Move over Michael Moore and make way for Max Fisher. As the seventh edition of the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) came to a close yesterday, the director making the biggest impression wasn't the festival's famous co-founder, but the young local who directed an 8-minute short known as "Traverse City LipDub 2011." In one continuous tracking shot, Fisher's camera weaves through the streets of Traverse City while a cast of 2,000 community members stream into the frame performing lip sync versions of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" and Van Halen's "Jump."
The participants include dancers, acrobats, roller derby girls, dirt bikers, kayakers and others skillfully choreographed like a mini Midwest version of Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark." Don't rely on my description, see it for yourself.
Fisher shot the film in honor of the festival. But one notable community member absent from the cast was Moore who also missed the festival's opening night celebrations. In past years, Moore has been a ubiquitous presence introducing films and hosting the free daily panel discussions. This year, he scaled back to fewer appearances though he still plays a central role behind the scenes selecting the line-up and luring special guests like Matthew Modine (appearing with the short "Jesus was a Commie"). In an interview with indieWIRE, Moore expressed a desire to shift the focus of the festival away from him. "I know from attending hundreds of festivals - they are like a fish that rots from the head down," he noted. In his hope to avoid being a rotten head, he explained, "I've tried to stress from the beginning that this effort is one for all and all for one. The volunteers were every bit as vital as I was."
In other words, less Moore is more. Fisher's lip dub video exemplifies the way an entire city has mobilized behind the festival, from musicians who perform before screenings to restaurateurs who cater the green rooms. Their hospitality made a strong impression on visiting filmmakers I spoke to including Scotland's Anthony Baxter ("You've Been Trumped"), Iceland's Gaukur Ulfarsson ("Gnarr"), Canada's Jody Shapiro ("How to Start Your Own Country"), and Oregon's Susan Saladoff ("Hot Coffee"). This year the festival increased its number of guests thanks to a travel grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. With seven years of momentum, the festival has established a solid reputation that makes its future less dependent on Moore.
Nevertheless, he remains a favorite attraction. Every year, he reserves a slot for "Mike's Surprise." Ticket buyers don't know what they're getting until he appears on stage. This year, rather than a film, the surprise was Moore reading from his new memoir "Here Comes Trouble" due to be published in September. He describes the book as a series of non-fiction short stories taken from his life before he became a filmmaker.
One distinct theme at this year's festival were representations of the working class. That was manifest in the dual opening night selections of "Made in Dagenham" and "Even The Rain," two dramas - set in England and Bolivia respectively - that are keenly attuned to class struggle. In "Made in Dagenham," Bob Hoskins plays a union representative who encourages women working at a Ford Motor plant in Dagenham, England to protest being paid less than male co-workers.
"Even the Rain" stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a film director who unexpectedly gets caught in the middle of a fight over water rights. The closing night film was Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" that remains potent even after 75 years with its juxtaposition between a sheep herd and factory workers.
Moore told indieWIRE he thought this content was crucial at a time when "people in the Midwest are under assault from political leaders who are hell bent on destroying jobs, unions, public employees and the arts." He added, "The arts can't remain separate from what's going on politically. Politics without art creates a scary society."
While TCFF is well represented by politically charged filmmaking, the festival also thrives at catering to a wide range of cinematic tastes. Populist hits such as Lucas Films' "Empire Strikes Back" and Disney's "Tangled" were presented for free each night alongside the waterfront on a new 100-foot screen for thousands of spectators. A section for kids showcased international works such as the animated "A Cat in Paris." For lovers of classic cinema, the Alloy Orchestra performed a live accompaniment to a selection of silent era shorts including George Melies' "A Trip to the Moon" and Edwin S. Porter's "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend." In an effort to push cinematic boundaries, the festival dedicated a new venue to experimental works including Vapor Trail ("Clark"), John Gianvito's four-hour documentary about the legacy of the U.S military's Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Two documentaries stood out for Michigan connections. "Where Soldiers Come From" takes place in the small town of Hancock in the state's Upper Peninsula, following a group of young men who enlist in the National Guard from their departure to Afghanistan through to their return home and difficult transition. "Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football" takes place in Dearborn, where the largest Arab population in America resides. At Fordson High School, the largely Muslim football team has to cope with challenges that include racial profiling by police and fasting for Ramadan during the peak of the season.
The festival showed evidence of success in its admissions that rose from 106,000 last year to over 128,000 this year, according to Moore.
[About the writer: Thom Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and artistic director for DOC NYC and the Stranger Than Fiction screening series.]