The Ann Arbor Film Festival to celebrate 50 years with ambitious agenda

In a few short weeks, the Ann Arbor Film Festival will begin celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s a huge milestone that, to my knowledge, no other North American independent film festival has reached, and, as you might expect, organizers are pulling out all the stops. As luck would have it, I had the opportunity to talk with Executive Director of the Festival, Donald Harrison, a few days ago. Here’s what was said.

MARK: As last year was the 49th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival, that would make this year’s the 50th, right?

DONALD: We’ve had some robust math debates about this, but yes, it’s the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival. If the AAFF was a person, though, s/he would just be turning 49 years old.

MARK: I believe I’ve heard that a lot of the folks who first got the Festival off the ground in 1962 will be coming back this year. Can you talk a bit about their participation, and how far it extends?

DONALD: Okay, Mark, let me first refer you back to the math. The AAFF was started in 1963. I know it sounds wrong since we’re currently in the year 2012, but we’ve done the math and it all adds up. Yes, we’re excited to have the Festival’s founder, George Manupelli, join us. We’ll have him onstage Opening Night on March 27th. He’s now in his early 80s with an acerbic wit and I’m assured his “schtick” is not-to-be-missed. Pat Oleszko is another notable artist from the early festival days, famous for her burlesque-esque performances and wild costumes. She’ll be onstage for a performance Saturday, March 31st at 6:45 PM, before the short films in competition program. I’m not even totally sure what she’ll be doing yet, but I think you’ll like it – very Krampus and very memorable.

MARK: Can you tell us what George will be speaking about, or do you even know? Is there any chance that this acerbic wit could be directed toward the festival? I don’t mean for this to come across as negative, but it’s been my experience that founders often have issues with the way things evolve once they give up control.

DONALD: Sure, it could become an all out roast of me and the AAFF. All the more reason to come opening night and see! Seriously, you’re right, there’s often a “founders syndrome” that can have this effect. But it’s been at least 30 years since George was running the Festival and he’s quite appreciative to be part of the 50th. It’s going to be a special moment, one I’m really looking forward to. And he’s really quite funny. I’m not anywhere near that funny.

MARK: I’m curious to know whether or not any effort was made to look into the what happened to the filmmakers who had their work shown in 1963. Is anyone still making films? And, if so, might any of their new work make it to the screen? I think it would be fascinating to see how an individual filmmaker’s work has evolved over five decades. Do records even exist, though? Do we know what was shown in 1963?

DONALD: Awesome question because it comes with an awesome answer: yes. We’re bringing in Bruce Baillie, who had a program dedicated to his films in 1963, which means he’s now in his 80s and rarely makes appearances. We’re featuring multiple programs spanning decades of his work, some of which is now part of the Library of Congress. We’ll have noted film author Scott MacDonald here for onstage conversation with Baillie at the Michigan Theater. It’s going to be something special. He truly influenced generations of filmmakers who’ve shaped the independent film landscape. Peter Rose is another legend of cinema attending the 50th AAFF. He’s serving on our awards jury, and we’ll have a program of his incredible work ranging from over the last 40 years. He’ll perform a live narration to his most recent piece, which was completed in the past year. Barbara Hammer will also be here, fresh off a month-long celebration of her films at the Tate Modern and will show several of her works from different eras, as part of our LGBTQ Out Night.

If you’re interested in the AAFF’s rich history, you can either go visit the UM Bentley Historical Library and view the physical materials. This archive just launched a few months ago and will continue to grow as we add to it for research and preservation purposes. The Ann Arbor District Library also created an online version, which launched last month, so you can view many of the old program guides, posters and pictures. It’s quite fascinating and fun to browse.

MARK: Knowing what you know about me, what do you think that I’d like at this year’s Festival? Does that ever cross your mind when you’re selecting films… “What would Mark like?”

DONALD: Well, I don’t exactly think “what would Mark like” but if you share your Netflix queue with me, that would probably start to happen. I have a feeling you’ll really like the Opening Night screening of short films. It includes the latest Don Hertzfeldt animation, a La Jetée-inspired telling of the 2 Live Crew story by Luther Campbell, films featuring corporate rats, the solar system, booty bass and a handful of other great short films. These films will bore through your passive movie watching self and make you a changed man, which is ultimately the goal, right? The Friday night animation program is a given for you. I think it keeps getting bigger and better every year. The two Saturday evening competition programs are highly recommended for you as well, with some of the most feral films of the Festival. I also suspect that you’ll really like the three juror screenings, especially Michael Robinson’s program on Thursday, March 29th. These screenings are Wed – Fri. at 12:30pm and free to the public – a perfect lunchtime excursion.

