The Ann Arbor Film Festival has been a staple of the Ann Arbor arts scene for over half a century. Every year films from around the world are submitted, judged, and shown to hundreds of movie-lovers, and every year I think to myself, “Eh. Maybe I’ll go some other year.”
This year my curiosity finally outweighed my love of staying home and I found myself preparing to attend the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.
It’s important to note that I’m an avid movie-goer. I can sit through the goofiest horror movies, the most pointless action movies, and the sappiest romantic comedies, because I just love being at the movies. I like pulling up to the theater on a sunny day and people-watching as I’m waiting in line to buy my ticket. I like sitting in the dark, reading the screen trivia, and waiting for my movie to start. I like theater pretzels and, more importantly, the strange, delicious, scientific mystery that is theater cheese.
My unbelievably low movie standards don’t hurt either. I mean, I liked ALL of those Transformers movies.
But despite my wide-ranging love of cinema, I worried about attending something as serious and prestigious as the AAFF. I worried that it would be dull. I worried that it would full of be odd, deep, confusing films that would be far too avant-garde for my Michael Bay-loving palette. I think I secretly assumed that every movie would basically be like that short film Kirk made on Gilmore Girls. But weirder. And longer. And with fewer fun dance numbers.
But despite my apprehension I desperately wanted to know what this highly-acclaimed festival was all about and, Kirk or no Kirk, the familiar embrace of a movie theater—any movie theater—beckoned.
So I put on my fanciest pants and started at the beginning—the first AAFF event of the year: the Opening Night Reception and Screening.
My first impression of the festival as I walked into the Michigan Theater that night was that it had been silly to think this event wasn’t for me. There were people in their flashiest gowns, the kind you tuck the tag into so you can return it the next day, and there were people who looked like they’d just come from class or work or wandered in off the street, following the delicious scent of buttered popcorn.
This event, it was clear, was for absolutely everyone. This was my first thought as I entered the festival on Tuesday and my last as I left my final screening on Friday night. That feeling of welcome, of variety, of come-as-you-are-and-we-swear-you’ll-find-something-you-like stayed with me throughout the entire festival.
The opening night reception was filled with this open energy and with music that reflected the formal yet fun vibe by mixing classic tunes with, at one point, the jaunty, triumphant notes of the Indiana Jones theme song.
That same energy flowed along with the crowd into the main auditorium as we all took our seats for the first screening of the season, a mix of short films designed to start the festival off with a little bit of everything. Maybe it was the celebratory feel that comes with any opening night or maybe it was the fact that the reception had had an open bar, but the staid, serious atmosphere I'd expected was completely absent. People talked and laughed right up until the show started.
When the first short film ended, the applause was thunderous. When the second film called for the audience to put on those classic, foldable 3D glasses with blue and red lenses, one man shouted “The red goes over the right eye!” and everyone laughed because this was completely wrong and it took half the room a few seconds to realize they’d put their glasses on upside-down. At one point, someone dropped a glass bottle and the entire room listened with barely-contained giggles as the bottle rolled slowly and loudly from the back of the theater’s sloped floor to the front.
The friendly ambiance of opening night left me pleasantly surprised and eager for more, and that eagerness kept me going all the way through Wednesday, which was, if I’m honest, my darkest day at the festival. The first screening I attended that day was News From Home by filmmaker Chantal Akerman and my first feature-length film of the festival. This was a calm, tranquil movie that consisted of lengthy shots of 1970s New York City, as it was when Akerman first moved there from Belgium, with letters from her mother read aloud over (and sometimes under) the bustling street noise.
I went through a few stages of emotion as I watched this film. First I was intrigued, drawn in by the newness of experimental film and fascinated by the idea that these steady, action-less shots could make up an entire movie. Then, I’ll admit, I was bored. I’m a product of the modern age, used to movies laden with special effects and preferably at least one car-chase scene—and I’m used to watching them while I play video games on my phone. So sitting still and watching stillness felt foreign and uncomfortable, sort of like a brand new pair of shoes that I hadn’t quite broken in yet. Then, after a little while, the film seemed to just wash right over me and the steady scenes, the fuzzy crackle of 16mm film, and the quiet tones of Akerman’s soft Belgian accent as she read her mother’s letters became comfortable, almost meditative. Suddenly I was noticing the people in the scenes more, watching their actions and admiring their quintessentially 70s outfits. The moment I stopped resenting the film for not being what I was used to, I could enjoy it for what it was.
