IFFY: The Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti

For three days this April, Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center will be host to a new film festival. The festival, called IFFY (Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti), is the brainchild of local filmmakers Donald Harrison and Martin Thoburn, who, as you may recall, pulled a few strings this last summer and brought the traveling version of the Ottawa International Animation Festival to Ypsilanti… Here’s my conversation with Harrison and Thoburn about what we can expect from IFFY.

MARK: OK, so what’s all this I hear about a new film festival?

DONALD: Yes, it’s happening. It’s IFFY. And it’s about damn time.

MARK: Is there a specific niche that you’re planning to go after with IFFY? I’m just curious as to how you’re planning to differentiate it from other festivals, or if that’s even something you care about?

MARTIN: Our goal is to bring both regional and international work to Ypsi, inspire people and have fun doing it.

DONALD: That’s right. We’re not too concerned with the wider film festival scene. We’re going to bring some adventurous, independent and accessible movie-going experiences to our hometown, which doesn’t even have a movie theater. We’re intentionally starting small and aiming to build IFFY in a way that’s sustainable and responsive to our Ypsi community.

MARK: Given your history as the director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Donald, I imagine the prospect of building something small and agile, where you don’t have to worry about competing with other festivals, must be liberating.

DONALD: Indeed. Starting from scratch and seeing where this IFFY thing goes is appealing.

MARK: I’m reminded of a panel I went to at the 50th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, where a good number of the original folks came back to talk about the origins of the festival. Not to take anything away from the festival as it now exists, but it just sounded a lot more joyful at the outset. I suppose that’s true of almost everything, though, isn’t it?

DONALD: I bet someday—assuming IFFY goes well—we’ll hear it’s not as cool as it once was—so don’t miss the first year!

MARK: I’m curious, Martin, given that your experience with local filmmaking events – having won the Shadow Art Fair Cinemasports competition, and helped run the 24 Hour Film Shootout – whether there might be some sort of real-time filmmaking component that evolves over time.

MARTIN: Don’t forget, I also won the 1st Ypsi-24 Hour film shootout with Chris Sandon, before going behind the scenes and helping run the festival as a technical director. Yeah, I’d be very excited and interested in seeing a short turnaround competition as part of IFFY. Would be great to partner with someone who is passionate about that to help make it happen now that the YPSI-24 is no longer around.

MARK: For folks that might not be aware of our local history with regard to film competitions, can you talk a bit about what the 24 Hour Film Shootout and Cinemasports were, Martin?

MARTIN: So the basic idea is to make a film in a limited period of time and see what happens. There are “ingredients,” or curve balls, thrown at you, so you don’t turn in a pre-made work. It keeps people honest, but also puts you on the spot to get creative with the included challenges. The most popular format for these types of events is the 48-hour film project—a national event with many regional chapters.

MARK: You mentioned earlier, Donald, that you intended to be responsive to the Ypsilanti community. What do you envision that conversation looking like?

DONALD: Listening, learning and balancing that with what we have the capacity to do and what also feels like it’s IFFY.

MARK: I was just curious as to the context in which those conversations might take place. For instance, are you holding open meetings in the community and asking people to participate? Do you have plans to visit classes at EMU, WCC, or our local high schools? Will there be a website where people can submit ideas, find out about getting involved, etc?

DONALD: We need to keep IFFY lean and simple—especially to get it started year one—and will no doubt get feedback during and after the events. There is already some outreach to local students in the works. Those other things you mentioned might be considered more for year two, once we have the festival established and see what kind of enthusiasm there is for our event.

MARK: I know very little about how film festivals work, but I imagine, at the core, there are two primary challenges. One is getting people to support the festival, either monetarily, or through their attendance, or by becoming volunteers, etc. And the other is getting filmmakers to submit their work… unless, I guess, you enter into an agreement with a larger festival somewhere, to show the films that were submitted to them, which I think is what you did last year with the animation event you hosted here in town…

DONALD: Yes, at whatever scale or approach they operate, film festivals are a lot of work! They usually rely on support from volunteers, donors, sponsors, media and audiences who get excited to share and celebrate watching films together. As for the films we’ll be showing, this first year there won’t be an open call for submissions. Instead, there will be a combination of guest curators (e.g., Juliet Hinely, Hafsah Mijinyawa), research, outreach and a program like the “best of” Ottawa International Animation Festival tour, which is the animation program you noted.

MARK: Speaking of Ottawa’s touring program, will you be getting it back this year, as part of IFFY?

MARTIN: Yes, we’re excited that it will be coming back as part of IFFY. The Ottawa Tour highlights some of the best animated films in the world from last year.

MARK: That’s great… So, depending on how things go this year, you may open things up to submissions around some theme? For instance, you may decide, after holding this first event, and talking with people in the community about what they’d be interested in seeing, to solicit filmmakers to, for example, submit their documentary shorts on grassroots activism in the midwest, or autobiographical animations, or whatever…

MARTIN: I think we are open to anything, but we want to try to balance the amount of overhead and complexity to running the festival. We won’t rule it out in the future, but if you’re local and have a film you want us to view, just shoot us a message. We would love to feature a world premiere for regional work.