MARK: You’ve been the head of the AAFF for a few years now. Do you think, in that time, you’ve been able to put your stamp on the event? Or, let me ask it this way… What do you feel your most significant contribution has been?

DONALD: In many ways I’ve tried to get the hell out of its way and let the films run wild, like a once per year running of the bulls. I take our mission quite to heart, focusing on film as an art form. There aren’t enough great places to watch movies that take us beyond celebrities, commerce and entertainment into the unfettered realm of artists. Then there’s also building audiences who understand and appreciate these opportunities to see cinema differently. That’s where I feel I’ve had my biggest contribution so far: getting our community more involved with the Festival. In the past five years attendance has more than doubled and we’ve partnered with more than two dozen non-profits, including Neutral Zone, FestiFools, the AADL, Shadow Art Fair (full disclosure!), UMS, Summer Festival, A2Geeks, 826Michigan and MOCAD. It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of the job to see more and more people discover the AAFF and fall in love with this very special Ann Arbor event.

MARK: Where, in your opinion, does the Ann Arbor Film Festival fit into the rapidly evolving ecosystem of festival venues? What do you perceive our niche to be?

DONALD: I consider the AAFF quite unique in the U.S., actually, and many of our participating filmmakers echo this viewpoint. Our niche is short films, artist-made films, personal films, experimental films and films that venture beyond the usual independent art house fare. We also present live film/music/media performances and video art installations (this year we’re lighting up more than 50 screens with moving image art throughout Ann Arbor). We’re not an industry-driven event focused on the deal or premiere or celebrity; we’re an artist and audience-driven event focused on connecting those to each other, creating a welcoming atmosphere and a fun, festive celebration.

MARK: Can you elaborate on the 50 screens around town, where they’re located, and what they’ll be showing? Or, is all of that secret? Are you just hoping that people will stumble upon them in unlikely places, making little, unexpected discoveries?

DONALD: There will be surprises with the 50 Screens of the 50th AAFF, one massive and one tiny, but most of them will be posted on our website by March 7th. That’s when the whole project gets officially rolling with the Gallery Project’s next show. They’ve co-curated five video-based pieces with the AAFF as part of their “Spatial Shift” exhibition. The UM Slusser Gallery will host a major multi-channel video and sound environment by Leighton Pierce the week of the festival, along with the UM Work Gallery hosting the acclaimed Phil Solomon “American Falls” installation during festival week. The Michigan Theater will house several great pieces, including Martin Thoburn’s iPad-controlled “Exquisite Motion Corpse” 4-channel video and Jodie Mack’s bike-powered zoetrope – both quite interactive. Eight shops in the Nickels Arcade are also hosting artists’ video works in their windows, creating an indoor/outdoor walk-through exhibition running 3/19 – 4/1. Other locations include by Mark’s Carts, Encore Records, Silvio’s and I keep hearing about unofficial public videos being planned in windows and projected onto walls. So I might even discover a few surprise ones!

MARK: What are some of the things that you’re most excited about this year?

DONALD: Don’t get me started – we have nearly 50 programs in six days and I may try to tell you about them all…Did I mention Opening Night? That’s always an electric night, with a packed audience in the Michigan Theater. We’re encouraging creative black tie and it’s the first time I’ll have donned a tux since prom. I’m very excited that we’re hosting several of the most legendary, trailblazing filmmakers of the last 50 years – Bruce Baillie, Barbara Hammer and Phil Solomon – for special programs featuring their work and discussions with our audience. We’re also presenting films from the Arabic world, along with rare Japanese films. These four programs are presented by guest curators who will provide context and opportunities for dialogue about these works seldom seen in the United States. The many shorts competition programs always contain some of my favorite films and this year they’ll also include historic films (e.g., shorts by Gus Van Sant, Devo, Arthur Lipsett’s film that inspired Lucas for Star Wars) with support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The family-friendly shorts program on Saturday, March 31st at 11am is highly recommended for everyone ages 6+, with some of the most visually engaging work you’ll see this year, including a 1971 abstract film that was created accidentally in 3D by an artist working at AT&T. The features we’re presenting this year are also exciting, including Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea that just won the top award in Venice and Betzy Bromberg’s otherworldly Voluptuous Sleep, which is an hour-and-a-half of spectacular abstraction using light, depth and color. The Friday night afterparty this year’s going to be a highlight at The B-Side at Neutral Zone, with super 8mm film performance by Paul Clipson, soundtracked live by Matthew De Gennaro. There are many more highlights, too many to mention, so explore our website, pick up a calendar and spend the week with us seeing what’s possible in the cinema:

50th AAFF Special Programs and Highlights include:

• The Academy has provided support to screen more than 30 influential archival films from the AAFF’s history throughout the 50th festival
• Bruce Baillie will be in attendance for an onstage conversation with writer Scott MacDonald and multiple programs of his pioneering avant-garde films
• Barbara Hammer will be in attendance for AAFF Out Night, with her short films included in screening of historic LGBTQ works
• Festival jury for the 50th: avant-garde filmmaking legend Peter Rose, Whitney Biennial artist Michael Robinson and renowned curator and scholar Kathy Geritz
• Phil Solomon will be in attendance for a retrospective of his work and his three-channel gallery installation AMERICAN FALLS
• Irina Leimbacher will present two program: recent work from Palestine, Lebanon and Morocco, plus films by the great Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay (1944-2011).
• Tomonari Nishikawa will present two programs of Japanese avant-garde film from the 70’s through the 2000’s
• Academy Film Archivist, Mark Toscano, will present a program of films by Robert Nelson (1930-2012) including his rarely seen HAULING TOTO BIG which was awarded Best Film at the 36th AAFF
• Craig Baldwin will illustrate his culture jamming vision as the U of M Penny Stamps distinguished lecturer
• Leighton Pierce will be in attendance to produce a major multi-channel gallery installation

The 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival | March 27 – April 1, 2012

MARK: Damn, I’m impressed… When do tickets go on sale?

DONALD: They’re on sale now. Literally, you’re like 3 clicks from buying an actual, virtual advance ticket. I strongly advise, though, for any program in the smaller Screening Room, that you buy advance tickets (or a pass) and get there at least 15 minutes early. Many of those shows sell out as there’s only so many seats.

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  1. Posted March 2, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    They’re not showing any of Manupelli’s films? I love his stuff. Here’s a bit of one:

  2. Eel
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Doctor Chicago is good, Doug. But it’s no Doctor Detroit.

    And, if anyone has information about these unauthorized public screenings around town, I’d love to hear about them.

  3. K2
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    The video that Doug shares is from the third film of the Dr. Chicago trilogy. Here’s a description from Manupelli’s website.

    The Chicago films do not use actors. Instead, the main characters are played by major avant garde talents from other creative fields. Dr. Chicago is played by renowned composer Alvin Lucier whose stream-of-consciousness soliloquies in the films are punctuated by his ferocious stutter. Painter and performance artist Mary Ashley, a primary member of the legendary ONCE Group, smolders throughout as Chicago’s girlfriend, Sheila Marie.

    Steve Paxton, originator of the revolutionary dance form, Contact Improvisation, plays a mute naif who dances his part. Sometimes he seems to be dancing in a movie of his own making. Israeli mime Claude Kipnis, heir to Marcel Marceau, switches seamlessly to a speaking role as an international criminal and Chicago’s archenemy. The distinguished American composer Robert Ashley, known internationally for his work in operatic forms, created the soundtracks for the Chicago Trilogy.

    The Dr. Chicago films thrive on wordplay and slapstick bordering on Dada. They also forecast, 35 years earlier, contemporary issues such as racism, sexism, gay rights, immigration, presidential spying, privatization of jails, abuse of political prisoners, commercialization of healthcare, and the environmental degradation of Native American lands. The Chicago films once enjoyed cult status but have not been exhibited in recent years.

    Robert Ashley wrote, “The Dr. Chicago films are a memoriam to George Manupelli’s genius as a director and cinematographer and they are a memoriam to the spirit of the times in which they were made. There will never be anything like them again in our lifetime.”

    I’m looking forward to hearing Manupelli’s speech.

  4. K2
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I neglected to mention it, but you can purchase the Dr. Chicago trilogy on DVD from Manupelli’s website.

  5. Posted March 2, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Manupelli has posted excerpts from all three films on YouTube; I just linked to one. I saw them in San Francisco many years ago. Great stuff!

  6. Posted March 2, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I see he also posted the TV ad he produced for the San Francisco Art Institute, back when he was Dean there. I was in SF at the time, and I remember that it got some attention:

  7. don
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    More on Betzy Bromberg’s Voluptuous Sleep Series.

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  1. […] for site shortly. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read my scintillating interview with Donald Harrison, the executive director of the AAFF. Or, better yet, you could actually leave your apartment and […]

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