Gregory Porter has ascended to become one of the premier male jazz singers of his, or any, generation. While his talent is unquestionable, it is the purity of his voice and the diversity he employs that makes him a standout performer and presence in contemporary popular music.
Over four CDs and a constant touring schedule, Porter has risen to the top in quick order. While his style incorporates the best of traditional jazz sound reminiscent of a young Billy Eckstine, he also takes cues from early influence of Nat “King” Cole on the more sophisticated side. He combines the bluesy hints of Joe Williams and Jimmy Witherspoon, with a dash of Stevie Wonder, while adding the soulful elegance Gregory Hines, an artist known more for his dancing or acting than his undervalued singing. Porter is also fond of the duet configuration.
Today’s kingpin Kurt Elling has had a dominant fifteen year run atop polls and album sales. Jose James is adored by many, Freddy Cole is everlasting, while Kevin Mahogany's consistency has led to his longevity. But Gregory Porter’s rise to stardom has trumped them all.
Porter's 2010 debut, Water, was a breakthrough on many artistic levels and demonstrated his exceptional talent. His follow-up Be Good, proved Porter was consistent while avoiding clichés, and led him to his current label, the legendary Blue Note Records. Two more CDs have cemented his place as a big fish in a small pond of male jazz vocalists. 2013’s Liquid Spirit and his new effort, Take Me To The Alley, have proven the most important element of a great artist – standing the test of time as a musician with a universal appeal.
Porter’s producer since day one, Kamau Kenyatta, has a distinct local connection. Those who attended the early period Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festivals may remember Kenyatta, then a prominent regular performer at the event, playing soprano saxophone and piano in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Teddy Harris, Jr. Kenyatta left Detroit for Florida, and then San Diego where he has carried on a role as a professional educator. It was in California that Porter connected with Kenyatta and was exposed to a hip hop and electronic dance music community that is yet another facet of his persona.
Porter is on a hot streak as he comes to Ann Arbor this week, with multiple wins as Best Male Jazz Singer in the Down Beat Magazine Critics and Readers Poll, as well as a Grammy Award for Liquid Spirit. That CD, in an era of declining sales, sold a remarkable one million copies, in addition to becoming the most streamed jazz album ever at 20 million hits. Take Me To The Alley has been the #1 Jazz Album on Apple Music in dozens of countries across six continents.
Recently Porter has stated how he is finding himself, with no need to adapt and try to be a singer that compromises to overtly commercial considerations. His recent hit “Don’t Lose Your Steam” reflects this realization, recognizing his role of an extension of his parents as preachers, leading to his staunch individualism, refusal to sing a majority of standards, and confidence as a self-reliant artist – no mean feat. He’s also moved his family from New York City back to Bakersfield, further emphasizing the deep respect of his roots.
Porter's promise as an artist was evident in his early work, and as his career has matured, he is fulfilling that promise in spades.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Gregory Porter performs Wednesday, June 22 at 8 pm at the Power Center for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. For more information go to a2sf.org, call the Ticket Office at (734) 764-2538 or toll-free in Michigan at (800) 221-1229 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
I first learned of Hayes Carll from the Bob & Tom radio show about 10 years ago as I drove to work in the morning, singing such goofy favorites as "She Left Me for Jesus" and a wonderful cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Drunken Poet’s Dream". Then I kept listening. There was more than satire and twisted lyrics here.
Hayes started making records in 2002 after earning his chops in and around Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. He quickly developed a reputation for sharp-witted lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all in the same song. Hayes channels other Texas troubadours Lyle Lovett, the aforementioned RWH, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others, but possesses a fierce yet unassuming style of his own that becomes instantly familiar and comforting.
Of his first new album in five years, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes says, “It isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile. No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks, nor is it any kind of opus. It’s my fifth record—a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. Like I wanted to be."
Here’s your chance to discover – or to be reunited with – one of Americana’s most gifted and poignant songwriters, Hayes Carll, appearing at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor this Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Emily Gimble, granddaughter of legendary Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble, opens for Mr. Carll.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabe, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.
Tickets are still available but the Ark’s 400-seat Ford Listening Room is filling up fast. Grab your tickets online or take your chances at the door.
These days, comics are everywhere. Superheroes dominate the silver screen. Graphic novels burn up the best-seller lists. And of course, comic-cons are a nationwide craze.
But graphic storytelling is about more than comic commercialism. And this weekend, the Ann Arbor District Library is presenting a lineup of some of the most popular cartoonists with young readers and a slew of local talent to deliver an event more about passion for comics than profit: the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival.
Taking place Saturday and Sunday at the library’s main branch, A2CAF (as the show is known for short) is the continuation of the popular event formerly known as Kids Read Comics. The 2016 edition of this free festival not only brings over 50 comic creators to its "artist's alley" area to share their work with school-aged readers and their families – it will also host dozens of hands-on creative workshops all over downtown. And in a special Friday event, the show will welcome librarians and teachers to meet with the talent so they can boost their own comics bona fides. All in all, the guests and programming will work to build a love of the medium in all its attendees.
