60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl—another look at "Looking for Horses"

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the film Looking for Horses of a man with a weathered face and a cigarette in his mouth with a large lake in the background

Photo courtesy of Lightdox

Stefan Pavlović's Looking for Horses is a glimpse into the real-life story of an unlikely friendship.

A fisherman named Zdravko was in the Bosnian War in the first half of the '90s and sacrificed his youth as a soldier. A grenade left him severely hearing impaired and another accident took his right eye. Director Pavlović grew up in Bosnia and was exposed to four languages, but he suffers from stuttering in his mother tongue Serbocroatian, which he understands imperfectly. The two friends are of different generations and temperaments and communicate in sometimes halting speech. Pavlović’s patient listening often allows Zdravko the opportunity to talk at length, reflecting on life and fishing strategies.

Zdravko spends his days on a lake in a small motorboat while Pavlović films him. We see the island church, now abandoned, where Zdravko lived for several years, surviving through the cold in a small sheltered room. Pavlović has joined him for his fishing adventures motivated by something else that remains hidden from us.

So many unanswered questions arise. How did Stefan and Zdravko meet? How does Zdravko live? (For all the time spent on the boat fishing, we never see him catch anything.) What do they each get out of their friendship?

But that’s not really the point.

If we knew the answers, would it change anything?

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Elephant" is a highly personal meditation on racism, violence, and trauma

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the film Elephant shows a woman sitting in a chair with her head bent low.

The opening scene of Elephant shows a young Black woman at the inner entrance of her apartment, wiping away tears. Remnants of blood are visible on her body and the door. The movie is shot almost entirely inside this small apartment, where the protagonist, played by director Maria Judice, confines herself after experiencing something intense and distressing. 

The scenes that follow unfold very slowly, without narration and with minimal sound. The pace and volume allow us viewers to linger on the details of the sparse surroundings. A second young woman—who we later learn is the protagonist’s sister—enters the apartment by the side door and begins to clean the apartment and quietly support her sibling. 

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Rock Bottom Riser" digs into the cultural and physical roots of modern Hawaii

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the documentary Rock Bottom Riser showing an overhead shot of flowing lava

Hawaiian lava flows in the impressionistic profile of the island in Rock Bottom Riser. Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

How fascinating to watch two movies back-to-back for the AAFF, both of them focused on different island chains. While Archipelago is about the myriad islands of the St. Lawrence River and often reflects a playful, calm mood, Rock Bottom Riser by Fern Silva is much more fractured and fraught with danger.

Through a collection of film segments, Silva explores some of the clashing cultural beliefs of modern Hawaii: spiritual, traditional, scientific. With little context or introduction, we see the people and places of Hawaii and are left with our own impressions.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: The animated "Archipelago" traces the communities along the St. Lawrence River

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the animated film Archipelago featuring an abstract background with small bodies and a cow looking like they're struggling

What would you create if you wanted to convey the entire history of a place—the people with their personal struggles and giant conflicts, their loves and everyday lives, the music they listen to, and the story of the land itself?

Make a painting, write a novel, take pictures?

Archipelago, with its impressionistic mixture of animation and historic film footage, comes remarkably close to achieving the impossible task of capturing and reflecting the memories of a place on Earth.

Director Félix Dufour-Laperrière turns his attention to the islands and cities of the 800-mile-long St. Lawrence River to tell their stories and bring them to life. Admittedly, the St. Lawrence River, which originates in Lake Ontario in northeastern Canada, sounds like a dull topic for a feature-length film. But the vivid and wonderful expression of each stop in this fantastical travelogue is uplifting and hopeful.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Documentary gives due to avant-garde film pioneer Sally Dixon

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

Experimental Curator: The Sally Dixon Story

Filmmaker, enthusiast, advocate, meticulous curator, promoter, free spirit and nurturing mother of avant garde film.

Those are the words used to describe Sally Dixon in Brigid Maher’s documentary Experimental Curator: The Sally Dixon Story.

