Michigan filmmaker Donald Harrison, who, up until recently, ran the Ann Arbor Film Festival, just recently purchased a home in Ypsilanti, and made the move east from Ann Arbor. Here’s our official immigration interview.
MARK: Remind me when we first met… It’s been well over a decade ago now, right?
DONALD: Indeed, I remember first checking out Ypsi in 2003 when the biggest power failure in U.S. history hit. I’d had a great afternoon exploring the city and was in Henrietta Fahrenheit, getting to know Jennifer Albaum (where I bought a copy of Crimewave, by the way). Then “blammo” the power went out. A friend of hers from NYC called up right away to see if we still had power and that’s when we realized the scale of the outage. Our first assumption was it was a terrorist attack. I’ll never forget the drive back to my dad’s in Livonia with every stoplight out and taking every backroads side street I could find.
At that time I was still living in San Francisco and starting to think of making the move back to Michigan. Jennifer was awesome and setup drinks with you and Linette at -Sidetrack the next time I came into town, so that was probably 2004.
MARK: Whereabouts in Michigan did you grow up?
DONALD: I grew up in Southfield, and did my undergrad at UM before moving out west to the SF/Bay Area for 10 years.
MARK: Why Ypsi? And why now?
DONALD: Ypsi’s actually where I’d intended to live when I moved back. The opportunities at the Ann Arbor Film Festival presented themselves, though, and I jumped in fully, so you could say that I got sidetracked making my way here. Actually, now that I think about it, an article you wrote in Crimewave about the history of Ypsi was an influence too, as it helped me understand the story and character of this place.
MARK: Can we trust you? [It’s nothing personal, I’m just required to ask all people moving to Ypsi from Ann Arbor.]
DONALD: I’m intrigued and charmed by this question, Mark! Why’s it required asking? Who’s “we”? It implies other questions that make me ask “what have I gotten myself into?” It’s like a first date asking if you’re going to break his/her heart. But, yes, I think you can trust me. Then again, it’s not like I’m running for office or have any intention of doing so. I bought a house here and want to make this my home. I love living in college town with character that’s on the Huron River between Ann Arbor and Detroit. But trust is a two way street that takes some time to really get to know. So can I trust Ypsi (or is it going to break my heart)?
DONALD: I lived in a few different places. The first few years were on the most infamously named street in Ann Arbor’s “Water Hill” neighborhood and then the “Wild West Side” (as I liked to call it) for a few more years over by Veteran’s Park.
MARK: And was Ann Arbor as you’d remembered it as student? If not, how had it changed?
DONALD: As a student I’d thought I knew Ann Arbor, but moving back made me realize there’s way more to the city than beyond the campus and downtown (I had a similar “rediscovery” of Detroit). Sure, the campus has continued to grow as one would expect, but getting to know the “townie” scenes and politics made me feel more like I’d moved somewhere new. I also didn’t really know anyone by the time I came back (10 years later), so that made it feel pretty fresh. The past few years, however, I think there’s been a lot of change in the character of Ann Arbor with more chains moving downtown, more conservative liberalism and a bit more of a Birmingham vibe. Awesome places like Vault of Midnight, Jerusalem Garden, Silvio’s, the Michigan Theater, AAFF, Roos Roast, among others, will always keep me coming to Ann Arbor, but I feel like it’s a tough fight to keep its soul as a place for alternative, activist and artist culture.
MARK: What would you like for the people of Ypsi to know about you?
DONALD: I want to be here, make this my home and play some small role in making this a better place. I know there’s an ongoing conversation about Ann Arbor +/- Ypsi and resources and identity and gentrification. I think that’s an important dialogue and one where I hope to be building more bridges between communities. Coming from the SF/Bay area, that’s one aspect I’d like to see more here – a shared sense of being part of the SE Michigan area, whether you live around Ypsi/Arbor, Detroit or the Detroit suburbs. Maybe we need a better way to say it. “Southeast Michigan” just doesn’t ring out easily. And we really need better, more connected public transportation between points along the triangle (e.g., A2, Ypsi, Dearborn, downtown Detroit, mid-town, Ferndale/Royal Oak, Pontiac).