Then came the rough patch. My next film screening, which immediately followed News From Home, was another medley of short films, just like the opening night—though this is where all similarities ended. The ten films were all experimental and the entire event was probably my worst-case scenario. I couldn’t grasp the concepts or meanings of any of the films. Some of them contained vaguely familiar imagery cut together in seemingly random order while some seemed like they were intended to be viewed by some alien audience. Some of the films seemed like they were furiously protesting being watched at all. One film was just icons and symbols that flashed bright then dark on the screen to an incredibly loud semi-rhythmic pulsing/pounding noise and by the end it had gotten so aggressive I’d had to plug my ears and close my eyes just to get through it. If ever I have wished for a pair of ruby slippers to click together or a really huge, comedy-sized mallet to clobber myself with, it was then. I left the screening almost afraid to continue on.
But I'd set out to get the full, unadulterated experience of AAFF, and after a night of rest and consideration, I decided that in a festival where there was something for everyone, I was bound to run into some things that weren’t for me.
So, like a glutton for punishment, I returned on Thursday for more—and was incredibly glad that I did. The Carl Bogner Juror Presentation was another screening of short films, this time selected by Bogner himself, a lecturer on experimental film at the University of Wisconsin, and my reaction to this event was a complete turnaround from the day before. I left this screening with a satisfied feeling and a number of favorites, including Je Suis Une Bombe (I Am a Bomb), a video of a woman in a panda suit doing a provocative pole dance and then delivering a passionate speech on feminism and womanhood, and My Parents Read Dreams That I’ve Had About Them, which was literally just that—a deadpan elderly couple, presumably the filmmaker's parents, reading dreams about themselves from pieces of paper being handed to them from off screen. The subtle humor of this last film had the entire audience chuckling.
On Friday I returned for my final and longest day of the festival and was immediately faced with something I hadn’t yet experienced—a genuine film festival disaster. As I sat in my first event of the evening, Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, I noticed a few jumps and blips in the steady, slow-moving footage. This film, like her other work, was filled with scenery, people, and little else, this time taking place in East Germany, Poland, and Russia, and as I sat immersed in the quiet images and endless stream of Cossack hats the screen suddenly went dark. I’ll be honest, there had been a few times during the festival where I’d been unable to distinguish experimental films from technical difficulties, so when the screen blinked to life again I was half-convinced this was actually just some zany film technique. What did I know? Then, minutes later, the image on the screen abruptly burst and melted until all that was left was a blank white screen and then darkness. The unified gasp of the audience as the 16mm film burned under the projector was immense, as if the screening room itself had sucked in a breath.
In the past few days, I’d been part of a lot of communal experiences, and now I'd gotten to be a part of a communal tragedy. The sense of loss was a tangible thing in the room and when the screening was ended early (the film, we were told, had experienced some shrinkage and despite his best efforts, there was nothing the projectionist could do to make it usable) all I could do was turn to the person next to me and go, “Oh no, do you think the film’s okay?” like I was asking about a gravely injured friend. Who knew I could feel such deep concern for something that, days before, I’d been glaring at, wishing it had more quippy one-liners and explosions?
My final event, late that night, was also the absolute pinnacle of the festival for me. I'd spent the entire week looking forward to the Animated Films in Competition, or “animation night” as some of the super-hip festival-goers called it. It didn’t disappoint. Even the strangest films were elevated by beautiful animation and almost all featured equally charming stories. Bottom Feeders, by Matt Reynolds, was a terrifying parody of life, death, and reproduction. Love, by Réka Bucsi, was offbeat and whimsical, featuring hugging humanoid fruits and cute but headless horses. And I felt a special love for Nina Gantz's Edmond, about a sweet little man who feels so strongly that he finds himself devouring the things he loves most—especially the people. It was hands-down the most adorable film about cannibalism I’ve ever seen.
I began AAFF full of worries. Would I like the movies? Would I understand them? Was there anything at all for me at this festival besides, obviously, the many pounds of candy I would inevitably eat?
As it turned out, AAFF took the movie experience I enjoy so much and amplified it to the nth degree. Besides the films themselves, the festival experience was an entirely new beast for me and a remarkably friendly one. Visiting the festival was like being in a popcorn-filled incubator.
After a few days the Michigan Theater, the heart of the festival, began to exert its own gravitational pull and every time I stepped back into the warm lights of the lobby it felt, oddly, like coming home. Each room of the theater became familiar. The backs of peoples’ heads became familiar. “Oh! That’s the hair I saw during yesterday’s film screening,” I would find myself thinking, and then wonder if I was going crazy, and then decide I didn’t care. I became so acquainted with the festival staff and presenters that it was jarring to see them out in the regular world a week later and realize that they didn't know who I was. To them I was just one in a sea of faces, but to me, they were the people who made the announcements and the bad jokes and gave me directions and helped me understand what I was seeing for four days in a row. I grew accustomed to the familiar path from the parking garage to the theater, and from the theater to the neighboring coffee shop, and from the coffee shop to the theater’s screening room. I even sprinted these well-known paths a few (dozen) times when I was nearly (very) late to a screening (or ten).
