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DISPATCH FROM MICHIGAN | Back from the Brink: Ann Arbor Forges Ahead

DISPATCH FROM MICHIGAN | Back from the Brink: Ann Arbor Forges Ahead

The Ann Arbor Film Festival very nearly didn’t make it to its 46th year. Known for its eclectic slate packed with shorts and experimental films and diverse features, the historic fest came dangerously close to folding last year due to money woes and a censorship battle against Michigan’s obscenity laws. The fest, which doesn’t shirk at controversy and subversion, went head-to-head with the Michigan legislature over funding issues, which ultimately resulted in the state adopting funding language for the arts in keeping with the National Endowment of the Arts. Thanks in large part to the powerhouse team of Executive Director Christen McArdle and Director of Community and Development Donald Harrison, the fest has continued its legacy and vision of highlighting cutting-edge work by a wide array of artists working in the medium of film.

Guests in town for the fest included jurors Bill Plympton, Michelle Silva and Bill Brown. Plympton, an Oscar-nominated animator who won the Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1991 for his film “The Tune,” is one of the most successful independent animators in the world. Silva is a cinematographer, editor and curator, and has collaborated on numerous film projects and restorations. Brown, a filmmaker from Lubbock, Texas, makes experimental documentaries and had a retrospective of his work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 2003.

The fest kicked off opening night with screenings of numerous short films in competition and the opening night party; Wednesday’s offerings featured more competition films and a special screening of Buster Keaton‘s 1926 silent film “Seven Chances,” with a live musical score by quintent bLuE daHLia.

Thursday at the fest started off with Silva’s juror presentation, “Sculptural Cinema,” an eclectic series of experimental shorts featuring The Multiple Otomo Project, a series of layered, distorted cinematic images, Silva’s “China Girls,” a three minute composition of women posing for skin tone and color slates, and “House of White People,” 16.5 minute excerpt from George Kuchar‘s 1968 film “Unstrap Me.”

Thursday night brought a screening of “One Bad Cat,” a documentary about self-taught “outsider” artist Reverend Albert Wagner, an African-American minister who began painting at age 50 after God spoke to him and told him to turn his life around, and a mind-bending series of competition shorts under the header of “Cracking the Space/Time Continuum.”

Larry Flynt autographs a fan’s voter registration card at the Q&A for “Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone.” Also pictured: Director Joan Brooker-Marks and Christen McArdle, Exectutive Director, Ann Arbor Film Festival. Photo by Kim Voynar.

Experimental shorts can be a rough thing to show at a festival, even one like Ann Arbor where “experimental” could be part of the fest’s official title. Often screenings of experimental films at other fests have a high walkout rate; Thursday night’s packed-house screening at Ann Arbor, however, played to a crowd with a good tolerance for the idea of experimental film as a unique art form, a moving canvas rather than a story with a particular narrative structure.

Friday afternoon kicked off with a lively discussion at the panel “Flipping the Coin: Copyright and Fair Use,” moderated by Film Threat owner Chris Gore. The small space where the panel was held was packed with a mix of filmmakers, fest attendees and students, all eager to have an active discussion on the subject matter that gave the panel an audience-participatory feel, rather than feeling like a dry lecture.

Friday night’s competition series “Collisions at the Crossroads,” a slate of narrative short films, promised to deliver “unforgettable intersections of relationships, raw emotions, and the random turns of life,” and that description was pretty much on the mark. Following the “Collisions” series, the mood shifted to a lighter note as world-famous independent animator and fest juror Bill Plympton presented excerpts of his own work for a packed house. Plympton also did a fascinating presentation around the clips about how he actually makes a living as an independent animator; his basic dogma: keep your films short, funny, and cheap.

Plympton told the crowd that his films usually cost only about $1,000 a minute to make, and that he can typically make many times that amount back on one of his films. Along with several of his films, Plympton showed a clip from the feature-length “Idiots and Angels,” which will have its full world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following his presentation, Plympton graciously sat at a table outside the theater and drew a picture for every single audience member who was willing to wait in the long line to get one.

Saturday’s slate kicked off with the Live Earth film series, a slate of 11 short films pertaining to issues around the environment. Highlights from this series included “Devil’s Rulebook” by Roman Coppola and Bucky Fukomoto, a humorous animated film about what Satan wants you to do to (not) care for the earth; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady‘s “One Less Car,” about New Yorkers taking their lives into their hands by riding bicycles; and Casey Affleck‘s lovely “Lorren E GE,” about a group of children living in the slums who create a cleaner, more beautiful world to play in with their imaginations.

