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Ann Arbor Film Festival Celebrates 50 Years of Thinking Outside The Box

Ann Arbor Film Festival Celebrates 50 Years of Thinking Outside The Box

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.

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.

The 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival is proud to announce this year’s award winning films as chosen by our esteemed jury: Michael Robinson, Kathy Geritz and Peter Rose.

* Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival: “Lack of Evidence (Manque de Preuves)” Hayoun Kwon

* Gus Van Sant Award for Best Experimental Film: “Sounding Glass” Sylvia Schedelbauer

* Chris Frayne Award for Best Animated Film: “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” Don Hertzfeldt, “Traces” Scott Stark

* Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film: “Palaces of Pity” Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes

The Stan Brakhage Film at Wit’s End Award: “Voluptuous Sleep” Betzy Bromberg

Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary Film: “Guañape Sur” János Richter

Award for Best International Film: “Untitled” Neil Beloufa

Peter Wilde Award for Most Technically Innovative Film: “Vexed” Telcosystems)

autFILM Award for Best LGBT Film: “The Evil Eyes” Bobby Abate

The Ghostly Award for Best Sound Design: “Remote” Jesse McLean

Kodak/Colorlab Award for Best Cinematography: “Undergrowth” and “Within” Robert Todd

The No Violence Award: “If the War Continues” Jonathan Schwartz

The Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist: “Ceibas: The Epilogue – The Well of Representation” Evan Meaney

Prix DeVarti for Funniest Film: “Walt Disney’s Taxi Driver” Bryan Boyce, “Shadow Cuts” Martin Arnold, “Pluto Declaration” Travis Wilkerso)

Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker: “The Strawberry Tree” Simone Rapisarda Casanova

George Manupelli Founder’s Spirit Award: “By Foot-Candle Light” Mary Helena Clark

Art & Science Award: “20Hz” Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt aka Semiconductor

The Eileen Maitland Award: “Irma” Charles Fairbanks

Award for Best Music Video: “Go Outside” (Cults) Isaiah Seret

“As Above, So Below” Sarah J. Christman
“Tin Pressed” Dani Leventhal
“Curious Light” Charlotte Pryce
“Landfill 16” Jennifer Reeves
“August Song” Jodie Mack, Emily Kuehn
“A Lax Riddle Unit” Laida Lertxundi
“Quest (Cautare)” Ionuţ Piturescu
“The House (Das Haus)” David Buob
“Envelop by Julianna Barwick” Cam Archer

Vimeo Audience Award: TBA

* Shorts in these categories qualify for Academy Award consideration.


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