By the end, AAFF almost had that temporary-home feeling of summer camp, where every face was one I knew and I got to eat as much junk food as I wanted while I wandered around, unfailingly welcome no matter where I was.
Even those films that made me want to pull my hair out and scream seemed to amplify my feelings of success when I found those little theatrical gems that made it all worth it. And besides, when had I ever felt such intense emotion about any movie? Even if it was the all-consuming desire to punch a film right in the face.
It’s tough to say in so few words how I felt about the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. It was a strange, funny, boring, exhilarating, fascinating experience. It was a candy-filled, stomach-ache-producing, movie-lover’s-dream experience. It was a fun experience. It was a unique experience.
It was an experience.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she never thought she'd used the words "adorable" and "cannibalism" in the same sentence. It's been a weird week.
The dollar theaters are gone, but their value lives on in two of the last places frugal moviegoers might expect.
That’s right, over a decade after the Fox Village Theater was replaced by Plum Market, and nearly six years after MC Sports punted Briarwood Dollar Movies from the hallowed halls of our local mall, deal-seeking cinephiles can still save thanks to special programs at the Quality 16 on the west side of town, and Cinemark's Rave Motion Pictures to the east.
And while it’s true these programs may not adhere strictly to the “second-run” model that once provided moviegoers on a budget with affordable entertainment alternatives, programs focusing on beloved classics and recent children’s fare ensure that audiences of all ages and tastes will find something to butter their proverbial popcorn.
As any frequent moviegoer can attest, the film release landscape has seen some seismic shifts in recent years. Even as recently as 2010 – the year that Briarwood screens went dark – affordable home theater systems and changing distribution models were making it difficult for discount theater chains to survive, much less thrive. Flash forward just a few years, and convenient alternatives such as Netflix (whose high-profile sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny recently debuted on the popular streaming service) and On Demand options have started to make leaving the house for a night at the movies more of a pricey chore than an escape from reality.
Fortunately, some savvy theater chains have started to pick up the slack for those shuttered screens. Opened in 1998, the Goodrich Theater Quality 16 primarily focuses on first-run films. A closer look at the chain’s history, however, reveals they are currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of their family-friendly movie series. Dubbed “Morning Movies,” the current program promises nine weeks of PG-rated fare for just $1 a ticket. The shows, which began on March 4 with Home (2015), run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10 am.
Even better, patrons who sign up for the theater’s free Frequent Moviegoers Club will not only get into each screening absolutely free, but also be allowed up to 6 free admissions to each show by presenting their FMG card at the box office.
Speaking to Quality 16 Assistant Manager Mark Culp, it quickly becomes apparent just how popular these series are. According to Culp, “Ticket sales can be a little slow toward the beginning of the season, but once the word starts to spread, we usually have to open a second auditorium to accommodate the larger crowds.”
Of course it doesn’t hurt to have some symbiotic advertising as well. “A lot of the time we’ll have special guests come in for appearances at the screenings, too. We’ve had karate group demonstrations, and even a petting zoo with a real kangaroo.” These special guests frequently appear in the theater’s spacious lobby, and tie in to the theme of that week’s movie. The series ends on the weekend of April 29th with the beloved adventure comedy The Princess Bride.
Meanwhile, across town, the Cinemark is in the midst of their popular Classic Series, a six-week program catering not just to parents, but also to those nostalgic souls who long to experience their old favorites somewhere other than the living room. Each week a new film debuts on Sunday, with an encore screening the following Wednesday.
The series launched in 2013 after a group of Arizona senior citizens asked their local theater about the possibility of resurrecting some of their favorite classics. From there, the series quickly expanded nationwide with screenings of The Godfather I and II, and now plays at approximately 140 theaters.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The introduction of digital projection brought with it a new distribution system that made these films easily available to theaters across the country. Gone are the days of the beat-up 35mm print sputtering its way through wobbling projector spindles; these copies have been cleaned up so well that they likely look even better than you remember them.
Cinemark Marketing Manager Frank Gonzales takes particular pride in that, too. "I would venture to guess that for a lot of these folks, the presentation is much cleaner than they remember it, because there are no cuts, no scratches like you would find on the prints. The sound is probably better than they remember because we've got digital sound systems in all of our auditoriums with speakers and specs that are built for that auditorium," says Gonzales.
As for the wide-reaching appeal of the series, Gonzales continues, "The Classic Series have really become a generational thing, with parents going back to see the movies they saw as kids and bringing their own kids with them. Or folks who remember seeing a movie when they were younger and want to see it again. Maybe it was the first movie they ever saw in a theater, and now the only place they see it is on a television set, or possibly a phone, or on a tablet. So this is the opportunity for them to get the real experience."
