A guide to the 2017 Cinetopia Film Festival


Though most of us don’t sense a strong link between the auto and film industries, Michigan Theater executive director and CEO Russ Collins pointed out that the two essentially grew up together.

“In 1922, when Hollywood was deciding whether it would be based in New York or California, Ford Motor Company became one of the largest distributors of movies of anywhere in the world,” said Collins, at a recent press conference for the sixth annual Cinetopia Film Festival, which happens June 1-11 in various Ann Arbor and Detroit locales.

“Ford distributed so many educational films and newsreels that Detroit was second only to Hollywood in terms of the amount of film shot and processed. So it’s an art form that Detroit has long held dear," Collins said, "and it’s deeply built into this community, which is why we’re so happy to bring the world’s cinema passion back here to Detroit.”

Indeed, the guiding principle of Cinetopia -- which Collins founded at the Michigan Theater in 2012, showing more than 40 films that year -- involves gathering together some of the best new films being screened at the world’s most prestigious film festivals. So whether you’re looking for cutting-edge comedy, drama, suspense, or documentaries, or selections from the 12th annual Arab American Film Festival (now part of Cinetopia), you’re likely to “find your film” during the 10-day fest. There’s also a competition program of Michigan-made short films, called Detroit Voices, and this year’s U-M screen arts symposium is focused on producer/distributor Ira Deutchman, so Cinetopia will show Hoop Dreams and Sex, Lies, & Videotape.

This year’s Cinetopia features more than 100 screenings of 60 films, at venues that now include -- in addition to the Michigan Theater and the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA -- the Henry Ford Museum, the Arab American National Museum, Cinema Detroit, the Maple Theater, Wright Museum of African American History, College of Creative Studies, and one screening of the documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry at Cornman Farms. Several films will have their Michigan premiere at Cinetopia, while one film, car-racer doc McLaren, will have its U.S. premiere.

It's a tremendous undertaking and it takes many partners and sponsors to make Cinetopia come alive. “It takes a whole metropolitan area to put something this ambitious together. This ain’t no damn village," Collins joked.

“The first year of the festival, we had about five thousand visitors. This year, we’re aiming for something in the 30,000 range," Collins said. "But we couldn’t do this without the passion of our team of programmers.”

Those programmers also decide if Cinetopia's film selections have a unifying motif. “Every year, we try to think about the theme, and what we want to say with the films we’re selecting," said programmer Brian Hunter. "Last year, we tried and tried and tried to come up with a theme, but in the end, it really is just about what’s happening out there in the zeitgeist. This year, when we realized that it was the 50th anniversary of the Detroit uprising, that seemed really important, and like something we could build around.”

The film 12th and Clairmount, which features home movie footage, focuses specifically on the 1967 Detroit riot/rebellion, while other films build on the topic of resistance and rebellion, including: Check It, about LGBTQIA gangs in D.C.; an excerpt from The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ new 18-hour series; Clash, filmed in the back of a police truck in Cairo shortly after the overthrow of President Morsi; Whose Streets? about the Ferguson uprising; Destined, a new feature by Detroit native son Qasim Basir; In Between, in which three Palestinian women walk a tightrope between traditional and modern cultures; Quest, which follows a family in Philadelphia over the course of eight years; and Step, a documentary about step dance team members at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

Here are additional Cinetopia movie recommendations from the judges and programmers:

Tribal Justice, a documentary about two judges in the tribal court system, which seeks to rehabilitate and heal instead of harm. Local judge Tim Connors said, “They have three goals, which are simple and noble: first, to keep their people out of prison as much as possible; second, to prevent so many children from being taken from their community; and third, to not let them be fodder for the school-to-prison pipeline. It sounds to me like we have a lot to learn from that.”

Patti Cake$, a feature about an unlikely up-and-coming rapper who’s stuck working at a bar in New Jersey while paying her grandmother’s medical bills and dealing with her mother’s alcoholism. The film was a hit at Sundance, and programmer Barbara Twist praised it for being one of a handful of woman-positive films, in which the directors allow “these women to hold their own, without subjecting them to traditional Hollywood notions of femininity.”

I Dream in Another Language, a Sundance Audience Award (World Cinema-Dramatic) winning feature about a university philologist who’s searching for the dying indigenous language of Zikril, only to uncover a bitter feud that may work to silence the language forever. “It’s an important film, a beautiful film,” said programming director Brian Hunter. “If you can only see one movie, that’s the one to see. I was floored.”

Rat Film, a documentary that marketing director Sarah Erlewine cited as “experimental and uncomfortable, and by far the most fascinating film I’ve seen in years.”

Dina, the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner, tells the story of a woman on the autism spectrum who gets engaged to a Walmart greeter with Asperger Syndrome. “All I want is for Dina to have never-ending happiness, all right?” wrote programming manager Makenzie Peecock.

The Wailing was comically listed repeatedly in programmer Christine Tremblay’s “Top Five Recommendations” list. “This Korean supernatural whodunnit will keep you on the edge of your seat clutching the armrests, or the person next to you, as the mysterious nightmare unfolds on screen,” she wrote.

Band Aid is an offbeat feature comedy about a married couple who decide to start turning their tired arguments into songs, and thus form a band with drummer neighbor Fred Armisen. “Band Aid sucks you in with the fun plot and A-list comedy cast, but it's surprisingly deep and darker under the light-hearted surface,” wrote programming intern Mikki Dick.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

For a complete schedule and information about ticket and pass prices, visit http://www.cinetopiafestival.org