Dixon’s role as filmmaker, advocate, and curator of films at the Carnegie Museum made her a key if less-known figure in the emerging experimental avant-garde film movement. Her work was crucial to gaining recognition and financial backing for such key figures as Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, James Broughton, and Kenneth Anger. She was also an advocate for women filmmakers such as Carolee Schneemann. Women filmmakers often found it difficult to gain acceptance in the male-dominated field. Dixon opened doors for them.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival will screen Maher’s feature documentary at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 27, in the main auditorium of the Michigan Theater. The documentary will be followed by four short experimental films: Fist Fight by Robert Breer, Valentin de las Sierras by Bruce Baillie, Invocation of My Demon Brother by Kenneth Anger and Take Off by Guvnor Nelson.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival has long been a major home for experimental film. This documentary should be just the ticket for those seeking a little history on a movement that had a whole different view of what movies could be about than Hollywood.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over" is a revealing look at a confrontational avant-garde icon

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

Lydia Lunch performs on stage with her band in a photo by Kathleen Fox

Lydia Lunch photo by Kathleen Fox

The title of director Beth B's film Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over derives from an archival performance clip in which Lunch, a confrontational New York City no-wave musician, performance artist, and icon, dissects the endless masculine predilection toward war. "You want to go on a suicide mission? Go on a suicide mission," Lunch says. "One man, one bomb, and leave the innocent women, the innocent children, and the innocent male civilians out of it. It's not my war."

But the title takes on greater significance as B and Lunch delve deeper into a very different kind of never-ending battle: Lunch's efforts to grapple with her childhood sexual abuse and resulting trauma. They take their time getting there, ping-ponging in a free-associative format between topics including Lunch's various musical projects, activism, and use of sex as a weapon and instrument of subversion. 

Now 62, Lunch is as much a force of nature as ever, rattling off poetic, angry, profane, and blackly funny rants with unfettered savagery directed toward the patriarchy and other institutions of oppression. "Lydia is a fuckin' doctor," musician Carla Bozulich says in one of the film's many interviews with Lunch's kindred artistic spirits. "Her kind of medicine is just a punch in the fuckin' face."

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Two lost souls meet on a small Bosnian island in "Looking for Horses"

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the film Looking for Horses featuring a close-up of an older man with deep creases on his face, his chin resting on his right hand

Photo courtesy of Lightdox

Stefan Pavlovic’s Looking for Horses begins in a deep mist and heavy clouds. The image, shot with a hand-held camera, shifts wildly, moving from choppy lake waters to a menacing sky of black clouds. 

This sets the tone for a film about a rich, emotional friendship between the young filmmaker Pavlovic and a reclusive Bosnian fisherman.

Pavlovic is a filmmaker based in Amsterdam. He returned to his family’s native home of Bosnia where he met the fisherman, Zdravko, who has been living alone on a small island for 18 years. He rarely goes into the nearby town of Orah. He has set up living space in an abandoned chapel over the last five years, having lived in small shacks around the island. 

Zdravko was a soldier in the Bosnian war. He lost his hearing. Later he lost sight in one eye in an accident. His face is deeply wrinkled. He smokes cigarette after cigarette. He’s gruff but welcomes the attention of the young filmmaker, touched by the idea that he would be a worthy topic for a documentary.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Japanese documentary "Shari" is an empathetic, dreamlike look at a changing planet

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still image from Nao Yoshigai's film Shari featuring a person standing in a forest in winter wearing a large, strange, bulky, red, full-body suit

The subject of Japanese director Nao Yoshigai's Shari creeps up on you as unexpectedly as the hulking, crimson, woolly creature that shambles through the film in a series of dreamlike interludes. The film focuses on the Japanese town of Shari in 2020, and at first seems to be a series of well-observed vignettes chronicling the lives of its residents. But as we meet the townspeople—a baker, a fisherman, an eccentric art collector—they all return to a common topic: the tension between human life and the natural world. Shari's residents discuss feeling drawn in by their town's natural beauty, but they also describe a delicate push-pull between conservation, tourism, and industry. One resident offers the metaphor that Shari's natural resources are a principal upon which people should collect interest, rather than squandering the initial investment.