Also showing Saturday was Best of Fest winner “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal),” directed by famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras. The film, shot over 23 years, tells the story of a family’s journey from war torn Laos to the slums of Brooklyn, New York, and their struggle to survive in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. The rest of Saturday evening’s main theater slate offered a pair of films dealing with the First Amendment and constitutional rights. “Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone,” chronicled the history of the Hustler publisher’s fight against obscenity charges and his battles in support of freedom of the press. The packed screening was followed by an enthusiastic and occasionally rowdy Q&A with Flynt and director Joan Brooker-Marks.

Director and cinematographer Ellen Kuras, whose film “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)” won Best of Fest at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with fest director Christen McArdle. Photo by Kim Voynar.

Flynt’s screening was followed by “Strange Culture,” a film about college professor, artist and activist Steve Kurtz, whose life was turned upside down after his wife of 27 years, Hope, died suddenly of heart failure. Kurtz called 911 for help, and medics on the scene became suspicious of materials Kurtz and his wife had in their home in preparation for an art exhibit on GMOs in the food supply, including harmless bacteria growing in petri dishes and an invitation to exhibit in an art show that had Arabic letters printed on it. Accused of being a bioterrorist, Kurtz is still facing the possibility of going to prison on wire and mail fraud charges pertaining to how he obtained the bacteria, even though it was determined there was no danger posed by the materials in his house.

I wrapped up the fest with a Sunday screening of Guy Maddin‘s bizarre and lovely tale of horror, lesbianism and a domineering mother, “Brand Upon the Brain!” I first saw this film a couple years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival in the beautiful Elgin Theater, with a live orchestra, narrator and foley artists. This screening had the recorded soundtrack narrated by Isabella Rosselini, and while it lacked some of the ambience of seeing the live version, the film as still just as much fun to watch with the recorded sound.

The Ann Arbor Film Fest, which also does a traveling tour to more than 15 cities across the US, is unique among the hundreds of fests on the circuit for its daring and inventive programming, which seeks to both challenge the audience’s perception of film as a medium and expose them to a wide array of styles and ideas. This programming team for this year’s fest did an outstanding job of building on the fest’s legacy, while moving it forward into the future.

COMPLETE LIST OF WINNERS:
(information provided by the festival)

Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival – $3,000
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) – Ellen Kuras

Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film – $1,000
Diente por Ojo – Elvind Holmboe

Chris Frayne Award for Best Animated Film – $1,000
Spontaneous Generation – Andrew Cahill
The Mermaid – Lisa Barcy

The Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist – $1,000
Energie! – Thorsten Fleisch

Prix DeVarti for Funniest Film – $1,000
On the Assassination of the President – Adam Keker

Griot Editorial Award for Best Editing – $500
I, of the Cyclops – George Kuchar

Peter Wilde Award for Most Technically Innovative Film – $500
Yours Truly – Osbert Parker

autFILM Award for Best LGBT Film – $500
Cat Dancers – Harris Fishman

Award for Best International Film – $500
Nijuman no Borei – Jean-Gabriel Periot

Gus Van Sant Award for Best Experimental Film – $1,000
Office Suite – Robert Todd

Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary Film – $1,000
kids + money – Lauren Greenfield

Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker – $1,000
Doxology – Michael Langan

The EMPA Work Life Award – $1,300
Beginning Filmmaking – Jay Rosenblatt

Kodak/Filmcraft Imaging Award for Best Cinematography – $1,500
Li: Patterns of Nature – John Campbell

Ghostly Award for Best Sound Design – $500
Observando El Cielo – Jeanne Liotta

The VUE/DFC Award for Best Michigan Filmmaker – $750
Mort – Dean Denell
buzzards steal your picnic – Terri Sarris

The Eileen Maitland Award – $500
Teat Beat of Sex – Signe Baumane

Honorable Mentions – $1,050
The Last Moment – Deco Dawson
Number One – Leighton Pierce
The Juche Idea – Jim Finn
Faux Mouvements (Wrong Moves) – Pip Chodorov
My Olympic Summer – Daniel Robin
Victory Over the Sun – Michael Robinson

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