A “reel” take on Ann Arbor Film Fest

. March 1, 2017.
Ann Arbor Film Festival Director Leslie Raymond.
Ann Arbor Film Festival Director Leslie Raymond.

As a filmmaker – and former freelance film journalist – film festivals and films are my thing. “Obsession” is an understatement. To prove it, I have two film degrees, multiple short films, magazine articles, professional and union organizations memberships and an upcoming debut feature film.

So when Current gave me the chance to have a nice, long chat with Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director Leslie Raymond and discuss her take on the best of the best in this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 21-26), I nearly fell off my seat.

The AAFF’s lore is GLOBAL – yes, I meant to capitalize it – which is no small feat for being one of nearly 4,000 film festivals (and counting) around the world. AAFF remains, as it was from its genesis, ahead of its time and the place to be if you want see the best of the best in experimental and avant-garde cinema.

So read up on all that is to come for this year’s AAFF and garner a glimpse at the special programs, artists and films you won’t want to miss from the perspective of its committed and impassioned Executive Director, Leslie Raymond.

AAFF is known for being experimental. How do you make that accessible for general audiences who have not yet had that cinematic experience?

Leslie: I like to describe [going to our film festival] as a situation where you think you’re walking into a room, where you expect everyone to speak English, but instead everyone is speaking Chinese. So you’re like “Whoa! I thought everyone would be speaking the same language and I don’t understand anybody.” But you know what happens when you go to a foreign country and you don’t speak the language? You actually can communicate way more than you would think. There are so many other ways to communicate besides words.
Instead of thinking of it as going to the movie theater, pretend that you are going to the art museum. And the kind of work that we show, so much of it has so much affinity with art; whether you see a painting on the wall or whether an abstract painting, modern painting, or something classical, the people who are making the things we show are primarily artists and the kinds of things that we show are springing from, primarily, the fine arts and the museum.

It sounds as though people come prepared to be introduced to new visual forms that they would not see in commercial movie theaters.

I wouldn’t say that people coming through the door necessarily know that, but that’s been my mission to educate and excite them about such cinema. So come with an open mind because the potential rewards are really quite great. I try to encourage people to not think you need to have studied “Experimental Film” or even have seen it before, but to open yourself to it like you do a painting on the wall: You see, you can think about, and have your own ideas – and a conversation about it. It’s almost as much a mirror on your own state of being, as it is an expression of something that the artist made.

This year’s festival is committed to the idea of “Solace, Freedom and Togetherness,” could you expound upon that theme?

We show films that you won’t ever see anything like, really, anywhere else. The kinds of films we show are a premiere showcase for this type of work. It’s not like you can go to the Michigan Theater on another day and see something like it – you just really can’t. And I think that we are showing so many perspectives, so many different types of stories, so many types of ways and means of telling stories that have a very broad variety and diversity of voices.

And so, the other part that comes together with this is the dialogue that you can have while coming together. The potential for the diversity of the experience of watching, each individual film festival-goer may experience something similar, but also something very different. That space that’s provided for people to talk to each other just becomes that much more rich.

Let’s talk about AAFF and its relationship with the Ann Arbor Community.

The origin of the film festival is the 1960s by Founder George Manupelli. Obviously, the University of Michigan goes way back – way before that, but just looking back to the origins of the festival and the whole cultural milieu of the counter-culture movement – people finding new ways to come together that were more communal, and finding new modes of expression and cross-disciplinary collaboration coming out of that same time. I mean, the Ann Arbor Film Festival was woven from the fabric of that moment and we still feel and practice the roots of our origins.

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