According to Gonzales, the films for the series are selected in a number of ways. "We have a Film Department here. We've got a couple of people in the department that have their wish lists of things they'd like to see. We also get feedback from customers. They're always offering their suggestions for films to place in the Classics Series. Then sometimes the studios will come to us. They'll say they're going to put out an anniversary edition of a movie. For instance, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We just recently had that last week."
Naturally, as more theaters embrace the digital projection model, every year brings new titles that weren't previously available for screening. So if your favorite film isn't in this series, let your voice be heard, and there's a fair chance it will be in the future. Speaking of days to come, on Sunday, April 3 and Wednesday, April 6, movie lovers can take an epic voyage into a frightening prospective future and beyond, with back-to-back screenings of the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other screenings yet to come include an Easter Sunday matinee of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a pair of encores the following Wednesday), and the series capper, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13.
Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.
The Threads All Arts Festival is a new cross-disciplinary arts festival that’ll take place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016. It’s two days packed with music, dance, poetry, film, theater, and visual art, and the two-day pass to the festival costs $5.
The festival came together after six students at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance thought up the idea, and then U-M’s EXCEL program funded the project.
Launched in September 2015, EXCEL stands for Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment. Jonathan Kuuskoski, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship and Career Services at U-M SMTD, says that the goal of the program is to catalyze success for all of U-M SMTD students and alumni through curricular and co-curricular programming and ongoing mentorship. The Threads festival is one of twelve projects funded by the Performing Arts EXCELerator program.
Kuuskoski says he’s proud of the work that the Threads team has done so far. He says the project was selected and funded at the highest level because it is “a very audacious idea, but one that seemed to be rooted in a very present community need.”
I met Meri Bobber, one of the students on the Threads team, through my work as the manager of digital media at the University Musical Society - you'll catch several UMS Artists in Residence participating in the festival.
Through Bobber, I connected with the full Threads team (Nicole Patrick, Meri Bobber, Sam Schaefer, Peter Littlejohn, Lang DeLancey, and Karen Toomasian) to chat about what’s exciting about the project and what we can expect in the future.
Q: How did the festival first come together?
A: Sam and Nicole were sitting together dreaming of attending the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. They realized that if they were dreaming this hard about attending, they should also probably put together their own festival. At first it was a joke, but then they won a grant. The festival had to happen.
Sam and Nicole quickly realized the festival was in no way possible with just the two of them, and they reached out to four people that seemed to fill every role possible. This team has been digging deep to put together the Threads Festival. We have all helped each other develop ideas, compromise on our way-too-ridiculous ambitions, and organize an event that represents the amazing, unique town that is Ann Arbor.
Q: You talk about how it’s important to you that both students and Ann Arbor community participate. Why is this important to you?
A: The purpose of all of our work is to make something great for Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor, in its awesome uniqueness, is not JUST a college town and not JUST a little city. Its special blend of communities, artistic and otherwise, is what makes it different from any other place in the world. To celebrate the city’s whole artistic community through this festival, we strive to bring students and non-students together.
Q: What are you most looking forward to at the festival?
A: WE CAN HARDLY WAIT FOR ALL OF IT. We are looking forward to seeing all of the tiny pieces that we have thought about as independent or abstract come together into one coherent thing. We can't wait to feel the sense of unity and action that we hope this festival will create. We’ll consider this year a success if people walk out smiling, or rather, thinking. We're such dorks about everything...we were stoked to order porta-potties. It's just amazing. All of it.
Q: You’re aiming to make this an annual festival. That’s an ambitious goal. What do you hope for the festival in the coming years?
A: We want Threads to help expose budding artists in this area. They are working their butts off, but in a town where there are (thankfully) a ton of live performances, many don’t have a large turnout. Simply put, we want people to look forward to this festival as a way to discover artists, so that they can look for these artists around town and see/hear/interact with them beyond just this one day.
We would also love to find a way for the festival to feature a larger outdoor presence in the future. We want guests to be able to leave behind the distractions of daily life, and experience a multi-stage festival event for a few days in an open and peaceful outdoor environment where the music and the river, or wind, or even the sound of crickets can exist in a way that allows a unique experience to emerge.
We want this festival to find longevity far beyond this season so that there is just one more GREAT thing about Ann Arbor.
Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Threads All Arts Festival is takes place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016.
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.
On Tuesday, March 15, University of Michigan students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Rackham Amphitheatre for the screening of the documentary No Más Bebés, followed by a lively Q&A session with the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña.
