This year, the Ann Arbor film festival celebrates 54 years in existence. A lot can change in a half-century. Back when it began, the festival was all about exposing audiences to cutting-edge films that lacked wide distribution. These days, most large festivals, such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, present themselves more as independent film supermarkets for distributors. While the offerings at the Ann Arbor Film Festival have changed over the years, it’s still very much about championing the small, arty films that crack the imagination back open.
It’s a point of pride for the fest’s executive director, Leslie Raymond, who agrees: “We are definitely in the minority. There’s a huge film market out there, and we’re outside of that whole system. One of the things that we’ve talked about internally is the way filmmakers go to a lot of those other festivals as a kind of a beginning, of finding where the wings of distribution are going to take their films. Our festival is more of a destination, especially for work that’s artist-made, experimental, avant-garde, off-the-beaten-path.”
The festival occupies a kind of sweet spot precisely because it embraces the offbeat, from cinéma vérité and observational documentaries to boundary-pushing experimental animation. And even though the Internet and on-demand video have expanded our ability to see trailblazing work, the AAFF still draws a large, engaged audience that values the festival’s commitment to the unusual.
In the last decade, the festival has comprised more feature-length films (there are a dozen such films in competition this year) and more animation. Raymond says it’s “a really great way for a broader public to connect to the festival.”
Of course, for longtime attendees, the heart of the festival is sitting down to a program of shorts. For five, 10, or 15 minutes at a time, you might be transported somewhere surprising; and if you didn’t like a film, it wouldn’t be long before it would be over. This year, there are 14 programs of 125 short films in competition, including a special evening of animated films at 9:30 p.m. Friday. What’s more, there will even be a morning of family-friendly programming, including shadow puppetry from local artist Tom Carey, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 19.
That said, for many fans of the festival, it will be the showcases of work by established filmmakers that determine which days and which theaters they’ll be sure to hit during the week. Here’s a peek at some of the offerings.
Fans of out-there animation are in for a special treat next Thursday, when a special Penny Stamps Presents event will feature Irish-born, Los Angeles-based animator David OReilly, whose work has been honored at past Ann Arbor Film Festivals. OReilly directed the video game sequences in the Spike Jonze film Her (2013), and has even crossed platforms to create his own 2014 video game, Mountain. His work is sort of like Internet memes come to life and then swiftly cut down a la Grand Theft Auto. OReilly himself will be in attendance. Starts at 5:10 p.m. Thursday, March 17.
One of the festival's main highlights will be a retrospective of feminist trailblazer Chantal Akerman, with three of her works in the festival this year, including News From Home (1977) at 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, From the East (1993) at 5 p.m. Friday, March 18, and No Home Movie (2015) at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 20. Akerman committed suicide last year, and festival director Raymond says it prompted the decision to feature her work this year.
Andrew Noren's The Lighted Field
Another of last year's experimental film casualties was Andrew Noren, a filmmaker who pioneered experimental film in the 1960s with a work entitled Kodak Ghost Poems, which later became part of a larger project called Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse. Experimental film critic J. Hoberman once called his early work "the definitive self-portrait of the male, heterosexual artist as a young boho with a movie camera." This year's program includes what Hoberman called "one of his greatest films," The Lighted Field, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 16.
A contemporary experimental filmmaker with 30 years' worth of work, Jem Cohen seems a natural choice for the Ann Arbor Film Festival. With an observational style that artists such as Jonas Mekas or Chantal Akerman helped pave the way for, Cohen's work is often set out in the street, where his lens focuses on everything from pedestrians to protests to performers. His latest film, Counting, will screen at 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 16. Some of his shorter works will screen at 9:15 p.m. Friday, March 18. Cohen will be in attendance both nights, offering a rare opportunity to see and question the filmmaker in person.
78 Letters by Grahame Weinbren
Grahame Weinbren will present an adventure in "interactive cinema." Raymond explains, "He's got 78 clips, one minute each, and the audience will direct him on how to put it all together there in the theater. Then the film will evolve with that input, with that energy, that audience participation. I think that leads to a different level of commitment from the audience." The fun begins at 3:15 p.m. Sunday, March 20, and will include three more short films.
The Event by Sergei Loznitsa
This unusual film is assembled from footage shot by eight independent documentary filmmakers showing the events that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union as they unfolded in St. Petersburg in August 1991. When it comes to "observational documentary filmmaking," this is exactly the sort of thing that puts you in the center of an event in a way international news coverage can't. As Raymond says, it offers "that counterpoint to what we get through the news channels." It screens after two shorts, starting at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 20.
Out Night and Curt McDowell
This is the 15th year the fest has included a special program of films in competition with an LGBTQ theme. It will be preceded by a live drag performance by Girlz Will Be Girlz and will include work from Wrik Mead, Zia Anger, Steve Reinke, and Akosua Adoma Owusu. The gender-bending begins at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, and will include Loads by McDowell. In fact, McDowell gets a special close-up look this year. Raymond says, "He's a filmmaker who was shown in the festival's early days, up through probably the early '80s, when he passed away from AIDS." A bunch of newly restored work from McDowell will be screened, including such bawdy titles as Wieners & Buns Musical, Beaver Fever, and Stinky-Butt. That program begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 17. One other piece of orientation-oriented work is Scott Northrup's "Where the Boys Are," a nine-channel video installation at the aquarium gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center, with nine screens running loops sampled from seminal 1980s coming-of-age films.
For a full program of films and other events, including afterparties, see aafilmfest.org. Festival runs March 15-20, 2016.