MARK: Cool. So that’s what I was hoping to get at… You see the focus of IFFY, as it grows, primarily being a venue for local, regional film of any kind, regardless of theme, augmented by the best in independent film that you can secure from elsewhere? Have I got that right?

DONALD: We’re not trying to define IFFY too specifically at this point. It’s independent, adventurous films and accessible programs that will be worth the (affordable) price of admission!

MARK: Speaking of that Ottawa animation event you hosted here in Ypsi last year, what did you learn from it?

MARTIN: We learned that we need more seats! We had to get some extra folding chairs due to high demand last time.

DONALD: Indeed, it sold out and we learned that the Riverside Arts Center is a pretty good place for cinema. Martin and I liked co-organizing the event, which gave us the confidence to set IFFY in motion.

MARK: How many people can you fit into Riverside?

MARTIN: Their current seating capacity is 120 by adding some folding chairs.

MARK: Are you looking for spaces outside of Riverside, or will everything this first year be there? Of course, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking that it would be great to see something happen in the old Martha Washington Theater. I know it’s problematic, given that it’s now home to our local strip club, but maybe more adult-themed content could run there. I just like the idea of film being shown there again. And, for what it’s worth, I see that Portland’s dirty movie film festival, HUMP!, has a touring program. Maybe a deal could be struck.

MARTIN: Maybe if IFFY gets enough support and funding we can buy back Martha Washington Theater and return it back to its original purpose. (Don’t hold your breath!)

DONALD: All kinds of possibilities exist for those who dare to dream and imagine. We can picture it moving into more venues in the future. If you’re throwing your hat in the ring, Mark, to see if a film fest screening could happen at Deja Vu let us know!

MARK: When I lived in Atlanta, one of the local strip clubs, The Clermont Lounge, hosted shows for bands every now and then. It was a great venue. And it worked incredibly well. The stripping still took place around the club, and at the bar, but there would be a band on the main stage. It was a different kind of place than Deja Vu, though. It wasn’t really a corporate kind of place. It was more of a community institution.

DONALD: I’ve got bad news for you. I just checked and it looks like HUMP! is already booked in Ann Arbor this September.

MARK: Other than the Ottawa Animation tour, is there anything else you’re able to talk about now? Do you have anything else lined up?

DONALD: Certainly! Juliet Hinely is putting together “Surreel: A Night of Live Cinema”; Hafsah Mijinyawa is curating a program of afro-futurism short films; I’m making “Midwest Products: Regional Short Film Showcase”; and Martin’s putting together a super trippy program of international short films. There will also be an independent feature film that hasn’t screened in our area yet. The Ottawa animation tour is going to be fantastic, again, of course.

MARK: That independent feature wouldn’t by any chance be your long awaited documentary on Ann Arbor’s Commie High, would it?

DONALD: Nope, the feature is a narrative film from a Chicago indie filmmaker that’s been making waves, and hasn’t made its way to our area for a screening. It’s been described as “Twin Peaks meets Donnie Darko.” We’ll share the trailer once it’s fully confirmed! As for my own feature documentary, Welcome to Commie High, it will be premiering at the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 28th, at 5:00 PM. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the shameless plug!

MARK: And what can you tell us about your “super trippy program of international short films,” Martin?

MARTIN: It will be a visually compelling screening with many super creative, intense and complex animations and special effects-based art films from around the world. There will be a bizarre short documentary and a few genre-crossing mash-up and remix films as well. You’ll get lots of eye candy with mind-expanding ideas all unfolding before you in cinematic space! Not sure what to call the program yet…

MARK: So, are you pre-selling tickets already?

DONALD: Tickets will go live in mid-March. To get updates on ticket sales, events and programs, sign up for our eNews.

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7 Comments

  1. Dan
    Posted February 23, 2020 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I’d love it if the Martha Washington became a locally owned strip club that had bands and movies. That’s a vision I could really get behind. I have no problem with stripping. I have a problem with Deja Vu.

  2. Kit
    Posted February 23, 2020 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    This is awesome. Thank you, Donald and Martin. I can’t wait.

  3. iRobert
    Posted February 23, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Is Dan going to be stripping at IFFY? Did I understand that right?

  4. Lynne
    Posted February 23, 2020 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    This sounds really neat. I would be there if I could! :)

  5. iRobert
    Posted February 24, 2020 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Iffy should also team up with a THC dispensary for sponsorship. I’ve been high since November.

  6. iRobert
    Posted February 24, 2020 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Mixing in some live acts between films might be fun too. Jean and Bob could recreate Abbot & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, for example.

  7. Kat
    Posted February 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    It would be cool if it could grow over time and expand to other venues. I could see a Cultivate, Ziggy’s and some other places participating.

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