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With local film festivals popping up like weeds, it's easy to forget that one of the oldest, most venerable forums for underground filmmakers takes place every year right by the University of Michigan. In its 44th year, the Ann Arbor Film Festival finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, striving to maintain an identity as a safe haven for challenging work while accommodating increasingly diverse tastes, from the mainstream to the obscure.

What's a festival director to do? Forge a back-to-basics approach that stresses challenging artistic statements above all else.

"There needs to be a forum for the avant-garde, because it's hard enough as it is for them," says the fest's new executive director, Christen McArdle. As such, she and her staff have programmed six days and nights of short-format and full-length film — documentaries, fiction and experimental — all culled from more than 2,000 submissions. It's not just the form and style of these movies that's groundbreaking, but the subject matter as well: Many of the films reflect a growing unease with America and its at-times insidious influence on the world.

Joe Hiscott's short Business as Usual contrasts odd body movements — hand-shakes, money counting, briefcase-swinging — against a backdrop of the world's major financial institutions. The full-length documentary A New American Century, on the other hand, chronicles painter Anthony Wilson's experience touring the country with larger-than-life portraits of President Bush and his staff, often rendered in unflattering, baffled poses. Meanwhile, on the fest's annual "Out Night" (March 22), Canadian director John Greyson will be on-hand to discuss his 18th century interracial love story Proteus.

Even countercultural pranksters get their day in the sun. Aside from the films about anti-authoritarian (and anti-car) collectives like the Black Label Bicycle Collective, there's a panel on "culture jamming" — the concept of subverting mass media with an anti-consumerist message — on Friday, March 24. And if that's not enough, there's a group of Toronto twentysomethings who decided to make their own porn — and document it — in the film Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective (March 22). It's all done in the name of artistic hedonism — which, if you think about it, is a good way of describing the Ann Arbor Film Festival itself.


Runs Tuesday-Sunday, March 21-26 at various locations. Call 734-995-5356 or visit for schedules.

Michael Hastings is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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