The Michigan Filmmakers of Ann Arbor Film Festival

Now in its 60th year, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America. This year’s festival will run March 22-27, taking on a hybrid format after going online-only in 2020 and 2021. 

Though international in scope, local filmmakers have been a strong part of the AAFF experience. This year’s crop of Michigan-based and Michigan-born creators includes University of Michigan faculty and alumni, visiting artists  and a filmmaker now living abroad who “loved going to the Big House” when he was growing up in the Mitten.

We spoke with several of the filmmakers with roots in Michigan for their thoughts on the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the work they’re presenting.

 


Sean Donovan

Curator, A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth: Out Histories at the Ann Arbor Film Festival

Sean Donovan is a doctoral candidate in Film, Television, & Media at the University of Michigan, and has been organizing the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s LGBTQ+ programming since 2019. This year, in addition to his regular duties, Donovan curated A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth, a retrospective screening Thursday evening, in person only.

Donovan said that Ann Arbor’s film culture was a big factor in his decision to come to the University of Michigan for his PhD. “It’s lively, it’s a town that really cares about film,” he said, especially experimental films.

A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth is a historical lineup of queer films that have appeared at the AAFF from its earliest days through the present, with the program’s title taken from one of the films.  “It’s been exciting to get a window into how queer experimental film, at least the kind shown at Ann Arbor Film Festival, has changed over time,” Donovan said. “Being given this opportunity by Leslie Raymond and the festival to explore that has been something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Donovan said that, in his research for the retrospective and its final lineup, “I think that more than anything you see an expression of changing values, or changing priorities as artists.” He said that work from the 1980s and ’90s “gets a lot grungier, a lot more political” in comparison with earlier films that “are more of the aesthetic art film category, that are finding ways to get at really valuable meanings of what it’s like to be queer but in a completely different register.”

“Programming this historical selection alongside the programming I’ve done for four years of contemporary queer films, it’s interesting to see the styles that do stay the same,” Donovan said. “I came away from the project feeling like there is a lot that binds us to the queer artistic practices of the past, and a lot that does remain consistent in queer film art of the contemporary moment.”

A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth is screening Thursday 3/24 at 9:15 pm.


Jerod WIllis

Miracle Whip

Detroit-based filmmaker Jerod Willis, a recent graduate of Wayne State University, created Miracle Whip in part as a pandemic response. The film examines self-worth by comparing the human body to a car breaking down. 

“I was kind of in that situation myself,” Willis said. “I’d gone a year and half without putting anything out, because of the pandemic, making sure everyone in my life that I love is safe.” He added that the short film and its title were also inspired by a lyric from Kanye West’s song “Last Call,” in which Ye boasts of his “Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips.”

“My car is also mayo-colored, so I thought it would work,” Willis said.

Will said he felt honored to be included in the AAFF. ” It’s the largest film festival in my home state,” he said, adding that he enjoyed seeing what other Michigan directors are producing. He’s also excited that his whole family will be able to attend the screening.

Miracle Whip will screen as part of Films in Competition 6 Thursday 3/24 at 9:30pm and will be available online at 11:59pm.


dream hampton

Freshwater

You’ve led an incredible career with a number of meaningful and high profile films and series, with of course Surviving R. Kelly helping lead to his prosecution. What role would you say short films like Freshwater play in your creative life?

After earning massive acclaim for her recent documentaries including Surviving R. Kelly, dream hampton enjoyed creating a smaller, more personal film in Freshwater, which explores changes in her Detroit neighborhood. 

“It’s about my neighborhood, it’s about flooded basements, it’s about memory. It’s about change,” hampton said. “Sometimes that change looks like displacement, sometimes it’s gentrification, sometimes it looks like real community-led investment. I know how inevitable change is. In the film I talk about not wanting to bemoan change, but we’re all a little nostalgic.”

hampton noted that the demographic changes happening now in Detroit are not unprecedented. She mentioned that she had lived in Harlem, which before it was a Black neighborhood was a Jewish neighborhood, and Dutch before that. “I know that change happens,” hampton said. “Detroit has been a Black city my entire life, and I’ve had to think about, what if it’s not anymore? It wasn’t always.”

The filmmaker said she could have done a documentary about flooded basements in Detroit, but “it didn’t hit me like that.” Instead, flooding serves as a metaphor, taking place “in the basement where we hold memories, especially those memories we’re not actively engaging. It’s where we put the stuff of our lives.” 

hampton appreciates the space for experimental film that the AAFF offers. “I think what’s been built here over the past couple decades is incredible.” appreciate space for experimental film. 

