"The Sea [is still] Around Us," directed by Hope Tucker
"The Sea [is still] Around Us," directed by Hope Tucker

The 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival could have been a solemn, self-congratulatory affair, but instead the atmosphere was celebratory and welcoming.

This annual celebration of independent cinema felt like a gathering of the faithful, where new converts are always welcome. The AAFF has grown dramatically: a scrappy program mounted by University of Michigan art students and cinema society diehards grew into an internationally recognized festival of shorts (narrative, documentary, animation, experimental) and unconventional features; and a cramped campus auditorium gave way to the historic Michigan Theater, whose main stage seats 1,710 and screening room holds 200.

Despite the changes, the AAFF maintains a very specific atmosphere: challenging films are shown in a convivial environment, and the seriousness of the programming doesn’t extend to the festival itself. From AAFF founder George Manupelli leading the opening night audience in a rousing version of “Happy Birthday,” to performance artist and festival stalwart Pat Oleszko dressing like a candelabra and leading a group of dancing candles in a Busby Berkeley routine (complete with overhead camera), the mood was loose and fun.

By contrast, the more than 200 films shown at this year’s AAFF (which ran March 27 to April 1) required dedicated viewing. This is cinema as personal expression: there were many dense, non-linear tomes that felt much longer than their brief running times, while others were so inspired that their effect was like an invigorating tonic. The AAFF represents moviegoing as an immersive experience, and the viewers dove right in, no matter how deep (or shallow) the offering.

Audiences at the Ann Arbor Film Festival are unfailingly respectful and polite, even waiting for the pause between shorts to make their exit. (A list of shorts is flashed onscreen as the projectionist switches formats – 16mm, video and 35mm – during the roughly 90-minute programs.) When the engrossing found footage narrative, “An Incomplete History of the Travelogue, 1925,” kept getting caught in the 16mm projector’s film gate and had to be restarted, viewers stayed put, and as one jam resulted in a spectacular emulsion melt (with director Sasha Waters Freyer in attendance), there was a collective gasp in the theater.

In a perceived breach of festival etiquette, one particularly tedious offering was greeted with a small spattering of hisses, which led another patron to loudly retort, “Did somebody spring a leak?” Even as the French-language “Lack of Evidence (Manque de Preuves)” unspooled without subtitles, there were no vocal protests.

This short turned out to be the AAFF’s big winner, and when a subtitled version was screened during closing night, a harrowing account of an asylum seeker is added to the hypnotic visual narrative (a colorful African village is transformed into topographical line drawings) for powerful, intimate storytelling with geopolitical reverberations. The same can be said for “Untitled,” the atmospheric best international film winner from France, with its echoes of colonialism: locals, staff and the owner of a modern villa discuss razing the property after terrorists used it as a refuge.

“Guañape Sur” was one of several strong films that found new ways to look at the interactions between people and their environment. This documentary winner is beautifully shot, clear-eyed and engaging look at Chilean men harvesting guano from a remote island so it can be used for fertilizer. Josh Gibson’s “Kudzu Vine” uses the eerie black and white of vintage scifi to explore how this prodigious foreign invader is altering the Southern landscape. In the elegiac and quietly moving “The Sea [is still] Around Us,” Hope Tucker employs old postcards and their text to illustrate the devastation of industry on a Maine coastal town. Laura Heit explores that symbol of wildness – the wolf – in the layered, animated “The Deep Dark,” revealing how a deep-seated fear of the woods affects our perception.