All the Way In: Diving into the Ann Arbor Film Festival for the first time


hashtag by Sherlonya Turner

Confession: Despite living in the greater Ann Arbor area for nearly 20 years, I have never attended any part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

The poster caught my attention. I’m a sucker for bright colors.

Seduced by the orange, pink, and yellow in this year's AAFF poster, I thought, "Wouldn’t it be funny if I watched as many episodes of Dallas as I can before the film festival and then went to the screening of Hotel Dallas?," which documents Romania's strange fascination with the TV show that ran from 1978 to 1991.

An experience was born, but instead of diving into Dallas, I decided to steep myself in the Ann Arbor Film Festival experience.

First, I had to learn about the thing, so I did some light research on the festival’s founder, George Manupelli. I stumbled upon a memorial blog for him and read the whole thing click-after-click on my phone. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to create for myself the experience that this man would have appreciated.

I like to imagine that he’d approve of my plan to jump right in.

In preparation for the experience, I watched a DVD of short movies from an earlier Ann Arbor Film Festival. The viewing made me feel as if remixed scenes from my life were flashing before me. It also made my son take off his headphones, leave the table where he was doing homework, look at me with serious concern and emphatically ask, “What ARE you watching?”

Days before the official AAFF kickoff, I visited associated exhibits at the Ann Arbor Art Center, which hosted three works. The one that haunted me was Indication by Yuan Goang-Ming. Here, I entered a curtain to find a mostly black screen punctuated by a line of people walking toward the viewer. As the video continued, the people continued to approach until suddenly they were all pointing directly forward. Could I read this as a demand to actively participate in one’s experiences? Should I?

On Tuesday, the official first day of the film festival, I lined up outside of a North Quad room with just over a dozen people who seemed excited to kick off their film festival experience. I wandered into "Pop Up Projection Pavilion (PU_PP)" by Peter Sparling. His piece consisted of several screens that worked together to create a film experience. As I watched an on-screen dancer, I almost ignored the strange sensation of watching a film inside a room of rooms, darkness created by window shades and a black partitioning curtain. I barely registered the just audible milling about that was happening in the other part of the room. As I pondered what I viewed, the dancer’s exquisite control of his instrument shone, and his silver-haired chest reminded me that art and creation require time, discipline, and practice.

Confession: I am highly distracted and fascinated by other people’s behavior.

Overheard: “It’s a miracle that we got this far. Not a miracle. Just our own steam.”

I moved on to the rest of the room where I noticed a group of students viewing the exhibit Lasting Synergies. Their instructor encouraged them to eat the Jerusalem Garden spread from a nearby table. The students had, as a part of Terri Sarris’ "Screen Arts" class, used ephemera from the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s archival materials to create the exhibition. The work they had created provided a taste of history for this AAFF newcomer.

I looked around and had the distinct feeling I was not among my people, lacking the context to understand the customs and rituals that were playing nearby among the veteran film-festers. I certainly didn’t understand it when a man stood directly behind me as I read one of the posters and grunted over the back of my head. I moved to my right, where there was plenty of space, and read the poster from there.

Overheard: “With the hosting, I get a free pass all week!”

Confession: I was mesmerized by some of the outfits.

At the opening night screening, "Films in Competition 1," there was a lot to take in with the crowd alone. There was pattern mixing. There was a blue fur stole? A capelet? There was hair of many colors. There were floral pants. There were cable-knit tights as pants.

I found a seat and studied the AAFF booklet, which I knew to look for from a conversation I had with a regular attendee. Thumbing through it helped me understand the magnitude of what was offered, the impossibility of covering it all. I realized I needed to take a buffet approach and have a little taste of a lot of things. Had I paid closer attention to the booklet, I would have realized earlier that the tent in the lobby was actually a part of the festival, too.

Overheard: “I love to drink. I’m not an alcoholic. I enjoy it.”

As the organist began to play, I noticed a woman wearing blue lipstick and a smartly dressed sir with a man bun.

Executive Director Leslie Raymond and Assistant Director of Programs Katie McGowan soon took the stage, spoke, and sparkled. They literally sparkled: one wore a sequined skirt, the other a floor-length metallic gold one.

Like I said, the evening's outfits mesmerized me.

That evening, the standout movies were a pair of love stories. Victor & Isolina showed us an old couple that reflected on the ups and downs of their relationship. Luis & I told us about the story between a clown and the young secretary who fell in love with him.

Confession: There is a very thin line between what I’m calling "overheard" and purposeful, directed eavesdropping.

The next day, I attended the "16mm Etching and Digital Manipulation Workshop." I am no filmmaker, so I was a little nervous walking into this experience. We were all given a length of 16mm film and encouraged to make markings directly onto it in order to create a short, abstract movie.