"Our ethos is 'A life can be changed by comics.' Mine was," explains A2CAF co-founder and organizer Dan Mishkin. And he should know. The Michigan-based writer spent years crafting stories for DC Comics including runs with Superman and Wonder Woman in addition to being co-creator of heroes like Blue Devil and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld (which was recently adapted as a series on Cartoon Network). The A2CAF team hopes to inspire a new generation of comic lovers. As Mishkin says, "You don't have to be a professional for your mind to be opened up by comics."
Getting the community excited about the medium starts with the all-star lineup of cartoonist and writers. This year, the keynote presenters will be the creator of the Newbery Honor-winning graphic novel El Deafo Cece Bell and her husband Tom Angleberger who is the mastermind behind the Star Wars-themed Origami Yoda series, amongst other books. Joining them on the show floor will be acclaimed artists like Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic's popular Amulet series), Ben Hatke (Zita The Spacegirl), and the team behind Oni Press's hilarious new comic BroBots, J. Torres and Sean Dove.
"These are all people who are committed to young readers and committed to comics, who you can see in their every move that they love this artform," Mishkin says. "We don't have the people who just sit behind their table and hope someone will talk to them. We also don't have the people who think that they're only there to sell their books. That's not our reason for being. Our reason is to instill a love of comics."
The organizer is also keenly aware of how much local flavor has been added to the show over the years. "Maintaining a variety is something that's really important to us, and it involves finding local people and being responsive to that," he explains. "We're always refining the mix of guests. It's not just about the professionals. It's about both the New York Times bestseller and the local person who's just starting out. You'll see a lot of Southeast Michigan and mid-Michigan creators who have a day job, but they're doing their webcomic on the side. It works out really well for them and for us to give them a showcase."
But as all artists presenting their wares at the show get to table for free, the organizers have an expectation for what the talent bring to the festival. "You need to represent what we're all about. I only half-jokingly say 'We don't care if you sell anything at your table.' Because for us, it's much more important that the artists engage with kids and teenagers and parents and teachers and librarians so that the passion for comics comes across."
That love extends into A2CAF's second major feature: its wide range of programming. Across the weekend, the library itself will hold comics-making workshops, a ceremony for the kids-focused Dwayne McDuffie Award, and signings for some of the biggest talent on hand. And on Friday, the A2Inkubate unconference will present educators and librarians with a chance to collaborate on methods for bringing comics to their students. But beyond that, programming will also pop up across downtown at spots including the Vault of Midnight comics shop, the 826 Ann Arbor Robot Supply & Repair storefront, and the Ann Arbor Art Center.
"It just makes sense to share the event with organizations with whom we share a mission. We're all in a Venn diagram of these things," Mishkin says. "It's really about turning young people onto having a passion for comics and doing it in a non-commercial setting with a lot of hands-on experience. During the show we're really, really hands-on. It's all about getting kids and teens to learn how to make comics. [Local cartoonist] Matt Feazell has his wonderful 'How To Make A Mini Comic' 90-minute workshop, which is so great, and there are other things that are geared towards different levels of ability. Some are geared towards storytelling, but one of the great revelations about doing these workshops is that kids are not inhibited about drawing. They just go ahead and do it.
"We're very much focused on hands-on workshops, and we also have programming that fits into the category of 'spectacle.' So if you're shy or somewhat inhibited, you can sit in an audience and watch artists compete with each other as they draw improvisationally. You can even shout out suggestions for what they can draw. And it always turns out that the kids that moms and dads think are inhibited get really into shouting out ideas for the cartoonists. We keep it fun, and there's a low barrier to participation."
That idea of an easy path into comics is what started the show now known as A2CAF. In 2009, the nonprofit called Kids Read Comics that runs the show launched their first event at the Chelsea District Library. And in 2016, the shift in name from Kids Read Comics to Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival represents a fulfillment of the team's mission. "I think the change in name means very, very little about [any kind of change in] the character of the show. It's an attempt to better state what we've been about all along," Mishkin explains.
For those curious about the festival's shift, the organizer explains that one key element of the previous iteration wasn't working. "Teenagers don't like being called 'kids.' With a distance from being a kid or a teenager myself, I failed to see that there was going to be an off-putting message in the word 'kids' for some of the people we really wanted to bring into the show. It was never our intention to say that teenagers shouldn't be involved. It was very much our intention that they should be there. They should be there to find really cool stuff, but if the name pushes them away, that's a big problem.
"The word 'Festival' instead of 'Convention' means you're not thinking about more 'adult' comics. You're thinking about joy."