Shari's residents are also all preoccupied in different ways by the same anxiety: the town has experienced its lightest snowfall in 40 years. There are fewer fish in the ocean, plant growth is stunted, bears are skipping hibernation because they can still find food, and the townspeople have an overall sense of unease.

Things are not as they should be. 

The short documentaries "Boogie Woogie Express" and "Mr. B's Joybox Express" showcase Michigan piano titans

FILM & VIDEO

Mark "Mr. B" Braun and Bob Seeley, two masters of boogie-woogie piano, sit on the same piano bench while performing a tune together in front of a crowd at the Ann Arbor Art Fair

Image from an Ann Arbor News video.

On the surface, Boogie Woogie Express is a short film about piano player Bob Seeley, who was born in Detroit in 1928. But at 11-minutes long, there's not a ton of room for biography in this movie by Ypsilanti filmmaker Donald Harrison of 7CylindersStudio—yet it's the perfect amount of time for a quick and fun primer on the art of boogie-woogie piano. It's especially interesting to hear and see how boogie-woogie evolved into rock 'n' roll, with Seeley demonstrating the rhythmic differences between the two styles.

Shot in 16mm black and white film, Boogie Woogie Express premiered in 2007 at the Detroit Docs International Film Festival and on YouTube on February 1, 2022.

Because boogie-woogie piano is a niche community, it's no surprise that Seeley has performed with Ann Arbor's Mark "Mr. B" Braun on numerous occasions; the twosome even made a concert film together in 2009 called Back to Back Live. Both were heavily influenced by boogie-woogie giant Meade Lux Lewis and the duo covered his "Honky Tonk Train Blues" in the concert film.

Boogie Woogie Express is embedded below, along with a couple of videos of Seely and Braun performing together on a single piano—back to back, cheek to cheek—and Mr. B's Joybox Express, a 15-minute documentary from 2017 on Mr. B.

Talk, Talk, Talk: Zach Damon's "Ann Arbor Tonight" puts a local spin on the late-night TV chat format

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Zach Damon sits behind his desk on the set of the show his hosts, Ann Arbor Tonight. He's wearing a suit and tie, has a bit smile, and his black hair is slicked back. On his desk is a microphone, a coffee mug, pen and paper, and some University of Michigan football memorabilia.

Photo courtesy of Zach Damon.

At age 6, Zach Damon discovered his love of public speaking.

The future Ann Arbor Tonight host-producer was an ambassador for March of Dimes and spoke at different events in the early ‘90s, including the National Athletic Awards at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

“I remember being in the audience because it was a pre-taped show and seeing the great energy and the great camaraderie of the business in general,” said Damon, who was born with cerebral palsy and grew up in Ann Arbor. “Everyone was so encouraging, and they’d say, ‘Zach, you can do anything you want to do, and if you want to work in media one day, then you can do that.’”

Damon also became inspired watching TV sportscaster Greg Gumbel and author-journalist Mitch Albom serve as hosts of the awards show. In that moment, he found his purpose.

“I remember seeing one of the broadcasters on stage doing his thing, getting the cues during the show, and then presenting," he said. "I remember at one point looking at the stage and saying to myself as a 5 or 6-year-old … I’d really like to be that person … and that’s where I felt most comfortable.”

Damon carried that dream with him throughout his teen years. By his junior year at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School, he aspired to host a late-night talk show. 

“I was talking to some buddies of mine who were in the film and video club, and I said, ‘It would be really neat to have a late-night show in Ann Arbor and call it Ann Arbor Tonight,” said Damon, who’s inspired by The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. “I was sitting on my bed, and they were like, ‘Yeah, whatever, Zach.’ I always have these very big ideas, but I really felt that they were possible if you just put the action toward it.”