I worked at scratching my piece of film but found that I had a more delicate touch than I had imagined, which meant I needed to repeat what I had done to leave my marks. The next day, I returned for the second part of this workshop where everyone’s short film was digitized. I called mine hashtag. (It's up there at the top of this post.)

Overheard: "The bottom line is, how does it upset you because it’s more about you …."

I became curious about The River by Ya-Ting Hsu after sitting behind the filmmaker the day before and listening to her make small talk with a few people. I learned the film is about a difficult pregnancy, but when I showed up to see it as part of "Films in Competition 3," I wasn’t expecting to watch a baby’s head pass from his mother’s body.

In fact, Wednesday’s films bombarded me with surprises. Camping With Ada boldly displayed vulnerability on screen. Here, a young woman yearned for a life that was better than the one she had, but she couldn’t escape her reality of working as a prostitute. A Love Story was a moving tale of the life cycle of a relationship between two yarn creatures. Something about that one reminded me of Pinwheel-era Nickelodeon. Voyage of the Galactic Space Dangler was exactly the type of strange I expected it to be. Yet I did not expect to witness my personal nightmare: someone taking milky toilet water to the face and getting some in his mouth.

Overheard: “I wish I could extend my arms to go shopping for rocks.”

I ended Wednesday evening with a feature-length film, Jim Trainor’s The Pink Egg. In it, human beings in simple costumes acted out the life cycles of seven insect species. It was strange to watch people dressed in form-fitting unitards play insects. It was also strange that Trainor was successfully able to show how these different insects interacted with each other using no words at all. It was like taking a Discovery Channel documentary and crossbreeding it with the performance of colorfully dressed mimes.

“Charles Darwin was my hero.” --Jim Trainor.

Thursday, I hustled to make it to "New Negress Film Society: I Am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent" talk and presentation. I was particularly intrigued because this title borrows from artist Kara Walker’s work. In preparation for these films, I both revisited some of Walker’s work and watched a few videos on the New Negress Film Society's YouTube page. I was quite surprised to enjoy Jo’Tavia Gary’s Cakes Da Killa: No Homo. I had tracked down some of Cakes Da Killa’s music, which was just not for me. It was a genre thing, not a content thing, and it was the first time in my immersive AAFF experience that I wished I hadn’t first done my homework.

I followed the New Negress Film Society event with "Films in Competition 4: Out Night." While I thoroughly enjoyed each of these films, Walk for Me by Elegance Bratton, a coming-out film set in the ball scene, left me wanting more and with Paris Is Burning on my “to see” list. Rodney Evans’ Persistence of Vision made me want to learn more about the blind photographer John Dugdale and his experience making art as someone who lost his sight.

Friday evening, I could only squeeze in "A Prerequisite for Rebellion," a collection of films curated by Ingrid LaFleur. All That Is Left Unsaid, while only three minutes long, packed a punch. Everything Audre Lorde tried to say in the film gets truncated. It symbolized her life, which was cut short by cancer, and also the filmmaker’s mother who also battled then succumbed to the disease. I also found Siboney to be quite powerful. Here we watched a woman produce a tropical-themed mural on a very large wall. Once it was complete, she doused herself in water and then destroyed the painting using her body to smear/ruin it. The film unapologetically and beautifully explored what it means to have power and control of one’s own body and one’s own choices.

On the fifth day of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, I rested.

I appreciate a story that has a distinct beginning and a distinct end. With that in mind, I decided Hotel Dallas would be the back cover to my Ann Arbor Film Festival experience. I don’t even remember what I was expecting when I went into the theater, but several moments in, that was all blown off of the table. Also, it made me glad that I hadn’t watched more episodes of Dallas in an attempt to properly ground myself for taking in this movie, which I'll just let the AAFF describe:

The primetime soap opera Dallas becomes a big hit in 1980s Romania, providing a rare window to the West for viewers living under a brutal communist regime. Among those watching are Ilie and his daughter Livia. He's a small-time criminal and aspiring capitalist; she's in love with Dallas hunk Patrick Duffy. After communism falls, Ilie builds the Hotel Dallas, a life-size copy of the show's iconic mansion. Livia becomes a filmmaker and recruits Duffy to star in a bizarre Romanian version of Dallas, haunted by the ghosts of the country's past. Weaving together documentary, fantasy, and a surreal film within a film (within a TV show), Hotel Dallas creates innovative cinema from personal and cultural history.

Hotel Dallas is about a moment in time, but also about how history repeats itself. It was about how major events anchor us in time ... sometimes.

Overheard: “So weird,” said Person A. “But kind of interesting,” said Person B.

Confession: That’s right.

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult : Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving head-first into all sorts of projects.

Check out the rest of our 2017 Ann Arbor Film Fest coverage here. View a list of the 55th festival's award-winning films here.