The Ann Arbor Film Festival celebrates collaboration. Sure, there are some movie mavericks who do everything themselves when creating a film, but it's usually a talented group of people combining their resources to create something special.
Chien-An Yuan lives for collabs.
The Ann Arbor polymath is capable of making films, photography, art, and music all on his own—and he has many times—but he prefers to work with others to bring creations to life.
And there are so, so many creations in Yuan's world.
Yuan is a co-founder of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) performance troupe IS/LAND, whose latest work, TETRA, will be performed at the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC), April 15-16 and 22-23. Featuring dancers J Amber Kao, Olivia Lemmenes, S Jean Lee, and Yuan on sound design, TETRA is all about transformation: "Forming rolls of colorful Hanji mulberry paper into shapes and pathways of wisdom, knowledge, and healing, the movement of the dancers offer improvised ‘rituals’ as communal gestures of healing and transmutation, ultimately creating a restorative healing space for both the audience and performers," writes Yuan.
IS/LAND then returns to the Ann Arbor District Library on May 20 for KIZUNA TREE, an interactive installation and performance. The event combines an Ikebana tree designed by Celeste Shimoura Goedert, sound recordings from the collaborative series AAPI Stories, which was co-developed by Zosette Guir of Detroit Public Television and journalist Dorothy Hernandez as a response to the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021, and movement, visuals, and readings by IS/LAND. "KIZUNA TREE is an exploration of communal healing for AAPI peoples, across generations, communities, and ethnicities," writes Yuan.
More immediately, Yuan has a couple of projects at the Ann Arbor Art Center—both collaborative, of course.
He worked with artist Thea Augustina Eck to create a string installation in the rear staircase of A2AC, using colored yarn to create a web of lines that fan out from single sources, only interacting in separated layers when looking down or up the length of the well.
The fiber art will still be at A2AC when Yuan, using an iPad, and percussionist Jonathan Barahal Taylor improvise a score to Mattieu Hallé's May Waves Rise From Its Floor on Thursday, March 23, as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Based in Ottowa, Canada, Hallé will be in Ann Arbor to screen the 16mm film of an abstract ocean landscape. He'll use a modified projector with a candle as its light source; the flame is moved and modified by Hallé's breathing and handheld pieces of broken crystal. As the shadows and light move and morph, Yuan and Taylor will react musically in real-time, making every screening of May Waves into a singular experience.
I spoke to Yuan about his current slate of artistic projects, and he gave us an update on some music he's preparing to release on his experimental record label, 1473.
A Portrait Study: Ann Arbor Film Festival highlights the Black, queer, experimental cinema of Edward Owens
Edward Owens' story may have been lost to history were it not for film programmer, writer, and Bard College professor Ed Halter.
An obscure figure from one of cinema's most elusive realms, Owens was a Black, queer, experimental filmmaker from Chicago whose career was cut tragically short.
In 2009, intrigued by an entry in the Film-Maker's Co-Op catalog about the experimental short Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, Halter reached out to Owens decades after he left his life in filmmaking behind. Their conversations brought newfound context to Owens' artistic vision, which helped amplify the voice of an artist whose compelling story was at risk of being relegated to obscurity.
Owens' life and limited collection of works is the subject of the 61st Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) program "Remembrance/Vacancy: The Films of Edward Owens" at the State Theatre on Thursday, March 23, 7 pm.
The event offers audiences the rare opportunity of seeing three Owens films back to back: Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967, 6 min.), Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966, 6 min.), and Tomorrow's Promise (1967, 45 min.).
Following the screenings is a conversation between Emily Martin, who programmed the event, and Jessica Ruffin, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Film, Television, and Media.
Societies of Cinema: Frank Uhle creates AADL exhibit, hosts a roundtable at the 61st Ann Arbor Film Fest discussing the cultural influence of campus film groups
Frank Uhle's upcoming book, Cinema Ann Arbor, covers the entire scope of film history in the city, from the old theaters no longer with us to the students who went on to be famous moviemakers.
