Of all of the Ann Arbor Film Festival artifacts that adorn the walls of beloved Dominic's restaurant in Ann Arbor, perhaps none represents the true essence of the festival better than the nude poster of performance artist Pat Olesko. Olesko, a longtime festival collaborator, is shown gloriously naked, eyes focused on her hands a profusion of black pubic hair blooming from the bottom of the frame. Though indisputably a product of its times (the late '60s), the image represents a kind of willful optimism. Like Tree Town's hippie utopia was going to last forever.
Ann Arbor has a different vibe these days. Drake's Sandwich Shop, once the oddball hub of campus life, got scrapped for a Bruegger's Bagels in the '90s paving the way for an influx of corporate giants into the State and Liberty area. Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Borders and Cosi have all made themselves at home in the city's epicenter of cool and so it is that the annual Ann Arbor Film Festival finds itself, along with the Fleetwood Diner, Crazy Jim's and a few other stalwarts, among Ann Arbor's landmark counterculture holdouts.
An internationally renowned bastion of alternative and experimental film, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is now in its 45th year, tenaciously maintaining as one of the most revered film festivals in the country. But these days, its producers are having to fight a little harder to keep the cutting-edge fest afloat and the willful optimism alive.
After more than 10 years of receiving state funding to assist in presenting its diverse programming, the festival is presently declining financial support from the state of Michigan. This after the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) cut part of its contribution due to a dispute last year over the festival's content. According to state Rep. Fran Amos, who chaired MCACA for the last two years, the primary film in question, No American Dream, by German filmmaker Julia Ostertag, was cited not for its content, but for its title.
"It was more the name of the film than what was in the film," says Amos, by phone from her Lansing offices. "I don't think anyone saw it at the state level."
Regardless, MCACA, taking cues from past battles in the nation's culture wars, added a clause to its grant guidelines last year stating that funding may not be used for projects that include "displays of human wastes on religious symbols, displays of sex acts and depictions of flag desecration." The terms, as written, appear to be nonnegotiable. "You can't punish everyone for one person's deviance from what is considered favorable," explains Amos. "So we tightened up the rules and regulations."
(The clause recalls what resulted after Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" debate, the photograph that in 1989 got Sen. Jesse Helms in an uproar on the Senate floor after it won a competition partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.)
For the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the clause was too much.
"It's so easy for those [guidelines] to be used against the artists," says festival executive director Christen McArdle. "Michigan is one of the only states in the entire nation that makes artists follow content restrictions. In order to follow [these parameters], we would have to make changes to our programming and we can't do that. We have an obligation to an international community."
The festival has responded by making plans to screen No American Dream again this year, along with some of the other films that caught the attention of state legislators. It has also created programming aimed at addressing issues of censorship and the history of sexuality in film programming funded in part by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (presenters of the Academy Awards), which contributed $10,000 in direct response to the MCACA issue. The MCACA last year gave the fest almost $14,000 toward its overall operating costs of about $200,000.
For Michigan native Chris Gore, it was the anti-establishment, arts-positive atmosphere that first lured him to Ann Arbor as a teen. Attending his first Ann Arbor Film Festival in the early '80s, Gore went on to found Film Threat magazine while enrolled at Wayne State University. He is now a leading authority on film festivals and independent film and will be moderating a discussion on censorship at this year's festival.
"Ann Arbor is unique among film festivals from the standpoint of always championing emerging filmmakers, cutting-edge filmmakers and a lot of filmmakers that don't really get play at other festivals," says Gore from his home in Los Angeles. The festival "offers an opportunity to see something beyond the mainstream, beyond the films pre-packaged and sold to you at the multiplex."
According to Gore, strategies that used to give independent filmmakers muscle are now being adopted by the big studios, making it even more important for an institution like the Ann Arbor Film Festival to maintain the integrity of its vision.
"The problem is that the studios have gotten better at it than the independents by using the same guerrilla marketing and having much greater resources in terms of people and money," he says. "But I do believe that the cream rises to the top and the best films find an audience. And the beginnings of where filmmakers test their work out is at festivals like Ann Arbor."
While the funding issue has inspired some of the programming this year, the festival's commitment to presenting new work, unusual themes and influential filmmakers remains firmly intact. Among the more than 150 films that will be screened during the festival's five-day run is Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses, which influenced Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. (Matsumoto will make a rare live appearance to present the film). There will be midnight screenings of the Alejandro Jodorowsky classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and a collaboration with Ann Arbor's sister festival, the San Francisco Cinematheque, which will feature a variety of films exploring the body as landscape. The juried competition films will screen throughout the week, and featured artists Ken Jacobs, Robert Todd and Bruce McClure will be on hand to discuss special screenings of their work.
Todd, 43, whose experimental film career began in 1989, is an excellent example of the Ann Arbor Film Festival's commitment to developing new artists. He first submitted to the festival in 1997 and had work accepted in 1998. He has been a regular contributor since and is now a respected voice in experimental film. Todd returns this year with featured screenings of seven of his films.
"It's really important to have a place like this, especially for people dealing with experimental or poetic work," says Todd from his Boston home. "It's great to have a huge variety of work and a variety of people there so that you can kind of figure out where your interests lie. More specialized or simpler festivals don't really offer that. I think the Ann Arbor festival has been really great at keeping a broad-minded view of what its audience can be."
In Gore's estimation, the audience is the Ann Arbor Film Festival's critical component. "These were people who were moved and changed forever by the films they experienced," he says of his early festival encounters. "I wanted to be with that audience every time I saw a movie."
Tuesday, March 20, through Sunday, March 25, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. For more information, go to aafilmfest.org or call 734-995-5356.
Note: The Michigan Theater boasts two screening spaces. The 1,700-seat main auditorium will host the film competition, and the 200-seat screening room will house curated programming, workshops and seminars.
Wendy Case is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]