Kiel Phegley is an Ann Arbor based writer, and teacher. His work has been published by CBR, Wizard Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Marvel Magazines, MTV Blogs, and many other print and web outlets.
A2CAF takes place at the AADL's main branch at 343 Fifth Avenue on Saturday, June 18 from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM and on Sunday, June 19 from 12:30 to 5:30 PM. For more info on the show and Friday's A2Inkubate conference, check out A2CAF.com.
Ann Arbor’s Carriage House will present a variety of theatrical productions this summer.
First up, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's three improv troupes CSI (Civic Short-form Improv), Dearly Beloved, and Luxury Possum, performing short skits and improv games, and “Whose Line is it, Anyway?”-style games.
The first Carriage House mainstage production will be Shakespeare's Hamlet directed by new Artistic Director Trevor Maher.
Hamlet is immediately followed by Spinning Dot Theater's A Mouth with Flame, an original one-man show by Spinning Dot’s Artist-in-Residence Tae Hoon Yoo that explores history, reliving personal experiences, and finding identity. (This show is aimed at 7 to12-year-olds.)
Carriage House’s second mainstage production will be Photograph 51, directed by Angie Feak, a humorous and moving portrait of Rosalind Franklin, one of the great female scientists of the 20th century, and her fervid drive to map the contours of the DNA molecule.
The season finishes with Spinning Dot’s Only a Day, a thought-provoking play about fox and a wild boar who can’t bring themselves to tell a dayfly that her life only lasts a single day. (This show is aimed at 7 to 12-year-olds.)
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's improv performances: June 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 8:00 pm.
Hamlet: June 30, July 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 at 8:00 pm; Sunday July 3rd at 2:00 pm.
A Mouth to Flame: July 14-17, time TBA
Photograph 51: July 28, 29 and 30th at 8:00 pm; August 4-6 at 8:00 pm; July 31st at 2:00 pm.
Only a Day: August 11-14, and 18-21, time TBA.
After a five-year hiatus, local folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate is back in the national spotlight with his new EP Old Factory. The Grand Rapids-based artist was first catapulted beyond the Midwest’s music scene with his 2011 album Salt Year, but the pressures of touring led to a five-year hiatus.
Bathgate’s latest batch of songs finds him sounding refreshed and reenergized. Old Factory is more upbeat than his often melancholic earlier records, and he says he’s already hard at work on two new full-lengths—a full length solo record, and the debut LP for his collaborative project SKULLLS.
This Thursday Bathgate will bring a full band to Top of the Park (which he calls “one my favorite performance opportunities”) for a free show. I caught up with Bathgate to talk about returning from his hiatus, the influence of nature on Old Factory, and the new direction his music seems to be taking.
Q: You’ve expressed some regret for how you handled the national attention Salt Year attracted. NPR exclusively debuted a track from Old Factory, so obviously a lot of people are paying attention to you again. Did you anticipate being in this position again?
A: I didn't expect NPR to promote this when it came out. Stephen Thompson, the gentleman who I guess premiered that announcement, has been a supporter for years. It's kind of strange. He's this kind of elusive figure in my life. I won't do anything for two years, and then I'll put something out and NPR will call. It's kind of nice. I think a lot of that national exposure is credited to him maybe being on top of it.
I think it's pretty easy to forget about artists, especially when they don't do anything for two or three years, or at least they aren't in the public eye for two years. That was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't something I was shooting for, I was just excited to have music coming out. The vision had been solidified for so long, so it was nice to finally get to share those songs.
Q: Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with those expectations: to release music at a faster pace?
A: I think trying to keep up momentum is a goal, but I've never really let it bring me down. I don't know if my process allows for that kind of visibility, of putting something out every 8 to 12 months. It takes me a long time to do anything with music, and I think that's better. You can only release a record once, you know? It's better for me to take my time and make sure everything's up to snuff and everything comes out the way I want it to. The art's always been my number one priority. Maybe my process and the way the music industry works don't line up, but that's just fine with me.
Q: You had a long time to sit with the material on Old Factory before you finished the record. How do you feel about the final product?
A: I'm still making minuscule edits. When I went back I already knew exactly what I wanted to change about what I'd worked on. I re-tracked some strings and some drums. I had a long time to think about those things. If the hiatus did anything for that record, it made me see where I needed to shore some things up on my end, at least compositionally and sonically. It gave me the space to fall out of love enough with the songs to find out what core parts needed to change.
Q: Nature had a big influence on this record. Can you talk about how that manifests itself—lyrically or sonically—in these songs?
A: I guess the most obvious connection is the song Acorns and its percussion section. The inspiration for that song comes from being on my back porch while there were acorns thumping on the roof on the deck. So that's an actual sound in nature, and I think something I had been thinking about as well, conceptually. Not to sound obtuse, but it's an interesting thing to me, the seasonal downfall of acorns. It's like word painting. The percussion on that song is directly attributed to that. I didn't write it: an oak tree in my back yard did.