But the campus cinema societies, who brought art films and experimental movies to town, are the heart of the tome's 344 pages.
Cinema Ann Arbor is a co-publication of Fifth Avenue Press—the Ann Arbor District Library's publishing imprint—and the University of Michigan Press and officially comes out in June, but Uhle will have 50 copies for sale in time for the roundtable he's hosting on Friday, March 24, as part of the 61st Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF).
Uhle will moderate "Cinema Guild and Campus Film Societies: Their History and Legacy," a discussion with former University of Michigan film society members, including Hugh Cohen, a longtime cinema professor, a juror at the second AAFF in 1964, and the faculty advisor to Cinema Guild in 1967 when he and three others were arrested for showing Flaming Creatures, a short that was deemed obscene. Cohen is joined by Dave DeVarti (Alternative Action film series), Philip Hallman (Ann Arbor Film Cooperative), and Anne Moray (Film Projection Service).
To coincide with AAFF, Uhle also put together an exhibit at AADL's Downtown location, "Cinema Ann Arbor: Film Societies, Film Festivals, and Filmmaking in the Analog Era," which is on display through April 13. It features artifacts from Uhle's personal collection as well as material he gathered during his extensive research while writing Cinema Ann Arbor. (Additionally, Uhle and AADL's archives team are posting material to an online repository at aadl.org/cinemaannarbor.)
We'll speak to Uhle more in-depth about Cinema Ann Arbor when it comes out this summer (though you can pre-order it now). Our interview below is specifically about the cinema societies that helped influence Ann Arbor culture for nearly 70 years as well as his AADL exhibit.
Three years ago, The Ark was set to be the venue for the Midwest premiere of The Fourth Messenger, a musical with a modern perspective on the life and teachings of the Buddha. Then the pandemic hit and the musical was canceled.
Now, almost three years to the day, The Fourth Messenger, with book and lyrics by Tanya Shaffer and music and additional lyrics by Vienna Teng, will finally get its Midwest premiere at The Ark on March 18. The concert-style performance will be a benefit for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s popular home for folk, jazz, and alt-country.
In an interview with Shaffer in 2020, she described what inspired the musical while she was on a spiritual retreat.
“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he was found under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that it would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest, and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”
Shaffer didn’t pursue the idea for another five years. She said she had trouble deciding how to handle the story about the historical Buddha and his teachings.
“I started to think how would people view this story if it was a woman, and I wanted to update it and make it feel very relevant and contemporary,” Shaffer said. “So it took me five years to find my way into it and then many years to workshop.”
The Fourth Messenger premiered at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, California, in 2013 and was presented at the New York Musical Festival in 2017.
Stephanie Heit's New Hybrid Memoir Poem "Psych Murders" Examines Shock Treatment, The Aftermath, and How Time and Memory Move in Unexpected Ways
What do you do when the brain “acts more colander than container?”
Poet Stephanie Heit tests out an answer: “Strengthen your faith in electricity.” Her hybrid memoir poem, Psych Murders, reports on the decision to experience and recover from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Psych Murders contains a number of sections, often titled with questions such as “What brings you pleasure?” and “Are you safe?”
This journey with shock therapy and other attempted remedies takes the poet to a point where:
How to swim.
Lose any sense
This path also later reaches a place where, “Hope became a location.” The poet expresses some bitterness that, “I thought they’d figure out the code. No lack of rigor. But my body didn’t respond the way the data predicted.” Still, the side effects like memory loss and frustrations do not fully define the process for Heit. Instead, Heit concludes with the poem, “Testament,” which consists of a series of “I am” statements that embrace all parts of her identity.
Shortly after the start of the book, the Murderer appears, often described in third person, but always menacing and forming his own character, as the poet observes, “…I’m not alone. I have Murderer stalking my every move.” In a distressful twist in the poem, “The Murderer: Primetime,” he gets a chance to speak and shares his goal to reach her because he states of the poet that, “She haunts me—the one who slow danced in my grip. I’ll wait.” Despite his persistence, the Murderer’s interest in suicide nevertheless does not come to fruition, a victory for the poet and us readers.