Freshwater will be shown with feature film, Elephant by Maria Judice (who will be attending the film festival in person) on Sunday March 27 at 3:15pm. 


Peter Sparling

The Man I Want to Be

You’ve been a member of some incredibly prestigious dance companies, as well founding your own and teaching dance at Michigan. How would you say your video art and the other media you work in complement or work together with dance?

Peter Sparling’s career in dance has included performing as principle dancer with the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company, founding his own company, and teaching Dance at University of MIchigan, where he holds the title of Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Dance and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Dance. He has also taught screendancing at U-M for 20 years, which he notes is different from the work he had done on stage.

“The work I do with the human body on the screen isn’t a direct translation or transposition of everything I’ve learned as a dancer and choreographer working on the stage,” Sparling said. “There’s a different poetics, different dynamics to putting a human body in motion on screen.”

Sparling said that screendancing started as “an impulse I had to prolong my creative practice” as he became less able to do performance and had less desire to perform. He also became interested in film editing as “a direct continuation of my choreographic practice.” 

The Man I Want to Be will make its debut at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival, but Sparling has been collaborating with the festival since the mid-’80s, at times opening the event with stage performances. He has also contributed previous films to AAFF.

In addition to the festival being in his home town, Sparling said, “I love the aesthetic, the orientation of an experimental independent film festival, and how it allows screendance to be considered as an experimental film.”

The Man I Want to Be deals with the concept of masculinity and the “ideal” male body through a collage of Sparling’s dance and vintage, public domain footage from The Prelinger Archives. Sparling said he was looking for a context in which to use the footage of himself — “a male body on screen in underwear, what does that suggest?” — and searched for male sex ed and other educational videos in the Prelinger. He said he hopes the juxtaposition gives the film humor, absurdity, and “maybe even a little bit of poignancy.”

The Man I Want to Be will premiere as part of Films in Competition 1 Tuesday 3/22 at 8:15pm and will be available online at 11:59pm.


Terri Sarris and Frank Pahl

The Scivener Speaks

Terri Sarris, a Senior Lecturer in U-M’s Department of Film, Television and Media, and Frank Pahl, a composer and Adjunct Professor at the College for Creative Studies, enjoy creating short films based on classic works of literature, but with their own unique twists.

“For both of us, the challenge is taking a short story and adapting it as sparingly as we can,” Sarris said. When considering a new project, both artists flip through writers they like, with Ray Bradbury named as one recent candidate before settling on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

Melville’s story was told through the perspective of an employer frustrated by Bartleby responding to each assignment with the enigmatic phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Sarris and Pahl’s short film The Scrivener Speaks, however, is from Bartleby’s point of view — and she has a lot to say.“This was something that felt very personal, and also something that’s happening in the culture, women finding their voice,” Sarris said. “A lot of people are leaving the workforce because of the pandemic, getting to the place where they just say, enough, I’m not doing it. I’d prefer not to.” 

The inversion of perspective, Sarris said, changes the story entirely, as does changing Bartleby’s sex. “Melville certainly didn’t have a woman’s perspective in mind,” Sarris said.

Pahl added that Bartleby’s resistance also resonates with those who continue to hold onto their jobs but come at their work from a new perspective. Bartleby does not outright refuse his (or her) tasks, but still registers a protest.

Both local artists share an aesthetic of “found stuff and broken stuff,” they said, using old toys as their characters and thrift store paintings for backdrops. Even the 16mm film itself, Sarris said, conformed to these practices. Sarris was able to procure “short ends” — essentially, film leftover from other shoots — free from her department to use for Bartleby.

“I think Ann Arbor appreciates those sort of handmade touches as much as they do more polished products,” Sarris said.

Pahl noted that, at an AAFF event for participating filmmakers in early March, another film they both enjoyed had only two people credited. “We’re up against people having huge crews, so it’s nice that we can go downstairs, set up a card table, turn a painting upside down, and be on the same stage as those people.”

The Scrivener Speaks premieres as part of Films in Competition 3 Wednesday 3/23 at 7:15pm and will be available online at 11:59pm.