I was thinking about humans in nature. When do we feel a part of it? When do we feel excluded from it? When do we feel greater than it, and what really connects us? All of those things were rolling around pretty heavily in my mind when I was making that record.
Q: Old Factory sounds more urgent and uptempo than your previous records. What do you think accounts for that?
A: Before Salt Year it was pretty rare for me to play with a full band. The majority of my material is kind of lilting and slow, and somber, even. I think working with better and better studios, being more interested in percussion and drums—there's definitely a lot of rhythmic stuff happening on Old Factory—I think that's just the direction my interest has gone.
Coming out of an 8-track home bedroom folk mindset, I feel like I had never been able to get high-fidelity recordings of drums. They've been the most complicated to track coming from when I was first starting out, and as I've gotten into better and better studios I have the ability to lay down two full drum kits and have it sound really good and be able to use a lot of expensive overheads and stuff like that. I think the rhythm comes from my color palette as a composer, that I haven't been able to use those colors in that way up until recently. That expansion pack—the ability to record high-fidelity drums—comes from that. I think it's maybe me over-exercising that new ability.
Q: What can we expect from your show at Top of the Park?
You're going to hear some of the arrangements from the record slightly tweaked, with a full band with a full horn section, which I don't play every show with, but Top of the Park is one of my favorites. That's something that hasn't happened in a while. We'll have three horns as well as pedal steel. Some of my songs are really just about the arrangement, and we're going to have the capacity to flex those muscles at Top of the Park.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Chris Bathgate will play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at 8:15 pm on Thursday, June 16. He and his band will perform on the Rackham Stage, located at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
After reading Station Eleven — the recent sci-fi best seller about a troupe of actors and musicians traveling the dangerous shores of post-apocalyptic Michigan in order to keep culture, most notably Shakespeare, alive — I have a newfound respect for our peripatetic Tree Town tradition that attracts thousands of participants every summer: Shakespeare in the Arb, now in its 16th season.
This year, Kate Mendeloff of the University of Michigan Residential College will direct Love’s Labour’s Lost which she first took up and fell in love with 10 years ago. As the scenes change, performers (students and local actors) as well as the audience will move to various locations in U-M’s Nichols Arboretum, where the setting's natural landscape and pastoral splendor — broken only by the occasional jogger — will provide the perfect backdrop.
Bring a portable lawn chair or blanket. And remember that the stray bug (or two) is but a small thing to endure for the pleasure of experiencing Shakespeare al fresco. Just don’t forget to bring the OFF!
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Love’s Labour’s Lost runs Thursday-Sunday, June 9-12, 16-19, and 23-25, at 6:30 pm in Nichols Arboretum, 1610 Washington Heights. Tickets go on sale at 5:30 pm the day of each performance. Visit the Matthaei Botanical Garden website for more information, or call 734-647-7600.
The self-described “musical vacation” that is Grand Rapids’ The Outer Vibe will bring its neverending party to Top of The Park’s Rackham Stage for a free show this Saturday. The eclectic indie rock band — which comprises lead vocalist/guitarist Sean Zuidgeest, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/bassist Andrew Dornoff, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/trumpet player/keyboardist Lisa Kacos, and singer/drummer Noah Snyder — fuses radio friendly pop hooks with blistering surf guitar riffs, brassy orchestration, and lyrics that exude pure positivity.
The band has won friends and fans young and old alike on its most recent national tour, thanks in part to its generation-spanning influences ranging from Dick Dale and Paul Simon to Alabama Shakes and Foster the People.Trumpeter Lisa Kacos, speaking to me on the phone as the band headed out for a short East Coast tour, said even audiences unfamiliar with the group tend to get swept up in their infectious good vibes.
“Sometimes if it's our first time in a new place, I think a lot of people just kind of sit there and feel you out for a few songs, but I think I can say pretty faithfully that 100 percent of the time we have the audience up and dancing and having a great time.”
The group is currently on the road to promote a new live album, recorded this April in their hometown at the end of a three month trek across the country in support of their 2015 full-length, Full Circle. The Outer Vibe is one of the Mitt’s must-see live bands, and they promise to get the entire crowd on their feet this Saturday.
I caught up with Kacos to talk about the band’s recent travels and what fans can expect from the band going forward.
Q: Michiganders joke that it’s winter half the year here, but The Outer Vibe sounds like an endless beach party. Where does that positivity come from?
A: We write music that makes us feel how we want to feel. It's funny, a lot of people think we're from California. We've been told that quite a bit on tour. Our drummer likes to tell people that our music is a slice of paradise. We like to feel good, we like to be happy. Whether we're convincing ourselves of that because it's December in Michigan or not, we like to feel good and we want other people to feel good when they listen to our music.