Instead, Heit describes learning to live with the circumstances. The poem, “Chronic,” shows a begrudging acceptance that:
Chronic sounds like forever. Persistent forever. With a twang to the way the “ic” sticks in the throat. Almost guttural. Starts out ok. Chron, like chronological, that domino effect, out of control falling because gravity exists. But the ending turns. I am stuck with Chronic the rest of my life. Better than Terminal unless it refers to airports. Though at least with Terminal there is beginning, middle, end. Chronic is middle with no way out.
The poet shows us how, on the one hand, Chronic comes with its downsides, but on the other hand, Chronic means being alive.
Heit is a queer disabled poet, dancer, teacher, and codirector of Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space, based in Ypsilanti. We spoke to Heit about her writing, teaching, latest book, and next project.
Bach to the Start: U-M professor Dr. James Kibbie revisits J.S. Bach's complete organ works in a series of concerts as he prepares to retire after 42 years
On the evening of April 16, when Hill Auditorium fills with the opening notes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, University of Michigan organ professor James Kibbie will be on the precipice of completing an incredible achievement.
This work is the final of Bach’s 281 solo organ compositions that Kibbie will perform in his 18-concert series that began in September 2022. It's a monumental musical offering that marks the end of Kibbie’s 42-year tenure as professor of organ at the University of Michigan.
The concert series also marks the culmination of Kibbie’s life-long relationship with Bach’s music.
“I’ve been working on this a long time,” Kibbie says. “Some of the first simple pieces I learned on the organ were by Bach.”
Keys to the Past: Ann Arbor’s Legacy of Theater Organs Creates Timeless Moviegoing Experience for Patrons
It was New Year’s Eve 2011 and we wanted a low-key way to celebrate.
The theater’s Screening Room featured a couple of showings, and we opted for the 9 pm show. That way, we could see the film and still get home to watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
When we arrived at the theater, we saw a musician playing a Hammond organ about 20 minutes before The Artist started.
The organist provided pre-show entertainment and didn’t accompany The Artist during its screening, but his performance sparked our curiosity about the instrument, including the 1927 Barton pipe organ in the Michigan’s Main Auditorium.
For us, the theater organ served as a brief musical portal to the past, recalling a bygone era when it accompanied silent films at movie palaces from the 1900s to the 1920s.
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed seeing organists perform on Barton pipe organs at the Michigan Theater—the only one left in Ann Arbor—and Detroit’s Redford Theatre. Those beautiful theater organs offered warm welcomes as we took our seats to watch different films.
Nearly a decade later, I wanted to learn more about local theater organs, the theaters that housed them, and the organists who play them.
Mosley is the lead vocalist of an Ypsilanti fuzz-rock band of three high school friends who have been making music together for over a decade. Mosley is joined by drummer McKinnon Main and guitarist Anthony (Tony) Scott. Last October, the group finally finished the process and seized an outcome: its debut album, this was it.
Nestled midway through the album is one of the group’s favorite and most important tracks, “settle.” Like any great Midwest emo song, it begins on the porch. You can practically smell the American Spirits when you tune in.
“‘Cause staying in is much like going out / at least when we still had the choice / but since we don’t we can just make it easier to / settle the mind behind these red-laced bedroom eyes,” the chorus rings.
Although it may sound like an ode to quarantine, “settle” raises questions about fate, the promise of temporary relief, and what the future holds. It starts with a dance on the porch, teetering between going out and staying in, and by the end, you’re invited inside.
“It was kind of a lynchpin where it seemed to connect all the songs around it,” Scott said. “But it also felt like a real step forward lyrically for us. To step out of our comfort zone instrumentally was also a driving factor, and we really felt like we had something at that point.”
Courtney Faye Taylor explores racial injustices and the killing of Latasha Harlins in her debut poetry collection
Poetry becomes both memorial and voice in Courtney Faye Taylor's first book, Concentrate, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The University of Michigan alum's poems honor, research, bristle, and circle back to the life and killing of Latasha Harlins, a Black girl gunned down by a Korean store owner, Soon Ja Du, in Los Angeles.