The documentary, first released in June 2015 as a part of PBS’s Independent Lens series, tells the story of a little-known, but landmark event in reproductive justice, when a small group of Mexican immigrant women sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were unknowingly sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The film itself takes an unflinching look at the ugly realities of racism within medical and legal institutions, while also capturing the resilency of both a marginalized culture and the individual women who, against great odds and with few allies, filed this monumental, yet almost forgotten class action lawsuit in 1975. The film’s gaze is recognizably feminist, emphasizing the role of the early Chicana feminist movement that significantly impacted contemporary reproductive rights.
Central to the storyline are two whistleblowers, a young, unlikely, radical Jewish medical resident, who first brought evidence against his colleagues and supervisors. The other, Antonia Hernández, the now nationally recognized civil and immigration rights attorney, who first took up the case right after graduating from UCLA School of Law while serving as staff attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.
By documenting those impacted through interviews and historical archives, the filmmakers give voice to the unsayable. Though many women testified, often their families were unaware due to familial and cultural shaming around infertility. In interviews, the women lament the children they never had, their grief permeating the veil between filmed subject and viewer. While the lawsuit, and its subsequent appeal were dismissed, the case ushered forth vital conversation about women’s bodies and racialized medicine. Improved policy and hospital proceedings soon followed including: the presence of bilingual literature, Spanish-speaking liaisons, and revisions to informed-consent policies.
Following the film was an informative Q&A session with filmmaker and professor, Renee Tajima-Peña. The audience seemed most curious about the tensions between Chicana feminist organizers, white feminists, as well as Chicano labor organizers, who both sidelined the needs of Chicana women during that time. Also of interest was Professor Tajima-Peña’s journey into filmmaking. Though she never attended film school, she felt passionately about human rights and aspired to be a civil rights attorney. It is clear in this film and others, that her work is largely informed by her interest in legal questions and issues regarding social injustice.
Most surprising was the early development of No Más Bebés. With her colleague Virginia Espino, Professor Tajima-Peña began the process of tracking down the surviving plaintiffs. This proved challenging having only old medical records and former addresses. Frequently, their investigative work led them to the children of the testifying women, who often knew nothing of their mothers' past political engagement. Though this case had national impact, Professor Tajima-Peña noted, the trauma and cultural stigma experienced by the women often resulted in secrecy.
Given the political climate of reproductive and immigration rights today, the story is relevant, potent and an eerie reminder of the continued fight for women’s bodily autonomy and security.
Community contributor CristiEllen Heos Zarvas is the Meetings and Special Events Assistant for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.
The Ann Arbor Film Festival offers a true marathon of screenings and events, with over 200 individual films screening over the course of just six days. This is not including the satellite events, such as off-site gallery shows hosted by the Work Gallery and Ann Arbor Art Center, various store front installations, panel discussions, workshops, and crowded after-parties hosted by local bars. It is, put simply, A LOT to see. It is also by design, simply too much to see, with many events happening concurrently between the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium and screening room.
I wanted to see it all.
So I designed and accepted this challenge for myself whole-heartedly, with nothing to lose, except perhaps sleep and daily exposure to vitamin D; I committed myself to spending two entire days at the festival. I wanted to watch every scheduled film possible, to experience the festival lifestyle, and to test my own endurance. I was not alone in this challenge--many other audience members became familiar faces and some of them became friends. There were audience members, including local Ann Arborites and those who travel annually to Ann Arbor solely to see the festival, all whom camped out in the theater for the entire six days. I couldn’t possibly compete with that.
But over the course of 48 hours, beginning promptly at 7:15 pm Thursday evening and concluding at who-knows-when Saturday night, I viewed over 50 short and feature-length films. Fifty! More importantly, I experienced what truly makes the Ann Arbor Film Festival special: its spirit, its devoted community, and its sense of collective experience.
My personal challenge began with Thursday evening’s Films in Competition 3 program. It was a beautifully curated program, combining short films by different makers that explored different facets of landscape. Nicky Hamlyn’s Gasometers 3 offered a series of time-lapses, painstakingly made with a 16mm film camera. The stunning time-lapses highlighted the movement of the sky, as clouds and sunlight shifted around sturdy metal gasometer structures that stood still, revealing time passing. The film was silent. And in a theatre packed with people, restless legs, squeaking seats, and small coughs interrupted the silence, which was admittedly frustrating at first. Until I considered how amazing it is, and how rare it must be, for an audience to fill a theater and watch a silent 16mm film.
On Friday, I was excited for the screening of Chantal Akerman’s D’est (From the East).The festival screened three of Akerman’s feature films, celebrating and honoring her career, after she passed away in 2015. Considered a “cinematic elegy,” this 1993 film depicts the filmmaker’s travels beginning in East Germany towards Moscow as the warmer seasons transition to winter. The film was presented in its original 16mm format. The shots are long and revealing, often beginning without action. One shot opens on an empty sidewalk; an older woman wearing a brown dress walks into the frame. The camera follows as the woman shuffles onward, swinging a red plastic bag at her side. Seemingly minute, the small action gains meaning as it continues. The 16mm film print was a bit wobbly on screen. It bounced unsteadily until one staggering moment in which it stopped. A section of film caught in the gate of the projector and burned, visibly onscreen, to an audible and collective gasp. The image bubbled, turning murky brown, and then evaporated entirely. The projector was turned off; the room went dark.