Q: The Outer Vibe has earned a lot of attention for its dynamic performances. How do you sustain that level of energy night after night, for months at a time?
A: A lot of coffee [laughs]! No, it's just what we do for a living. We love music, we love putting on a live show, and we love meeting new people and new audiences all across the country, and seeing old fans too. It's a really exciting lifestyle, and it's always different, it's always changing. There's always something to look forward to.
Q: Has being on the road so much influenced your material in any way?
A: We are absolutely influenced by our travels, all of our experiences together. It's all about your relationships with the people you meet and living life to the fullest, we feel. We've made all kinds of great friends across the country, and it's very inspiring. I think that plays a big role in our writing.
Q: You have a live record coming out this summer, recorded at The Intersection in Grand Rapids at the end of your most recent national tour. What made that night so special that you decided to release it as an album?
A: We called it a homecoming concert, because we'd been on tour for three months covering the bulk of the United States, pretty much from Michigan straight down to Florida, and pretty much everything West. We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic, and we were right by the Canadian border and right by the border of Mexico. We covered a lot of ground, and we were gone a long time.
We decided to have a big homecoming concert in Grand Rapids because we missed our friends and family and we wanted to party with West Michigan. We just made it a really big thing. There were a lot of people there, and we were feeling really good about our live set. We'd played sixty concerts, so we figured it would be a good time to make a recording.
Q: The producer you worked with on Full Circle, Brad Dollar, has worked with some really big names in the past. What kind of influence did he have on the sound of the record?
A: Brad is great. We were on the same page, and he loves capturing a live, organic sound like we were after for a record. He's super enthusiastic. He was really good at reminding us how important it is to be ourselves, dig deep within, and write music that we love. I think that's going to stick with us as we work in the future.
Full Circle was a great album for our band. That was the first one with Noah, our drummer, so that was kind of a fresh start for us. We had a whole bunch of new music and we were deciding who wanted to be at that time. That album's a pretty good representation of our sound, so we're taking some of those sounds and using that as a jumping off point.
Q: What's next for the band?
A: We're writing all the time. We're also going to be touring a lot this summer. We kind of do both at once. We are looking to make an E.P. We're always working on our sound. We're always trying to be creative and push ourselves to create more great songs.
I think what we've been talking about doing is more of the things that really make our band The Outer Vibe, really utilizing the things that make us special. Like Nick's' guitar style is pretty particular to Nick. He's a classically trained guy with a master's degree in guitar performance, and he's pretty skilled, so we want to make sure he gets to play his guitar in a way that's unique to him. And my trumpet's a little bit different than most bands that have trumpet. And our rhythm section, the drums and bass, are just working the groove and making people feel good and dance. And I think Shaun’s voice is pretty recognizable. We're taking everything we like about our group and honing that in.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
The Outer Vibe will play the Rackham Stage at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at 10:45 pm on Friday, June 10. The Rackham Stage is located at Top of the Park at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
Along with being an EMMY® Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose films have been screened all over the country, Ann Arbor native Sophia Kruz is using her directing skills to shed light on global gender inequity in her forthcoming documentary Little Stones . The documentary is currently in post-production under the working title Creating4Change.
Kruz, along with Little Stones cinematographer Meena Singh, is a co-founder of the non-profit Driftseed, an organization that "seeks to empower women and girls through the art of documentary storytelling." United through a mission to use art for social good, the women in Kruz’s Little Stones range across continent and industry: American fashion designer Anna Taylor empowers impoverished Kenyan women; Indian dance therapist Sohini Chakraborty helps heal survivors of sexual abuse; graffiti artist Panmela Castro uses her art to advocate for survivors of domestic abuses; and Senegalese musician Sister Fa challenges female genital mutilation. Behind the telling of these narratives of empowered women is Kruz’s own artistic vision. I asked Kruz about her motivation for the film, the process of making an international documentary, and how members of Ann Arbor’s community can follow in her footsteps to foster positive change locally.
Q: Your early work as a filmmaker focuses on immediate stories in the Ann Arbor community as well as within your family. What drew you into these initial subjects?
A: My first documentary, Time Dances On tells the story of my parents, how they fell in love, how their marriage slowly dissolved, and ultimately, how my dad decided to come out as a gay man because of the love and friendship he felt towards my mom. It's a story that I felt really compelled to tell throughout college, first as a fun get-to-know-you fact in my freshman dorm, then sophomore year as a short fictional essay in an intro to creative writing course, then junior year as the premise of a fictional screenplay, and finally senior year in documentary form. I suppose in some ways I needed to work through that story first to be able to move onto other projects, but it was also the story that allowed me to discover my passion for documentary.
Q: Little Stones is a study of human rights issues all around the world, jumping between several countries and cultures. Was there a common thread you found within the people you interviewed?
