Indie film alive in Ann Arbor

Two words are heard at every Academy Awards ceremony. They are thrown out like beads at Mardi Gras. Spoken with self-conscious solemnity, they force the eyes to roll and the lips to form a tired and disdainful raspberry. They provoke queasiness with their phony self-importance. They inspire mocking grunts of laughter as the night wears on and on and on. Every actor and every director and every art designer has these two words on the tip of their tongues and they want you to believe them when they say that what they do and the work they create is one of two things: “brave” or “courageous.”

This usually translates into “I bravely and courageously played a mentally impaired character who shows the world how to love again” or “I decided to write and direct a film about a mentally impaired character with the bravery and courage I always knew I had” or, perhaps, “Thanks to Harvey Weinstein, I employed bravery and a steely courage to design the costumes for this film about a mentally impaired person.”

The organizers of the 42nd Ann Arbor Film Festival beg to differ. Festival director Chrisstina Hamilton and managing assistant director Carrie Cecchini, with the help of an army of paid and volunteer staff, have put together a weeklong program of films that put to shame those “brave” and “courageous” poseurs in La-La Land. The Ann Arbor fest will showcase more than a hundred films that exploit the medium beyond the boundaries we have grown cynically accustomed to. These films represent a true “independent” spirit, well beyond the definition bandied about these days. These are films that may never achieve the level of attention that a Sean Penn cry-fest can bring, but their “brave” and “courageous” mission is not one that merely considers box office receipts. Simply put, this is all about “art.”

After 41 years of admitting only works shot on 16 mm, this year the festival opened its international film competition to video and digital formats. Film purist ideals aside, these formats had to be recognized. One must-see short from artist Leighton Pierce titled Fall proves the wisdom of considering this relatively new medium. Shot in the south of France, Pierce beautifully captures a walk through town aiming his digital camera through a glass marble. The effect is hallucinogenic and strangely spiritual, and transcends the sometimes flat and monochromatic blahness of digital and video productions.

The admittance of digital and video entries swelled the number of submissions to 1,579 — three times the number of entries last year. From Tuesday to Saturday, the festival will show more than 120 selected entries from across the globe. The expanded format also increased the number of homegrown admissions, with eight films this year from Michigan filmmakers, including a documentary from Ann Arbor filmmaker Yoni Goldstein called Whatever You Destroy. Goldstein’s film chronicles the life and fiery death of a warehouse that was used by artists and the Performance Network. The warehouse mysteriously burned to the ground after they were evicted by the Ann Arbor Fire Department.

Within the confines of the Michigan Theater, the festival will use two rooms to show the bulk of the offerings. There will be a “screening room” where the Lost Film Festival, a program of “narrative shorts, documented pranks and hot protest footage,” will be shown, as well as the Out Night program, which showcases films with gay and lesbian themes. The screening room will also be the place to watch what festival director Hamilton sees as one of the highlights of this year’s festival, a full-length documentary titled Tarnation.

Tarnation is almost impossible to describe. A man by the name of Jonathan Caouette splices together Super 8 and video that he shot over the course of his childhood and beyond to create a portrait of himself and his family that will forever redefine the term “home movies.” Another documentary that will have its Michigan premiere in the screening room is Amanda Micheli’s Double Dare. This film tells the story of two stuntwomen, one who worked on the TV show, “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and one who worked on ’70s cult fave, “Wonder Woman.” It’s a behind-the-scenes exploration of not only the fine art of stunt doubling, but also the perils of being female in such a male-dominated profession.

Michigan Theater’s main auditorium is where most of the juried competition will take place along with lectures and performances by the San Francisco-based collaborative known as Silt. The trio will debut their “performance/ installation,” Lateral Lines. They call their work “extended cinema,” which incorporates film projection with choreography to create “an intimate examination of relationships between place, space and time.” Hey, it’s Ann Arbor. Someone has to examine place, space and time.

As expected, politics are no stranger to the festival, and one documentary sure to garner much enthusiasm as well as controversy will be Benjamin Garry’s Move, an examination of the radical back-to-nature organization that was set upon in the ’80s by the Philadelphia police. A representative from the group will be at the screening.

If you need to rest your eyeballs after absorbing the rich assortment of film from places as far away as China and Austria and as close as Grosse Pointe and Southfield, the festival offers a myriad of workshops and panel discussions and afterglows to educate and entertain the film geek and the merely curious. One appropriately titled discussion planned is, “What the hell was that?”

Brave? Courageous? It rarely describes anything the “mainstream” ever does. But it does describe almost everything this annual festival celebrates. These films, ranging from eight minutes to 80 minutes, will help you remember what those oft-tossed empty adjectives used to mean.


The Ann Arbor Film Festival is held from Tuesday through Sunday at the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor. For schedule information, visit or e-mail [email protected] or call 734-995-5356.

Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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