Let's be straight here, OK? A few years ago the Ann Arbor Film Festival was less than fantastic. It had been lost in the experimental film wilderness, catering to the tastes of an old-school board and ignoring its dwindling audience. Neither metro Detroiters nor Ann Arborites considered the storied fest — which once upon a time showcased the early work of Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Gus Van Sant, Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas — as a must-see cultural event. Compared to the local zeal shown for, say, Sundance, Telluride, Austin or even Fort Lauderdale (all much younger fests by the way), Ann Arbor's hometown support was underwhelming. Part of the problem was the festival's stale approach to "cutting edge" cinema (they were stuck in '60s and '70s era innovations). Part of the problem was its "if you don't get it, it's your fault" attitude.
Then in 2005, Christen McArdle, who had spent four years working in the film industry, stepped in to run the fest (she's now the artistic director), and shit started to change. Though it took her a year or two to get her bearings and clean up the mess that the fest had become, her changes quickly had impact.
Donald Harrison, an indie filmmaker and now the festival's executive director, was immediately excited by the changes. "I had heard about how much of a mess it [the festival] was even when I was living in San Francisco. It had a pretty bad reputation. Christen spent a lot of time crafting programs that took into consideration the audience's experience, taking them on an emotional journey rather than just jarring them with films that didn't really work together."
McArdle refined A2FF's screening process and redesigned individual programs on a thematic level. The old guard complained. Filmmakers who traditionally assumed they'd get into the fest found their work rejected in favor of newer artists. McArdle was ruffling feathers but audiences, by and large, responded positively.
"When I started to change things, some people complained that it wasn't the same Ann Arbor Film Festival," McArdle explains, "which of course it wasn't. But after 47 years, things should be different. I mean, how many scratchy films can we watch? I thought it was important that the festival stay relevant. When I came in it felt a bit archaic. We had to ask tough questions about our brand."
Then came the lawsuit. The state withdrew money it had already granted the festival and threatened to cut off future arts funding because of "objectionable" content. McArdle was at the center of a partisan free-speech debate with her festival teetering on the financial edge. Republican legislators used Michigan's constitutionally questionable arts funding restrictions to single out A2FF. The college town made a choice liberal target.
"Nothing unites people like a common enemy," McArdle laughs. "The lawsuit gave people a higher goal and greater enthusiasm."
McArdle and her board resisted, launched a tongue-in-cheek "Endangered Arts" campaign that not only raised $75,000 in three months, but also attracted the ACLU to their cause. A lawsuit was filed. The battle over censorship hit the national press and the state backed off right around the time Variety listed Ann Arbor's film festival as one of their 10 favorites in the world.
Today, A2FF is chugging along stronger than ever. And the word has spread. This year saw a 25 percent increase in submissions (nearly 3,000 entries from 40 countries), and the featured selections are as timely as can be, with this year's focus on sample- and remix-based work, Fair Use media, and films that challenge the traditional view of copyright.
The festival is bringing in Mark Hosler of Negativland (Wednesday, 7 p.m.) to show his work and talk of his exploits in cultural jamming. Craig Baldwin, a celebrated "found footage" filmmaker, unveils his latest cult conspiracy epic Mock Up on Mu. But it's Saturday night's showing of the SXSW cult hit RiP: A Remix Manifesto, by Brett Gaylor, that shouldn't be missed. An edgy and mesmerizing documentary about copyright and remix culture, Gaylor pushes the boundaries of the form by exploring the contentious line between inspiration and infringement, and the corporate world's attempt to abridge creativity. Featuring the illegally sound-sampled music of Girl Talk, Gaylord, no propagandist, offers up a sophisticated and gutsy approach to this complex issue, filling his film with "fair use" movie mash-ups.
Even more impressive than Gaylor's kinetic approach is his challenge to filmmakers that they should remix RiP into something new and original. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. The results of these video mash-ups will be shown by the fest.
As you might expect, A2FF also features the typical film-fest ghettos for LBG&T cinema, kid's programming (which, in full disclosure, this writer helped select) and Michigan filmmakers. There's a retrospective of mixed-media artist Bruce Conner's work, animated and live action short programs, a late-night music video showcase curated by Ghostly International, and the debut of Harrod Blank's (son of famed documentarian Les Blank) Automorphosis, an amusing doc about art-car creators. Yup, they're as weird as you'd expect, but Blank can't be accused of delivering another "look-at-the-freaks" documentary since he's one of them. Plus, any flick that boasts Uri Geller in his spoon-covered Caddie gets my vote.
At the top of the you-must-check-it-out list is An Evening With Don Hertzfeldt. A cult animator known for his surreal and often violent line-drawn cartoons, Hertzfeldt was also one of the originators (with Mike Judge) of The Animation Show, an annual program of irreverent shorts that tours the country. Along with the debut of his latest effort, I Am So Proud of You, the festival will show five other animated shorts, including fan fave Billy's Balloon and his Academy Award-nominated Rejected. Hertzfeldt himself will be on hand to talk about his work.
Look, the time has come for metro Detroiters to get over their fear of indie cinema and embrace the Ann Arbor Film Festival as an event worth crowing about. And, more importantly, attending. Tickets are cheap compared with other fests and the chance to see something that hasn't been sanctioned by corporate America should convince you to make the commute — art car optional.
The 47th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival runs Wednesday, March 25, through Sunday, March 29, at various locations throughout Ann Arbor. For complete info on events, parties and screening times, go to aafilmfest.org.Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]