Ann Arbor Film Fest, Back To The Roots

Ann Arbor, in the mid-1960s, was home to a burgeoning art and cultural scene, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival was part of it. The University of Michigan, at that time, was about as exciting a place to go to college as you can imagine, with the Art School in the epicenter of campus life.

Recalled beginnings

This year’s Ann Arbor film festival contains a throwback to the early days before the Festival enjoyed the acclaim it has earned over the past almost six decades. Pat Oleszko, an art student and performer during the Festival’s founding year, will perform as a “warm-up” for a night of film viewing, much like she did over 50 years ago. Pat was there when George Manupelli, the dynamic force behind the formation of the Festival, was teaching at the University of Michigan Art School. As a freshman, Pat was witness to a vibrant and fantastic group of teachers. The scene was alive, and the School showcased the creative efforts of many were showcased at the School. But, despite that backdrop, the focus of the entire school year was the Film Festival, and this was Manupelli at his best. He arranged to view the cinematic works of others, experiencing what was happening in film from around the country, and around the world, with the Ann Arbor Film Festival, six nights at six hours a night.

As Pat tells it, the Art School was “absurdly over-enrolled” with three times as many students occupying the classroom space as the space was designed for, giving rise to a virtual beehive of activity. The place really began to buzz as filmmakers came in from all over the nation, and the globe, for the first Festival. In the early days, the festival was held in the back of the Art School in the Art and Design Buildings auditorium, where uncomfortable wooden chairs provided seating.


The films of the Festival were augmented by a variety of art exhibitions and performances held in conjunction with film screenings. These performances included the sounds of The Velvet Underground, who played one of their first gigs outside of the New York City area at the Festival in March 1966 (with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale), arranged through connections with those in the scene. Due to her enthusiasm, Oleszko, as a young freshman, performed, doing her multi-disciplinary take on the use of her body as a vehicle for performance, decked-out sartorially to present and convey ideas. This living art, in a visually enhanced format, responded to items that interested her.

Described as a “semi-controlled circus,” after the film screenings, the group would often cross the intersection of Monroe and Tappan, heading to Dominic’s, which was then a virtual auxiliary Art School. Manupelli installed several print memorabilia pieces from the Ann Arbor Film Festival, much of it from the very early days, including posters and postcards along with tickets, all of which are testimony to George’s brilliance as a graphic designer. Those items still adorn the walls of Dominic’s, as reminders and visual keepsakes for all time (or at least as long as Dominic’s is in operation).

Drawing comparisons

The Ann Arbor of today is difficult to compare to what the town was when Pat attended school there. Pat quickly adds that she could say that for almost any town. Fifty-five years ago, Ann Arbor was a small, insular college town. With extremely strong political activism at the time, as one of the first places where sit-ins demanded black studies along with Vietnam protests. Remember, Pat suggests, The Weathermen started in Ann Arbor.

Pat Oleszko, who performed during AAFF’s founding year, returns to present a series of short performances. Photo courtesy of pat oleszko, via

Reflecting on these times, Pat explains that, even then, she and her fellow art students realized the significance of the event. She relates that during the Film Festival, she was so excited to be present for virtually the entire Festival, almost 40 hours of film screening, that she barely slept.

Performing a lifetime

Originally from the Dearborn, Michigan area, Pat was exposed to the arts by her parents— an engineer father and a teacher mother— who had emigrated to the United States from Europe. Due to their European backgrounds, they encouraged the study of art, which was very much a part of life in Europe.

Pat Oleszko will present a series of short performances throughout the week of The Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 24-29, 2020). As the guest of honor, the internationally known multi-disciplinary performance artist will energize the atmosphere as a precursor for the cinematic delights, a ‘warm-up’ for the screenings. A self-described “spectacle,” Oleszko is intimately familiar with the artist’s struggle and has performed from the street to the stage to the silver screen, using intricate costumes, absurdly funny wit, and political commentary.

58TH annual Ann Arbor Film Festival

March 24-March 29

In addition to the more than 180 films being screened as part of the festival, AAFF attracts a number of performance art pieces and special screenings to complement the event. Among them:

TUESDAY, 3.24 – All-female drumline Bitch, Thunder! out of Toledo will bring the noise on opening night at the Michigan Theater at 7:30pm.

WEDNESDAY, 3.25 – A pair of films by the founders of Women Make Movies will be screened at 7:30pm. Visual arts piece <> will be performed at the Michigan Theater at 9pm.

THURSDAY, 3.26 – Animator Martha Colburn will speak at 5:10pm at the
Michigan Theater. Sean Clute and Otto Muller’s Mud Season brings interactive video, sound and animation together at 3:30pm at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

FRIDAY, 3.27 – Tommy Becker’s Emotions in Metal will screen at the Michigan Theater at 8pm. Kit Young will present A Concise History of American Progress at 11pm at Club Above.

SATURDAY, 3.28 – Former AAFF Executive Director Donald Harrison premieres his new film Welcome to Commie High at 5pm at the Michigan Theater. Spectral Landscape by Luis Macias will be shown at the Michigan Theater at 9pm.

SUNDAY, 3.29 – The unique hybrid program Unseen Migrations will be held at the Michigan Theater at 2pm. Marit Shalem and Tony Kennedy’s Works on White will be presented as part of the after-party at Bab’s Underground at 9pm.

Festival Tickets: Individual Screenings: $12, $8 for students and
seniors. Opening Night Reception and Screening: $50, $40 for
students and seniors. Festival Passes for Opening Reception and all films: $125, $100 for students and seniors. Weekend Passes for Friday-Sunday: $75, $60 for students and seniors.

For more information, call 734-995-5356 or visit

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