A: Little Stones follows four women in India, Brazil, Senegal, and Kenya who are using dance, graffiti, music, and fashion to create positive change for women and girls. There were certainly a lot of themes and similarities between the four artists that I started to see when we went to visit the women in their home countries, the most prominent of which was self-sacrifice. All four women have given up something to be an artist and activist. Sister Fa perhaps says it best: "If you just come close to most of the activists, we try to find solutions for the world, but we don’t have solutions for our own lives.”
Q: What is the function of art in changing norms and attitudes?
A: I think art is hugely important in changing culture. Often, artists are also activists, on the front lines of social change movements. Art can ignite an idea in the collective consciousness, rally a community around an issue, and provide healing for those in need. I do think art is undervalued in American culture and that just saying, as a community, "art is important," really isn't enough—we need to invest in the arts as well.
That said, I think some of the best forms of problem solving come about when artists and creative minds are paired with activists, lawyers, law enforcement, government agencies, philanthropy, and everything in between. The challenges and barriers women around the world face are great, and they take many forms. Our approach to problem solving needs to be equally great and all-encompassing.
Q: Why does the film matter to those living in the Ann Arbor area?
A: I would quote Alyse Nelson, Executive Director of Vital Voices, who said in an interview for the film:
"If you look around the world with all the issues women face, the one thing that unites us is that there is not a single culture, community, country, religion that can say violence against women, domestic violence, culturally harmful practices, trafficking, rape does not exist. It exists everywhere. It is that thing that all of us face. And really the heart of it is how we value women in our societies, and in our communities, and our cultures, and if culture and values are a barrier, couldn’t we also look at how to use culture, to use the arts, and innovative creative means, and brains, to combat the negative influences of culture?"
That quote certainly rings true in Ann Arbor, where we have a human trafficking clinic run by the University of Michigan Law School dedicated to seeking justice for sex and labor trafficking victims in our own communities, local women's shelters in constant need of resources to support survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence, local law enforcement dealing with cases of sexual assault on U-M and EMU campuses, and lower rates of female executives and board members in local businesses and non-profit organizations. Everyone in this community, not just artists, but women and men, can volunteer at these organizations, fight for gender equity in their workplace, and be an agent of change.
Q: In addition to the local issues affecting gender equity in Ann Arbor, what will be unique about screening the film in your hometown?
A: We're planning a sneak preview screening of Little Stones at the Michigan Theater this October, in part because Ann Arbor has played a huge role in making this film possible. I say that for two reasons. First, I'm from Ann Arbor, and I think the values that launched this film—that art can create social change, and we all have a role to play—are a product of growing up in a community that values the arts and gender equity.
Second, this film literally would not have been possible without the moral and financial support I've received from my friends, family, mentors, colleagues, local artists, women's organizations, business leaders, state government, and the University of Michigan. I want Ann Arbor to get a sneak peek of Little Stones as a way to say thank you to everyone who's believed in the film from the beginning, and all the new allies we've made along the way.
Juliana Roth is a writer currently living in Ann Arbor whose poetry, essays and fiction have appeared in The Establishment, Irish Pages, Bear River Review, DIN Magazine, and other publications.
Little Stones is currently in post-production. You can stay up to date with Sophia Kruz’s work and future screenings on her website.
The Cinetopia International Film Festival, now in its fifth year, has never failed to live up to its name. But this year’s lineup is fit to surpass every other international film festival in the Midwest. Spanning numerous venues throughout Detroit and Ann Arbor over the next two weeks, Cinetopia will host 55 of the most exciting independent films that have screened at Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, and more. From narrative feature films to shorts, documentaries, and animated features, Cinetopia promises the cream of this year’s worldwide film festival crop.
This year’s programming features new offerings from established talent—including features starring Penelope Cruz and Viggo Mortensen, as well as Werner Herzog’s latest documentary—in addition to work from lesser-known talent, like Grand Rapids’ Joel Potrykus (writer/director of last year’s Buzzard) and L.A.’s Will Allen, whose buzzed-about new film Holy Hell examines his youth spent in a spiritual cult.
Cinetopia will also present several rare Disney screenings—Bambi and Fantasia are among them, both hosted by Leonard Maltin—outdoor screenings at Ann Arbor Summer Fest and the Detroit Institute of Art, and a selection of the finest Arab films on the festival circuit.
Michigan Theater CEO and Cinetopia founder Russ Collins offered some advice for navigating the festival’s vast offerings, suggesting, “Instead of picking out a whole bunch of films you want to see day after day after day, pick a few and set aside as many days as you can afford to go to the festival. Take a vacation in your own hometown.” His personal suggestions include the wacky Chinese musical Johnnie To's Office, the New Zealand comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Girls Lost, a film adapted from a Swedish young adult novel which he says is a favorite among Cinetopia’s programmers.