Yvette Granata

Deep Sophia

As part of the AAF’s “Off the Screen!” programming, Yvette Granata’s Deep Sophia challenges viewers to consider the filmic close up and the ways we respond to faces that are not quite human. Granata, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media, has created a three-screen installation that uses facial recognition and tracking software to transpose the face of the Sophia robot onto well-known historical film clips.

“It’s really interesting working with things like game development platforms and 3D animations that use motion capture and facial recognition,” she said. “It is using the way that the human body and human face are very advanced in the way we portray emotion, it’s harder to animate from scratch.”

Granata added that her work is interested in exploring humans as technology, but is not concerned with making Sophia appear as a “real” person. Sophia “mimics the way motion captures, but in a way that is transparent,” she said. “The Sophia Robot is like a parasite on the actors’ faces that cannot get as expressive.” Granata said this creates a strange effect in layering, not entirely humanlike, and contributes to a sense of “apparently nonhuman facial movement that is neither human nor robot.”

There is also an interactive element, mapping Sophia’s face onto whoever is viewing the installation. In its original form, however, the current pandemic reality of wearing a mask “makes the piece not work.” Instead, Granata edited a special edition for the AAFF premiere to accommodate masked faces.

Deep Sophia will be presented in U-M North Quad Space 2435.


Natalia Rocafuerte

Four Immigrant Women Dream

Natalia Rocafuerte, who was awarded AAFF’s Best Michigan Filmmaker Award at last year’s festival, returns with an “Off the Screen!” installation titled Four Immigrant Women Dream, an audio visual installation of four dreams collected through her dream hotline. “I rendered each dream using Mexican video aesthetics and popular media,” Rocafuerte said. “The four dreams are a psychodynamic tool for deep listening, a skill I am always trying to improve.”

Rocafuerte’s art frequently explores issues of origin and identity, themes which also permeate Four Immigrant Women Dream. “Our origin story is a big part of our inner psychological environments and narratives,” she said. “In dreams we often visit former homes, which is more visually dramatic if you have migrated to another country. I never seem to dream about my current house, it’s always my grandmother’s house in Mexico or our first apartment in Texas on the border by the sea. 

“I don’t know if I’m particularly interested in declaring an identity but making tools to assist with reflection of who we are and how our environment shapes us.”

Also currently on view is Rocafuerte’s MFA exhibition at the STAMPS Gallery, Close but Not Touching

Four Immigrant Women Dreaming will be presented at Michigan Theater.


Erich Rettstadt

Tank Fairy

When Petoskey native Erich Rettstadt moved with his partner to Taiwan after graduate school, he’d only planned to stay nine months. “It’s been five years now.”

Rettstadt said he fell in love with the drag scene in Taiwan. “Tank Fairy was really inspired by and made in collaboration with the queer community in Taiwan,” he said, describing the film as “a ten minute musical about a magical, gas tank delivering drag queen who empowers a lonely ten year old boy.” Rettstadt explained that in Taiwan, many older homes don’t have gas mains in the buildings, so they use portable propane tanks delivered by workers, usually “burly, masculine men.” “The film gives a campy, fabulous makeover to this very male-dominated profession by starring one of Taiwan’s most famous drag queens as the world’s most fabulous gas tank delivery woman.” 

Tank Fairy stars Marian Mesula in the title role. “She’s an incredible live performer — she’s comedic, she’s charismatic, she’s got choreography,” Rettstadt said. “So I knew that I wanted to build a project around her.”

Unlike many recent on-screen presentations of drag, Rettstadt’s film is neither documentary nor “reality TV” format but is instead more akin to John Waters’ films with Divine or Tyler Perry’s Madea series. “Just thinking of drag in terms of drag shows that you go to see at a gay bar or RuPaul’s Drag Race is very limiting,” Rettstadt said. “Casting drag performers as bonafide characters within scripted narratives is the next frontier of drag representation.” 

Though he now lives on the other side of the globe, Rettstadt said Ann Arbor “holds a very special place in my heart.” He added that he loved going to the Big House as a child, and was aware of the Ann Arbor Film Festival even then.  “It was always a goal for me.” 

Tank Fairy will screen as part of Films in Competition 5: Out Night Thursday 3/24 at 7:30pm and will be available online at 11:59pm.


Tracey Snelling

A Poem is a City and How to Build a Disaster Proof House

Berlin-based artist Tracey Snelling comes to Ann Arbor as  the 2022 Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence, which will see her present an installation titled How to Build a Disaster Proof House at Institute for the Humanities as well as Ann Arbor Film Festival. 