People should probably also know that, even though I stepped down from the AAFF a few years ago, I’m still very much a movie and film person. I’m now producing videos full-time through my studio. I’ve taught film classes at EMU and UM. I’ve hosted free microcinema events, including an outdoor animation screening in Ypsi last summer (thanks to an Awesome Foundation grant). And I’m part of a VJ crew that’s presented interactive video projections/installations at public events, including Fool Moon, ArtPrize and the A2 Art Center. All that to say, I’m curious to explore what film/video ideas might take root here in Ypsi (e.g., a film fest, pop-up cinema, video workshops, outdoor movie nights, etc.), so I’d encourage anyone interested to hit me up.
MARK: If you had to give up either table tennis or bowling, which would it be? Why?
DONALD: Ouch, Mark, you’re not pulling any punches in this interview! Hmmm, forced to choose, I’d give up bowling – hands down. Ping pong’s great for conversation and concentration and real exercise. I’d love to get a few tables and a ping pong club happening somewhere in Ypsi this winter. Fortunately I’m not forced to choose and I am currently running the Super Sweet Social Bowling League out of Bel-Mark in Ann Arbor, co-founded w/ Risa Gotlib.
MARK: What’s your first memory?
DONALD: No idea, but doing all this moving and packing the past month at my mom’s house I’ve been flooded with old pictures and drawings and items from my childhood. The relationship between our childhood selves and adult selves is fascinating. At times I’d see things that seem totally random to me, that I would never recognize as my own 7-year old handwriting or 3-year old painting. And at other times I’d see some a connection to some of the same ideas or inclinations I’d develop later in life. I think our minds and memories can be fairly fluid. Maybe it’s one reason I’m drawn to film and documentary. It creates some fixed representation of a time, place or story.
MARK: As you mentioned packing up your mother’s stuff, do I understand correctly that she too just moved to Ypsilanti as well?
DONALD: Yes, we bought a two-unit house that was a rental. She’s now my downstairs neighbor.
DONALD: Speaking of memories, it definitely wasn’t my first job working in a bowling alley. I took out a lot of trash, cleaned up cigarettes and kept refilling ice in the urinals. (They were trying to be upscale.) I’d say the 8-month Many Voices project for UMMA a couple of years ago was an awesome gig. I got to collaborate with filmmaker Sharad Patel and help 16 people in the area make short films inspired by artworks in the museum. The range of age, experience and background of everyone was pretty broad and it was especially rewarding to work with people through their creative process to refine and realize their ideas.
MARK: Is the bowling alley where you first worked still in operation? Do you ever go back?
DONALD: No, it became a Barnes and Noble. I’m not sure it’s still a bookstore now either. The next bowling alley where I worked, though, Country Lanes in Farmington, was like a second home growing up. It’s still there and going strong.
MARK: Did you ever consider trying to bowl professionally?
DONALD: I always wondered how well I would’ve fared on the pro bowling tour, but not enough to actually dedicate my life to it. As I got into filmmaking I had this fanciful idea that I’d record my life on the pro tour for a year. But it turns out a few guys were already ahead of me making something along those lines (the aptly titled “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen”) that followed four different guys on the pro tour. It ended up playing on PBS. At some point I’ll make a short film about bowling, but it’s more of a personal piece about the relationship between fathers and sons (I pulled together some initial material for his memorial earlier this year).
MARK: Your dad got you interested in bowling?
DONALD: Oh yeah, my dad was all about bowling. Later in life he became a bowling writer for the Observer & Eccentric newspapers, which he did for 20 years, and ended up in the Detroit Bowling Hall of Fame.
MARK: Why did you step down as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival?
