A visionary half-century

You know the moment. The lights dim, the theater gets quiet. There’s a sense of anticipation. The power of film to create a whole world in a room, to bring dreams into reality, is unparalleled. Now, that feeling of anticipation has come to Ann Arbor on a much larger scale, as the Ann Arbor Film Festival returns this month for its landmark 50th iteration. And the buzz is growing — not just here, but nationally, and even worldwide.

“We’re going to get so much more attention,” says Festival Executive Director Donald Harrison. “(The fiftieth year) has been on the horizon for five years, since I’ve been here, and it’s been talked about quite a bit for the past two years. It’s pretty exciting.” And the growing excitement is only raising the Festival’s already-impressive profile. “It’s extra motivation for people to book the plane ticket to come, or to finish their film in time to get it to us.” But now the programs are in place, the speakers are booked, the films are ready to roll. The lights are dimming.

Laura Heit’s haunting animated film The Deep Dark shows the Festival’s cutting-edge sensibility

Present at the creation

1963 was a different world. Film had been in existence for the better part of a century, but appreciation of the medium as a true art form was just beginning. Today’s film festival scene, with its glamorous locales and glitzy stars, hadn’t even been imagined yet. But in its own way Ann Arbor played an important role both in bringing that world to life and in providing an alternative to it.

It was in Ann Arbor in 1963 that John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps — and it was here that George Manupelli, a professor of art and design at the University of Michigan, had the vision of creating a celebration of film as more than a delivery system for star power or Hollywood fantasy. “He got films from all over the country,” Harrison says. “This wasn’t really happening at the time, so he was very much a
visionary and a pioneer. And it turned out to be very popular. He was laying the blueprint of what would later become the Sundances and Tribecas and Torontos.”

From the beginning, the Festival focused its sights on the edgy and experimental side of film, on ways of creating visions that went beyond just narrative. Over the decades, it featured the early work of filmmakers who would become both underground icons — Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Barbara Hammer — and mainstream Hollywood royalty — Lawrence Kasdan, Gus Van Sant, even George Lucas.

Eyes ahead

This year’s festival is paying its respect to the past, with words from the past 50 years sprinkled throughout the short film programs. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences came through with a $20,000 grant to support the necessary archival work. But, appropriately for a festival devoted to the first truly modern art form, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has its gaze fixed on the future. “We want the principle focus to be forward-looking,” says Harrison. “What’s exciting now? So much is happening with new technology and with traditional film — sometimes in combinations we’ve never seen before. People are making films on their iPhones that are brilliant — or using antique 35mm cameras. It’s incredible the range of what’s happening.”

Though the word “experimental” can send even some dedicated film-lovers running for cover, Harrison emphasizes that the Festival offers something for every taste, and work in every genre. “You don’t have to know anything about film,” he insists. “You can see some of the most challenging and abstract or nonlinear art on the screen that you’ll see anywhere, but there will also be fantastic documentaries and feature films. Every year I get my 82-year-old dad to bring his girlfriend to one of the featured documentaries, and they love it.”
One always-popular program focuses entirely on animation, another on the much-maligned art form of music video. There’s a Saturday all-ages program aimed at families — it’s kid-friendly, but it’s not dumbed-down. “They’re going to be exposed to some interesting things,” Harrison says.

Deep focus

Maybe you’re a Festival veteran — but if it’s your first time, Harrison urges you to make the opening night. “It’s my favorite evening of the year,” he says, with an eclectic program of short films and a joyous reception. “There are people getting stories and histories, making new connections and relationships. People who haven’t seen each other in decades or are just meeting for the first time.” After that, just pick up a schedule. There’s no way even the most dedicated cineaste can take in all that the Festival has to offer, so see what catches your fancy. And bring your sense of adventure.

“It’s about keeping an open mind,” Harrison says. “Really looking to approach films as a way of entering into the artist’s world, as opposed to just being entertained or sold something. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but it’s rare to be able to find a venue to celebrate what’s possible in someone’s imagination, to see things you’ve never seen before.” That’s the magic of film. You will see things that you — that no one — has seen before. Take a seat.

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