“With the pandemic, global warming, lack of adequate housing, fires, etc., our sense of security is more precarious than ever. I wanted to look at the idea of creating a safe space within,” Snelling said of her installation art. “Amanda Krugliak, the curator at IH, and I have designed workshops to work with students and the community to make small rooms that express one’s idea of home, safety, a dream or fantasy. It’s a way to connect with oneself.” Once these boxes have been created, they will first be shown next to the Institute’s gallery, “then they will be combined to make a tall skyscraper building on a moveable cart, a kind of mobile unit.” 

“The exhibition will have several lifesize rooms, as well as small rooms and sculptures that continue the idea to find a calm place within the chaos,” Snelling said.

Snelling has had to be agile and adaptable through this project; her residency had originally been scheduled for 2021 but was delayed due to the pandemic, and aspects of How to Build were scaled down so that the installation could work with fewer participants, due to the uncertainty as to whether workshops would be able to take place in person. 

Her short film A Poem is a City, set to narration of the Charles Bukowski story of the same name, makes its United States debut at AAFF. The film features Snelling walking through miniature cityscapes, her character’s persona shifting with the setting. 

“This is a great festival for A Poem is a City, as it’s known for being one of the best experimental film festivals,” Snelling said of Ann Arbor Film Festival. “To have the film and installation at the festival, while my exhibition is a block away, gives interested viewers a chance to see the scope of what I do and the various aspects. It’s also nice to be able to be here for the opening and screening, although my collaborator for the film, Arthur Debert, isn’t able to make it from Berlin.”

It’s been such a wonderful experience so far, working with students, new arrivals from Kenya and Iran, and individuals from Delonis and Freighthouse!” Snelling said. “We’ve found that making the rooms in the workshop is not only a creative exercise, but it also seems therapeutic and is a joyful time to sit, talk and laugh with each other.”

A Poem is a City screens as part of Films in Competition 6 Thursday 3/24 at 9:30pm and will be available online at 11:59pm. How to Build a Disaster Proof House will be on view at the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery.


Andy Kirshner

10 Questions for Henry Ford

Henry Ford is a giant of American history and culture, especially in Southeast Michigan. But especially in recent years there’s been a growing awareness of, or reawakening to, the darker side of the industrialist. For Andy Kirshner, an Associate Professor in U-M’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance and Stamps School of Art and Design, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge the full complexities of major historical figures like Ford.

Kirshner said he first began considering a film about Henry Ford after the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville. “I wanted to go more deeply into it and explore connections between the period of Ford’s darkest hour in the ’20s and ’30s and where we are today,” he said, throughout this process “filling out the picture of who this person was.” 

10 Questions is described as a mix of “historical fact and poetic imaginings,” part of Kirshner’s effort to “get inside of Henry Ford’s head.” Initially conceived in more traditional documentary-style format using radio interview with Ford as narration, Kirshner had to change course for a very practical reason: “I discovered that he was terrified of public speaking so there were no interviews.” 

Instead, Kirshner used text from Ford’s private “jot books,” journals that contained a wide range of Ford’s thoughts. “One page would be, like, an idea for a new kind of sprocket, and then the next page would be ‘labor unions are the worst thing ever to happen to the world,’ the next page would be like ‘the Jew is out to enslave you,’ the next page would be the title of a tune he wanted to remember for his Friday night dance.” From these meandering notes, the filmmaker extrapolated a first person “interview” with Ford.

Kirshner’s film further diverges from traditional nonfiction storytelling in an effort to put past and present in conversation by presenting Henry Ford as a ghost. “That’s where the documentary part ends,” Kirshner joked. Instead, he called his film “documentary fantasy.” 

In addition to playing to Kirshner’s “hometown crowd,” he said he’s excited to present 10 Questions for Henry Ford because of its subject’s connections to the area. “We’re in Southeast Michigan, we’re in Ford territory. Everybody who lives here has been to Greenfield Village and knows that piece of the story,” he said. “They kind of vaguely know the other side of the story, but don’t really know what that is. Like how he was extremely influential in the early Nazi movement, for example. Hitler gave him a medal, called him his inspiration, was prepared to send shock troops to Chicago when Ford was considering a run for the presidency. So there’s some really dark history.”

10 Questions for Henry Ford screens Saturday 3/26 at 5:30