The sense of loss was palpable. People whispered in the dark, pulled out their cell phones, and waited. It was later determined the film print was too damaged to continue (but only after a second, gut-wrenching burn). This event, this shared experience of both pleasure and loss, overshadowed the day’s later screenings. It was a singular experience, one that brought strangers together, perhaps more so than the film itself.
On Saturday morning I returned to the theater only slightly sleepy-eyed for the 11 am Films in Competition 5 (Ages 6+). The theater was starting to feel more like home than my real home. Having become so comfortable there, I could feel a change in the space - the theater was stirring. The audience included many children. They ate popcorn and kicked their small feet in anticipation for the films to start. The program included Standish Lawder’s Catfilm for Katy and Cynnie. In one section, the screen was just a wash of white. There was a vague image, but it didn’t look like anything at all. I worried that it wasn’t captivating enough for the young audience. I looked around to gauge their interest. I looked back at the screen, and slowly, the white started to move. Collectively, we realized we were watching cat tongues lapping at milk, and that our perspective was from underneath the bowl. Pink cat tongues and noses pushed milk around the glass surface and children squealed. It was delightful, funny, not unlike the joy of an Internet video, except that we were all experiencing it together, at the same time.
My 48 hours at the Ann Arbor Film Festival showed me that the movie theater is still a magical place. I saw films that made me laugh, moved me, and tested my patience. I saw films with many strangers. I ate popcorn for dinner two nights in a row. And I decided that next year, I would like to do it all again.
Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library and she wishes that Catfilm were available on YouTube so she could watch it over and over.
Artist David OReilly has worked in a variety of media from film to video games to concept art, but he added a new medium to that list Wednesday night at the Michigan Theater: public speaking. OReilly appeared as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, presented in conjunction with the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Taking the stage after an introduction he self-deprecatingly described as “hyperbolic,” OReilly immediately sought to manage his audience’s expectations. “I don’t know how to follow that up,” OReilly said. “This is going to be a total letdown.”
However, OReilly proved himself a more than capable speaker over the course of his nearly 90-minute presentation, entertaining, inspiring, and at times genuinely dazzling the crowd. OReilly began by examining how he developed his unique style of 3D animation, which he’s now best known for. After early attempts to emulate Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s expressive figure drawings, OReilly became involved in animation through a job as a concept artist. Around 2004 he became fascinated by the untapped potential he saw in 3D animation, a field dominated at the time by many Pixar imitators and very few individual auteurs. OReilly described working with 3D animation software as “a constant process of the thing falling apart,” and early on he started maintaining a computer folder of the various glitches that resulted from his experiments. “All of these felt like something the software wanted to do, the trajectory of what it wanted to do,” he said.
So OReilly developed an artistic style that welcomed the quirks of his medium and drew attention to its rougher edges, rather than hewing towards a perfectly polished finished product. He demonstrated the evolution of that style from his 2007 debut short film RGB XYZ to 2009’s Please Say Something. OReilly described the former, an extremely glitchy acid-trip tale of a creature moving to the big city, as “pretty awful.” But the latter showed just how quickly OReilly developed his talent. Please Say Something, a very funny and surprisingly affecting tale of a tumultuous marriage between a cat and a mouse, embraces those glitches and rough edges with intent and artistry.
OReilly has since done a variety of work, including an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, animated segments of the movies Her and Son of Rambow, and music videos for U2 and M.I.A. In between commercial works he’s also found time for more personal projects–like his 2014 video game Mountain, which creates a personalized mountain on which players can watch slow and often surreal changes in real time. Typical of his unpretentious presentation, OReilly said he enjoys commercial work as much as his pet projects. “I don’t know if it’s ideal if I just stayed doing my own stuff,” he said. “Every time I do a job I end up getting out of my comfort zone, being forced to learn stuff that I’m not familiar with.”
OReilly saved his best for last, presenting an extended demo of his forthcoming video game entitled Everything. The game presents a universe in which one can play as literally anything. OReilly began by exploring a sunny field in the character of a bear, which moved around by comically rolling head over tail. From there he jumped into the characters of a clump of grass, bouncing along at ground level, and then a Douglas fir, which moved majestically over the landscape. Those demonstrations were entertaining, but OReilly had only scratched the surface of the world he’d developed for the game. He jumped down to a smaller scale to explore the microscopic world between blades of grass, playing as various molecules and germs. The audience broke into applause, but OReilly still wasn’t even close to finished. Taking a trip to the other end of the cosmic scale, he played as a continent swimming around the earth, then an asteroid orbiting the planet, then as a galaxy spinning in space. Surrounded by other glittering galaxies, OReilly’s galaxy joined up with them and moved in a rhythmic “dance” as numerous audience members uttered audible gasps of wonder.
