"The Deep Dark," directed by Laura Heit
"The Deep Dark," directed by Laura Heit

The various sensibilities of this year’s judges can be seen in the very different funniest film winners. A hilarious, seamless mash-up, “Walt Disney’s Taxi Driver” uses the gritty Schrader/Scorsese collaboration to comment on the Disneyfication of Times Square. “Shadow Cuts” also uses Disney characters, turning an interaction between Mickey Mouse and Pluto into a series of throbbing, disorienting quick cuts. The pithy “Pluto Declaration” makes an impassioned case for the exiled satellite’s reinstatement as a full-fledged planet.

In addition to judging the competition features and shorts, Kathy Geritz (Pacific Film Archive film curator), along with filmmaker Michael Robinson (AAFF most promising filmmaker of 2007) and multimedia artist Peter Rose (who received a retrospective program), each put together special juror presentations of archival films and videos. The AAFF devoted a sizeable portion of its schedule to revisiting the history of the festival and experimental cinema.

For the uninitiated, these programs served as a master class in film and video as the unfiltered dissemination of ideas and emotions. The Academy Film Archive’s Mark Toscano brought the rarely seen “Building Muir Beach House” to the retrospective of abstract absurdist Robert Nelson, a founder of Canyon Cinema with the late Chick Strand. Her gorgeous, heart-breaking short “Woman with Flowers (Señora con Flores)” showed at AAFF courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which provided many prints. The showcases for Nelson and Syrian documentarian Omar Amiralay, who infused his explorations of the Arab world with a wry melancholy, served as tributes and memorials: both filmmakers died in 2011.

The influence of Canyon Cinema, a distributor of experimental and independent 16mm films, could be felt in the work of another founder, Bruce Baillie, whose career retrospective was extended from three programs to four when the lively filmmaker brought along new work. His warm humor was on display as he mused on his favorite “Seinfeld” episode (“The Limo”), but the octogenarian was visibly moved by the large, enthusiastic crowd in the Michigan Theater. A leading figure in San Francisco’s avant-garde film scene, Baillie combines naturalism with abstraction in films that celebrate the flow of everyday existence.

Even amid the revelry, there was an underlying concern that major changes are afoot for two institutions vital to the AAFF’s brand of filmmakers. Kodak has filed for bankruptcy (although their film stock division still sponsors a cinematography award), and Canyon Cinema, whose catalog represents the history of experimental cinema, badly needs new funding sources to keep from shutting its doors.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival has grown from an inspired folly into an important institution, and this milestone anniversary was packed with reminders of the individual effort that made it happen. Independent and experimental film and video needs stubborn devotion, and the ability to constantly evolve. The 50th AAFF showcased a medium that continues to thrive outside commercial constructs by providing visions with strong points of view, and proved just how important it is to have a place where people can gather to celebrate idiosyncratic cinema.

For a complete list of winners at the festival, check out the next page.