Though every film at Cinetopia has played another prominent film festival in the last year or so, Collins says each film isn’t guaranteed to please. He hopes festival-goers will embrace the element of surprise and try something outside of their comfort zones. He also notes that Cinetopia is one of the rare festivals that offers a stipend to its participating filmmakers, instead of making its money off of submission fees like, say, Sundance, which receives thousands of hopeful entries each year.
"I'm not promising that everyone's going to love every film that we show, but every film that we show has been vetted by other festivals,” Collins says. “We watched 450 films to come up with our 55 films on the program. We thought we could deliver a better quality international film festival by not having to try to adjudicate 4,000 films. We can benefit the filmmakers and the audience by working it this way."
Even given Collins’ suggestions, parsing out Cinetopia’s massive line-up is still a daunting task. Here are five films to consider to get you started, some of which I’ve seen and others that I’ve read about over the last year and am excited to finally see playing in my hometown.
English Language Fiction "> NR "> 82 min">
Grand Rapids filmmaker Joel Potrykus might finally find the larger audience he deserves with his latest film, about a young hermit who tries to summon Satan with a chemistry set in his backwoods trailer. Potrykus’s three previous films—the so-called Animal Trilogy—also center on outcasts compelled by destructive urges. His debut short Coyote is a minimalist werewolf movie about a junkie struggling to keep up with his addiction; his feature length debut Ape concerns a failed stand-up comedian who finds relief in pyromania; and last year’s excellent Buzzard follows follows a frustrated temp worker who pilfers money from his employer and turns a Nintendo Power Glove into a deadly weapon.
Just as his protagonists are simultaneously reprehensible and strangely likable, Potrykus’s films have a low key charm you can’t look away from, even when you’re horrified by the action onscreen. The Alchemist Cookbook is just as challenging and idiosyncratic as Potrykus’s other work to date. Not quite a horror film and not exactly a comedy, it’s loosely plotted but never aimless, and it’s totally unlike any other film playing at Cinetopia or elsewhere. In short: It’s the work of a promising young director at the peak of his powers.
The Alchemist Cookbook will screen at College for Creative Studies on Friday June 3 at 9:30 p.m., and the Michigan Theater on Wednesday June 8 at 9:30 p.m. Director/screenwriter Joel Potrykus will participate in a discussion following the opening night screening.
English Language Fiction "> NR "> 90 min">
Writer/director Stephen Dunn’s feature debut Closet Monster won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival for, “...its confidence and invention in tackling the pain and yearning of the first love and coming of age of a young gay man in Newfoundland.” That’s no small honor, and no small feat given the surprising scarcity of earnest, relatable queer characters in film and television today.
American Crime’s Connor Jessup stars as Oscar Madly, a troubled teen who longs to leave his abusive home life behind for his dream of becoming a movie make-up artist. Oscar’s saving grace is his creativity, which manifests itself on screen with visual panache thanks to Dunn’s inventive direction. Oh, and Isabella Rossellini voices Oscar’s pet hamster and main confidant, Buffy. What more could you ask for?
Closet Monster plays at Cinema Detroit Saturday June 4 at 7 p.m. and The State Theatre on Friday June 10 at 7:15 p.m.
Documentary "> R "> 107 min">
Brian De Palma is one of the most distinctive directors of the last five decades, if not one of the most revered, but his career has nearly as many downs as ups. The man behind classics like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables is also responsible for bombs like Snake Eyes and Bonfire of the Vanities, but he’s never lost his trademark voyeuristic style.
De Palma finally gets to tell his own story in this new documentary from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones). De Palma sits down for a fireside chat and tells the tale of his rise from low budget hopeful to underrated elder statesman. This isn’t your standard congratulatory, talking head ridden retrospective: De Palma’s is the only voice present, and no subject—be it his controversial depictions of women, or his films’ over-the-top violence—is off limits.
De Palma screens at the Detroit Film Theater on Sunday June 5 at 1:15 p.m.
Music/Concert "> 79 min "> NR">
Iggy Pop has hinted that his current tour will likely be his last. If you missed the godfather of punk’s historic return to Detroit in April, this film of his 2015 performance at Baloise Session in Basel, Switzerland (where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award) is the next best thing. Nothing can compare with seeing Pop twist and flail his wiry 69-year-old frame in person, but Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 captures the wild energy of one of rock’s most outrageous artists going out on a high note. The sprightly sextuagenarian blasts through an 80-minute set that balances crowd-pleasers like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Lust For Life” with deep cuts like “Five Foot One” and “Mass Production.”
Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 7 p.m. and at the Michigan Theater on Sunday June 12 at 7 p.m.
Documentary "> NR "> 98 min">
In the last decade Werner Herzog has primarily trained his efforts on documentaries, and in that time the German auteur has tackled subjects as diverse as death row (Into the Abyss), ancient cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) the dangers of texting while driving (From One Second to the Next), and the notorious bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man).