Those gasps, and the laughter and applause that permeated the presentation, were proof positive that OReilly has repeatedly hit on something singular, accessible, and human in his highly unconventional works. Refreshingly, the man behind them was consistently, exceedingly humble. OReilly closed by noting with some bewilderment that he’d been asked to address in his presentation how his work “fits into the bigger picture of humanity.” He tackled that request by reading a scathing critical review of Mountain, followed by a letter he received from a mother who thanked him for the way the game had drawn her autistic son out of his shell. “That kind of response is worth more than all of the impact in the world,” he said. “I feel very privileged to get to have that effect, as small as that is.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
On Tuesday night, the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival began with an Opening Night Reception and a screening of ten short films from around the world. The reception was a packed and energetic event, completely filling the main lobby of the Michigan Theater with donors, filmmakers, and excited movie-goers. The music was loud, the bites of local food were delicious, and the vast space was packed to the rafters with anticipatory chatter. The total variety of people and apparel gave off the vibe of unadulterated welcome. Some were dressed to the nines in neckties or heels and floor-length dresses, and some were wearing their usual old jeans, sneakers, and plaid shirts, so no matter what, it seemed that this event was made for you.
This was my first experience at AAFF, or a film festival of any sort, and I was a bit apprehensive. Part of my newcomers’ fear was that I’d choose a movie I didn’t enjoy and be stuck with it for the two-hour duration, so it took the pressure off to discover that the Opening Night Screening consisted of a number of short films. The experience was more of a sampler: all the unique flavors of films that you might encounter at AAFF, helpfully squashed into one session.
The films themselves were a mixed bag of narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental, and they ran the emotional gauntlet—from sad and serious, like Hotel 22, a documentary about the homeless taking refuge at night on a 24-hour bus line in San Francisco, to hilarious, like Discontinuity, a film about a couple losing touch with each other and with reality, amongst a sea of disappearing and reappearing cats.
Some films were so experimental that I didn’t even recognize them as films, like REGAL, a fuzzy 2-minute interlude that appeared to be clips of an old pre-movie disclaimer reel interspersed with Internet icons and occasional pauses for buffering. I didn’t realize it was a movie until it was over and my companion clued me in. My first film of the festival and, technically, I missed it.
While some of the films were as avant-garde as I had worried they would be, I found them each to be surprisingly stimulating in their own way. Back Track, a remix of 1950s black-and-white films, had a captivatingly dark, noir vibe. Curt McDowell’s homey A Visit to Indiana effortlessly harnessed the drama and comedy of everyday conversation. Drive In, a close-to-home look at one of the last drive-in theaters in the Detroit area, evoked feelings of sunny summer nostalgia while The Place, a documentary about an isolated weather station, plunged the audience into the cold stillness of a Polish winter. The charmingly untidy animation of Isola del Giglio gave sketch-like impressions of a cozy Sunday morning on an Italian island, while Life with Herman H. Rott told the wordless yet highly comic story of a chain-smoking, drunken rat whose life is tidied up by a neat and proper cat with a love for cleanliness and classical music.
Even when lost among the swirling colors and fuzzy images of an experimental film or staring deep into the impossibly still and dull Polish snowscape, each movie pulled me in and left a genuine impression. I entered the event unsure of what I would find, and when I left, while still unsure what more I would encounter, it was with much more eagerness than apprehension.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she hates popcorn, so this has been a harrowing experience on many fronts.
I recently stopped by the busy Ann Arbor Film Festival office to chat with Leslie Raymond about the upcoming 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival running March 15-20, 2016. Leslie has been involved with the AAFF since the 30th Festival in 1992; this will be her third year as the Festival’s Executive Director.
Q: What’s new or different about this year’s Festival?
A: Well, we’re seeing a lot of animation. We’re also seeing a lot of feature length documentaries, nine or ten of which are in competition, as well as three films by Chantal Akerman who passed away tragically last October. We felt she was such an important figure in the history of avant-garde cinema as well as a great role model for women.
Q: Why do you think there are more documentaries this year?
A: Yeah, David [Dinnell, program director] and I were talking earlier about this being a more “moving image” culture where so much of the information we receive now comes through the moving image because of its ubiquity. Now we can shoot a movie on our cellphone, edit it, and publish it in minutes. Maybe that has something to do with it, although I don’t know why that would draw somebody more to making something more documentary than narrative.
Q: Which of the Festival events excite you the most this year?