“In any black sentence, you’d love nothing more than to had made no mistake.” The opening prose poem that ends with this sentence mourns and fortifies Black womanhood. As Aunt Notrie says in the next poem, “The Talk,” it “Ain’t about trying, it’s about doing.” These lines do not let injustices lie but instead, “The poet wades into an uneasy ocean of interrogations that do not permit her any distance from what she has witnessed her entire life,” writes Rachel Eliza Griffiths in the introduction.
Some of the poems revisit history, like March 16, 1991, when Harlins lost her life. The poet starts another prose poem to outline how:
A timeline details a seriousness of events. As a diagram of occurrence, a timeline’s chief objective is to show how passed happenings caution and contaminate our contemporary sense of momentum. A professor may author timelines to teach what precedes and what follows genocide. On the overhead, Rwanda is a centipede with its head in Belgium and tail on stage of the ’05 Oscars.
The past remains with us as warning and blemish, and Taylor writes, “So I’m drawing a line.”
Other poems fashioned like Yelp reviews make stark the differences in treatment and standards among people. One of them gives two stars for “BLACK OWNED BUT HOURS WRONG ONLINE.” Such an offense garners a bolded complaint and strong consequence that “I will find a Korean store.” The loss of business for incorrect hours reinforces inequity and harshness.
Eventually, the poet goes to Los Angeles and visits the site of Harlin’s murder, “But there are no signs of murder, memorial, or resistance when I arrive. The ground is like any ground. Normalcy devastates. Stillness lies to me about history.” Taylor’s poems teach us that what is not visible is still present.
Early on, Aunt Notrie defines the word "concentrate" as “A strong, hard focus.” Taylor takes on that focus to scrutinize history through the poems. Later, Concentrate is a call to action, as in “Concentrate. We have decisions to make. Fire is that decision to make.” The word “we” leaves no one out. It is all of us who have responsibility.
Taylor is a writer and visual artist who earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Prize in Poetry. We spoke about Taylor's time in Ann Arbor, her poetry, and Concentrate.
"'I have a crisis for you': Women Artists of Ukraine Respond to War" acts as an archive of witness and response
"I have a crisis for you": Women Artists of Ukraine Respond to War was first shown at the University of Michigan's Lane Hall Exhibit Space last August 25 through December 16, and it was brought to U-M's Weiser Hall from January 3 through February 23.
And the curators don't think the exhibition is complete.
“I can’t say it's a finished project, because it will have afterlives,” said co-curator Jessica Zychowicz, director of the U.S. Fulbright Program in Ukraine, who also earned her Ph.D. from U-M.
She and co-curator Grace Mahoney—a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, and a graduate fellow for exhibits at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at U-M—hope the multimedia exhibit keeps finding new venues beyond Ann Arbor and can serve as an educational tool, or at least serve as an archive of work in which women describe and respond to their own particular experiences of war.
"I have a crisis for you" features paintings, writing, photos, and more by:
- visual artist and sculptor Kinder Album
- photographer J.T. Blatty
- visual artist and U-M grad student Oksana Briukhovetska
- visual artist and designer Sonya Hukaylo
- filmmaker, artist, and performer Oksana Kazmina
- visual artist Lesia Kulchynska
- poet and translator Svetlana Lavochkina
- visual artist Kateryna Lisovenko
- poet and screenwriter Lyuba Yakimchuk
Zychowicz and Mahoney did their curation remotely: Mahoney from Ann Arbor; Zychowicz from Warsaw, Poland, where she moved from Kyiv when the invasion began. To inform the project, the curators drew on previous relationships they had with the artists and writers as well as their own scholarship: Zychowicz is the author of Superfluous Women: Art, Feminism, and Revolution in Twenty-First Century Ukraine, and Mahoney is the series editor of Lost Horse Press' Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series.
Zychowicz and Mahoney recently talked with me over Zoom to discuss the exhibit. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.