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The Ann Arbor Film Festival: Putting The Money Where The Mouth Is

The Ann Arbor Film Festival: Putting The Money Where The Mouth Is

Oh, Michigan. Sigh…

I was born in Michigan, raised in Michigan, went to college at the University of Michigan, spent untold hours watching films from the balcony of the Michigan Theater, was MARRIED a couple of months ago in the Michigan Theater; Let’s just say I have some deep roots in that place. I consider myself a product of the very special set of circumstances that existed in my home state during the decades I lived there. I have been watching with great sadness at the latest news coming out of The Ann Arbor Film Festival, where the moronic libertarian streak in some of my home state’s most conservative neanderthals has somehow, someway won the day. After a libertarian “think tank” made claims that the Ann Arbor Film Festival showed ‘pornographic’ material (HILARIOUS!), frightened legislators refused to honor funding from the State of Michigan for the organization, one of the best avant-garde film festivals in the country, before the festival itself decided to forgo state funding to preserve its artistic integrity and challenge all attempts by the State to impose content-based restrictions.

From the festival’s website:

” In 2006, the AAFF was targeted by a special interest groups and state legislators in Michigan who oppose public funding of the arts. Legislators unjustly claimed that our programming was pornographic and offensive (citing films they did not even watch), and had our state funding rescinded through unconstitutional means. When they asked us to alter our programming in order to receive their support, the AAFF refused to apply for future funding in order to protect our artistic integrity. This created an immediate gap in our annual budget. In March 2007 we challenged dubious state laws that harm the First Amendment rights of artists with a Federal lawsuit spearheaded by the ACLU. While we strongly believe in supporting artists’ freedom of expression, this lawsuit has also required excessive time and energy on behalf of staff. See our Censorship Controversy page for more. The Ann Arbor Film Festival agreed to be the plaintiff in this lawsuit to ensure that these unconstitutional state laws would not be used against other arts organizations in the future.”

While I am so ashamed of the State of Michigan for its ignorance, I am more concerned about the chilling message the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and its lackeys in state government are trying to send. You have to know a little about Michigan politics and culture to understand the true tenor of this action, so let me put some things into perspective for the outsiders who see this issue as purely an issue about a film festival and its right to show whatever movies it wants to show.

Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan, which is one of the finest public Universities in the country (if, as an alumnus, I do say so myself). As such, Ann Arbor is seen by many people in the state of Michigan as a bastion of liberal elitism, the place where snobby intellectuals sit in espresso cafes and at sushi bars corrupting the impressionable minds of young undergraduates. It is, quite literally, the epicenter of class tensions in Michigan, where blue collar moral conservatives (and greedy white collar fiscal conservatives who pose as moral conservatives so they don’t have to share their income or have any sense of responsibility toward their fellow citizens) clash with the so-called educated liberal elites (the shame!). It is not a coincidence that when Michigan conservatives wanted to challenge Affirmative Action laws in Michigan, they went after the University’s Law School admissions policy. It is also no surprise that when they want to go after state arts funding, they would attack something called The Ann Arbor Film Festival. The words ‘Ann Arbor’ basically function as code for liberal, diverse, queer, feminist; Winning a battle against an Ann Arbor institution is like planting a flag with a middle finger on it in the heart of liberal land. What better way for conservatives to send a message and feel triumphant?

Of course, with the state economy in a huge downturn after the loss of thousands upon thousands of manufacturing and other jobs, the case against funding for the arts is particularly emboldened; If the state needs an economic stimulus, they argue, why not offer tax breaks, cut state budgets and trim the fat? The first place to look is, of course, arts funding because, as the Mackinac Center For Public Policy puts it so eloquently, “one person’s highpoint of artistic achievement may be deemed a cesspool of silliness by another.” Interesting. I guess you say the same about anything, no? “One person’s tax break may be deemed the inability to afford a meal by another.” Or how about “one person’s Center For Public Policy may be deemed a dimwitted front group for unrestricted capitalism without regard for any sort of social contract by another”? Attacking arts funding is so so easy, especially since the value of the arts in this country is constantly degraded. I have an idea; Since “one man’s invasion and occupation may be deemed a war crime by another” why don’t we pull state funding for the Michigan National Guard while we’re at it? Let’s demand objectivity and intellectual honesty in government! Right. Oh, subjectivity, you great, amorphous concept that literal-minded tax-evaders can’t seem to navigate…

Snark and outrage aside, this campaign is truly about intellectual freedom and the responsibility of government institutions to support the artistic pursuit of ideas, regardless of their content. I applaud the Ann Arbor Film Festival for telling the State of Michigan to stick their caveats where the sun doesn’t shine, but why should they have to do so? Most disturbing to me, the State of Michigan has a Democrat as a governor, two Democratic senators in the U.S. Senate, and a long-standing tradition of supporting intellectual and creative freedom in its artistic institutions. I’ll be talking to all of my friends and family back home to see if I can get them to withdraw their support from their state representatives who have supported this outrageous act, but in the meantime, I’ve just made a $75 contribution to the Festival’s ENDANGERED FUND on behalf of myself and my wife. I encourage all free-thinking people to help the festival offset the loss of state money and the cost of mounting a legal fight by helping in whatever way you can.

As much as I loathe this shift in the responsibility of government, migrating the sacred trust between taxation and public spending to a new dynamic of unaccountable private support for everything from social services to the arts, this is one issue I can’t let go. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is important to me not just as a symbol of intellectual freedom, but because that theater and its movies, that city and that state are a part of who I am. I was there in 1989, and I’ll do my part in 2007.

Below, a clever little video explaining the festival’s Endangered campaign. Give a look, and give a little money to help the festival and its pursuit of laws that support funding for the Arts.

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