A: Grahame Weinbren’s 78 Letters - which will show on Sunday, March 20 at 3:15 pm in the Main Auditorium - is an interactive series of one-minute pieces where the audience will help direct how the work goes together. I’m particularly excited about that. There will also be a 1975 installation by Lis Rhodes at the Ann Arbor Art Center on Friday, March 18 from 3 to 5 pm. It’s titled Light Music and it’s composed of two 16 mm projectors projecting abstract imagery from either end of the viewing space with an optical soundtrack read by light passing through. We’re also excited about the live shadow puppet performance by local artist Tom Carey that opens the “Films in Competition 5 (Ages 6+)” event. We call it “family friendly” and “ages 6 and up” but it’s not just a “kid’s show.” One of the things important for us is to engage audiences on other levels than just being a passive observer.
Q: Do you think audiences are more receptive today to an interactive experience?
A: I think so. And we want to provide opportunities for Festival viewers to be part of the fabric of the environment. Along these lines we have the “What We Saw” cards in the lobby -- we’ve done this for several years now -- where we invite participants to fill the cards out, let us know what they think about what they’ve just seen, and then take pictures of them for a slide show. There will even be an Oculus Rift piece in the grand foyer of the Michigan Theater -- a 9-foot inflatable bubble! -- where people will be able to put on the Oculus Rift and have an 8 or 9-minute Oculus Rift experience.
Q: I know someone who’s coming to the festival for the first time. What do you want her to take away from the experience?
A: We’d want her to feel the empowerment of seeing a lot of different things about the world. I think there’s so much to be said for being able to access all of these different viewpoints and ways of expressing things that go far outside the mainstream culture. We’d want her to experience the richness and diversity we live in. So I’d hope that somebody coming for the first time would see things they’re not familiar with...and be okay with that.
Q: The legacy of the AAFF as the longest-running independent and experimental festival in North America is an honor for Ann Arbor. Do you feel a sense of responsibility that Festival goers leave with a sense of that history?
A: I do think about it a lot. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. The Festival has been here since 1963 and it still embodies the ethos in which it was founded - that particular time and place in history where there was such a rich political, social, and even fashion culture in every direction you looked. I think this heritage ties directly into the diversity of independent cinematic voices and our embracing of that diversity of expressions. It’s still relevant. So I think it’s important to stay grounded in the Festival’s history while also moving toward the future using the technologies that will now allow for much more of this experimentation.
Q: Any final thoughts on this year’s Festival?
A: I’ve been thinking lately about the sense of the collective journey. For a lot of people who are invested in joining us for the whole week – or even if you’re only coming to a few programs – there really is a sense of embarking on something unknown with a spirit of adventure. There are all kinds of things to discover, conversations to be had, thoughts to be thought, and feelings to be felt. Part of it is looking at the work and having the opportunity to share it with those you came with or walk out of the screening and then run into someone in the lobby and talk about what you’ve just experienced.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at AADL.
If the combination of puppets, moody robots, and quiet romance – all accompanied by a pop culture-inspired string quartet, moving fluidly from synth to pop to jazz – sounds intriguing and magical, then you need to go see Nufonia Must Fall.
Nufonia Must Fall is based on a nearly-wordless graphic novel published in 2003 by Kid Koala, a D.J., producer, composer, and studio contributor for the band Gorillaz, based in Montreal. As evidenced by his artistic output, Kid Koala, is comfortable in a wildly idiosyncratic, exciting, and whimsical world of raw beats and emotionally-charged stories. Sadly, the graphic novel is out of print, but this live performance uses mixed media to bring the story to life in ways the book alone never could.
The story takes place in Nufonia, a drab, monochromatic place, where T4, a robot, falls in love with a customer at the sandwich shop where he works – after having been fired and replaced by a newer model robot at his old job. The customer reciprocates T4's love and a romance unfolds. The adorable puppets are all white and stand about 10 inches tall. The simple intimacy of the story draws you in and holds you as the highs and lows of their romance play out.
All of the action is projected on a large screen, as the action takes place on a stage of shoebox-sized sets. It’s thrilling to watch the shadowy shapes of the puppeteers create the action in real time – offering up the skin-tingling sensation that only a live performance can evoke.
Kid Koala has said that "Nufonia" is derived from “no fun,” and for those who live there, “what’s going on in their mind gets in the way of having fun.”
Abandon any preconceived notions you may have about puppets, robot love, or marsupial DJs, and come out for a moving and magical evening of unusual storytelling.
Erin Helmrich is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library, a fan of the Gorillaz, graphic novels, and adorable stuff in all forms.
"Nufonia Must Fall" runs Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11 at 8 pm at The Power Center. The performance is presented by UMS as part of the International Theater Series UMS on Film.