If those films have any one theme in common, it’s an urging to question the murky territory between perception and reality. It’s no surprise, then, that his his latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World examines the origins and implications of the most revolutionary and potentially catastrophic invention of the last century: the Internet.
With his devastating wit and sobering philosophical observations in full force, Lo and Behold claims not only to tell the story of how the World Wide Web came to be, but also to humanize the technology we rely on to automate our lives.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connect World plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 4 p.m., the State Theatre on Saturday June 11 at 9:30 p.m., and the Henry Ford on Sunday June 12 at 5 p.m.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Cinetopia International Film Festival runs June 3-12 in Detroit, Dearborn, Bloomfield Township, and Ann Arbor. Detroit screenings will take place at The Redford Theatre, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Cinema Detroit, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts and The N’Nambi Center for Contemporary Art. Dearborn locations include The Arab American National Museum and The Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience. The Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township will host several films.
The festival will shift its focus to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and the State Theatre June 9-12. Ticket info, showtimes, and screening locations are available online.
The awesomely expansive 2016 Allied Media Conference will be held in Detroit this year and aims to “bring together a vibrant and diverse community of people using media to incite change: filmmakers, radio producers, technologists, youth organizers, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, dancers, and artists.” The content of the conference is diverse too, including workshops, shows, and dance parties.
I interviewed Morgan Willis, Program Director of the AMC, about what we can expect from this year’s conference.
Q: You talk about AMC as a collaboratively-designed conference. Can you give a sense of the number and scope of collaborators who have worked on this year's event?
A: The Allied Media Conference is created each year through the passionate contributions of hundreds of coordinators, presenters, and volunteers. The AMC organizing process has been developed from an iterative cycle of feedback and learning between AMC participants and organizers. Through trial and error, survey and response, the organizing process is a continuous work in progress.
This year we have 60+ volunteer coordinators of the 28 different tracks, practice spaces, and network gatherings at the conference. We also have approximately 10 full time and part time staff members that work on the conference, as well as an advisory board of nine intergenerational, long-time AMC participants. We share the conference organizing process through our zines “How We Organize the AMC” and the “AMC Presenter Guidelines.”
Q: Who do you hope to see at AMC?
A: The AMC is a conference that is excited to center participants who live at the margins of conventional conference spaces: immigrants, youth, elders, black and brown folks, queer folks, parents, and others, while remaining open to our vast network of participants across all identities and spectrums. We hope to see first time AMCers, returning participants, Detroiters and media-makers from all over the continent.
Q: How does being situated in Detroit influence the conference?
A: This year will be the AMC’s 10th anniversary of being held in Detroit! Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference. Detroiters are also a significant percentage of our coordinators, participants, presenters and attendees.
Our offsite tours and field trips allow participants to see a variety of grassroots media-based organizing initiatives and experience different parts of the city that they may not know about or have access to. One of the most popular tours that is back this year is “From Growing Our Economy to Growing Our Souls” which explores Detroit history and emerging visionary organizing, led by Rich Feldman of the Boggs Center. Other tours will explore urban farming, “green” infrastructure, the Motown United Sound Recording Studio, and more unique places and initiatives in Detroit.
Q: Any tips for navigating the conference for newbies? How about return visitors?
A: As the AMC continues to grow, we hope to ensure that it is a welcoming space for first timers while also cultivating the intimacy and network building that many returning AMCers value so much. This year we will be offering “homeroom” sessions for first timers, hosted by returning AMCers who will help orient first timers to the AMC and offer best practices for navigating through the conference. We will also be sharing a list of “10 Things to Know as an AMC First Timer” on our website (alliedmedia.org/amc) so stay tuned!
One thing we always emphasize to both newbies and returning visitors is to plan your schedule in advance. We just released the online schedule and we highly recommend that attendees read through the 250+ sessions to get a feeling for what you’re most interested in before you arrive. This will also help you identify people and organizations you’d like to connect with so you can grow your network and build long lasting relationships.
Q: What are you personally looking forward to in this year's conference?
A: The Opening Ceremony is always a highlight! This year, through a partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts museum, we will host the Opening Ceremony inside the beautiful Detroit Film Theater, which has double the capacity of our previous venue. The event is produced by Tunde Olaniran and will bring together performers, activists, and live music as a celebration of the powerful wave of creative movement-building happening across the country.
I’m also especially excited to see the evolution of workshops from last year into tracks (series of multiple workshops) this year, like the “Black Death Mixtape” session, which has expanded into the “Black Survival Mixtape” track. And I love the return of tracks and network gatherings focused on important topics such as climate resilience and disability justice.
We will also be hosting several community dinners this year, which are a way for attendees to meet and connect over affordable, delicious, and locally sourced food. I’m especially looking forward to the Saturday night community dinner, “Bil Afiya: A Community Feast” at Cass Corridor Commons!
Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.