From Filmmaker to Director

A flash of light and shadow. Indistinct images flicker and form layers upon each other. Sound and movement dance before the senses and challenge an audience to make connections between perception and reality. As executive director for the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF), Leslie Raymond is adept at screening art that braves new interpretations of the moving picture. It is the bread and butter of the longest-running experimental film festival in North America. As a filmmaker, she is equally skilled at creating artful cinematic experiences.

These days, Raymond spins a hundred full plates, honing the many details necessary to bring the 53rd AAFF to fruition. Managing the Festival is her full-time job. It is easy to forget that she is also an artist. Along with her husband, Jason Jay Stevens, Raymond creates under the name of Potter Belmar Labs, a local collaboration that has produced films and cinematic exhibitions since 1999. Their creations have been shown throughout the US and overseas. They work in a purely experimental medium, from self-contained short form films, to more extensive installations that meld video and audio for events that often involve audience interaction and feature live “on-the-fly” editing, much as a club DJ mixes music. Potter Belmar Labs has been on the cutting edge of new technologies and definitions of filmmaking since its inception.

One might think Raymond has creativity in her DNA. Both parents are artists, so “I was kind of raised in this perspective of modernism, living and breathing that,” she admits. As a teenager, she discovered still photography. “ The process of photography, being removed one step from reality, acting in the world, was important to me; being much more engaged in the physical world and finding it as a kind of meditation, a way of looking at the world.” During undergraduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, Raymond progressed to filmmaking. “My impulse with the moving image is to find and amplify moments of beauty. I shoot a lot in nature as a way of being physical and present in the world, and having a kind of meditation, and then taking that input, manipulating it digitally to amplify that even further, and putting it back out, hopefully to give people an experience  of beauty.”

Raymond first got involved with the AAFF as an intern in 1992. In 1997, she went from being a volunteer to becoming an entrant, winning the Best Local Filmmaker Award for her 16mm film, “Rife w/Fire.” Returning to Ann Arbor for her graduate degree, her participation in the Festival grew exponentially, from working as a director and programmer, to crafting performances and installations in conjunction with festival screenings.  

As executive director of the Film Festival, Raymond has to wear an administrator’s hat. Does that preclude her injecting her own creative imprint on the operation? She has some ideas, especially since it has expanded beyond the limitations of 16mm film to include other film and video formats. “The Festival has been doing really well, the programs are very strong. I’d like to see us open up to more of the new media. There are people who are working with performing with the moving image, doing a live edit, or manipulating the sound and image in real time. In terms of maintaining currency with the times, if I can help to open up some of those channels, that would be good.”

So how does the artist in Raymond satisfy her need for expression away from the job? “I’ve given myself permission to not worry about it for a little while, to step back a little bit.” As a parent with a four year-old daughter, the creative juices have been redirected. “Where I get my creative hat on (these days) is I’ll sit down with her at her table and do a lot of drawing, and especially collage. (Since collage has long been a part of her artistic process) I’m not that far off from where I left off with Potter Belmar Labs. So I do get creatively fulfilled, and there’s no pressure.”   

In spite of the time limits it imposes on her own filmmaking, Raymond has no doubts about her dedication to the Film Festival. “When I took the job, I certainly felt, ‘I’m definitely in this for the long haul.’ I’m fully committed and planted here.” She’s also fully aware of what she owes to its history and integrity. “For me, coming into this 53 year-old organization, there’s a lot I’m doing just to get oriented; it’s very different than if I were to start something new. I’m just trying to steer the ship…I feel a lot of responsibility to the organization as it exists.”

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