DONALD: My first few years at the AAFF was exciting and highly rewarding. I got to work with and get to know many incredible people throughout this community and abroad. We had to save it from going extinct, rebuild its health as a non-profit and gear up for a major 50th anniversary. At that point, I was five years into it and found myself drawn to pursuing my own projects again as a filmmaker. It was time for a new chapter for the organization and myself. I like to say I’d completed term in office. I love seeing the organization continue to forge its indelible course in the world through the current leadership of Leslie Raymond and David Dinnell.
MARK: What was it like house hunting in Ypsi?
DONALD: When I started earlier this summer, it was daunting. I had specific challenges trying to find a 2-unit house in the right area with a good layout and workable timing so I could bring my mom here as my neighbor. This limited our options a lot and I was worried we’d end up in a place that’d deteriorated for decades as a student rental. Tyler Weston was recommended to me by a half dozen different friends and he was totally up to the task. He found us a property that fit all our criteria pretty quickly, one that wasn’t even on the market. It’s 125 year old house in a lively little block near Forest/Huron that’s easily walkable to the Cross Street corridor and Depot Town. We’re getting settled in and, so far so good.
MARK: In another of these Immigration Interviews, I asked the person the following, and she refused to answer it. I’m curious if you’re up to the task… “If you had an opportunity to meet your favorite historical figure, but could only say ten words, what would they be?”
DONALD: It’s an odd question, Mark! I’m trying to think of what I’d want to say to a historical figure. They’re already dead, so what would I want them to know? I guess given the opportunity it’s more what I’d want to know from them. Sage advice from the Buddha; secret ideas from DaVinci or Tesla; lost stories from Salinger; songs from Lennon. In general I dodge the single favorite film or figure question, so you might have to trot this one out another time to get it properly answered!
MARK: I think I’d ask Chaplin where he was born, as that’s always interested me. Or maybe I’d ask Houdini why he didn’t try harder to make contact with his wife after death. Or maybe I’d ask Mark Twain about his first memory, which I like asking people. You, by the way, didn’t give a very satisfactory answer for that one. I’m sure there’s an early memory in your head somewhere. My first memory is of light coming through a yellow curtain as I lay in a crib in Monticello, Kentucky. I also have a vague memory of watching the opening credits of The Dick Van Dyke Show on a small black and white television at roughly the same time, and of walking down a hallway to my parents’ bedroom. I have other memories too, but I suspect, in those cases, they’re more memories of memories, triggered by old photos. In other words, I don’t think I still remember them. I just think that I kind of remember because the photos exist. In the case of this yellow curtain, though, I still remember it. I could even identify the fabric if I saw it. I remember the warmth of the sunlight and the sounds coming through the window.
DONALD: Actually, I’m a pretty big Zappa fan so a chance to talk to him (or hear a never released song) would be terribly tempting. As for first memories, I’ve continued to think about this. It’s hard to have chronological markers from that age without a major move or trip or dramatic event. I definitely remember falling through the ice in a friend’s backyard pond and having to get warmed back up in the bathtub when I was four years old. And I remember pre-school vividly around the same age. But specific memories from an earlier age are elusive. Maybe you can try hypnotizing me? I feel like you might need to add that to your repertoire (if it’s not already on there).
MARK: What would you like to accomplish over the next ten years?
DONALD: I want to create some great films that capture people’s imagination, educate, entertain and help move the needle in some meaningful ways. I’d like to build more ways of bridging communities and facilitating collaboration in our area. In some respects I’ve found SE Michigan fairly fragmented since returning and found my efforts with the AAFF were in large part driven by a desire to bring people together through art and events. I’d like to be even healthier and happier ten years from now and share that with others. And I’d like to learn how to ride my unicyle.
MARK: It’s beautiful outside today, isn’t it?
DONALD: It’s been a beautiful fall. I’m hoping for a more mild winter this time around.
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]