Because Ann Arbor has long been the home of North America’s oldest experimental film festival – 2018 will mark the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s 56th year – the town also has also become the home of some pretty big AAFF fans.
Robin Sober and her husband were living outside of Toronto in the 1990s when they visited Ann Arbor and stumbled upon the cutting edge annual film fest (happening March 20-25 this year, at the Michigan Theater and other venues). “It became part of the story of why we loved Ann Arbor, and why we wanted to move here,” said Soper, a retiree who now works as a leadership consultant. She and her husband Ron arrived in 1999 and have lived in Ann Arbor since. “ … We tended to always travel to university towns, because they generally have an open-mindedness that we like, and used books and music stores, and things like that that we appreciate. When we came to Ann Arbor, the town had that, but it also had something special beyond that. And that’s the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is so near and dear to us now – to the point where Ron and I sponsor an experimental film award as part of our contribution to the festival.”
Meanwhile, former gallery owner/art dealer Deborah Greer was first introduced to AAFF in the 1970s, when she was a self-described “political radical and rock and roller” in Detroit. She left Michigan to seek other adventures for a number of years, but then, like Soper, she decided to move to Ann Arbor in 1999, and AAFF was a big part of the draw.
“People will always say things like, ‘Oh, you live in Ann Arbor! It’s so cool, with so much happening and a lot of culture’,” said Greer. “Well, that’s true, and the [Ann Arbor Film Festival] is the icon that’s right at the beginning and center of how Ann Arbor formed and shaped its identity as a cool place. … I don’t know any event in Ann Arbor that has the community engagement and history that the festival has. The Art Fair … is good, but [AAFF] has its heart and soul in something more radical and innovative.”
AAFF’s roots lie within the University of Michigan, where art professor George Manupelli, in 1963, organized what he initially called the First American Film Festival, which screened an array of experimental art films in what was then the Architecture and Design Auditorium.
Perhaps because almost no one else was focusing on experimental films, the fest seemed to take off right away. In 1964, iconic film journalist Pauline Kael attended the fest as a judge; in 1965, AAFF was accused of showing “pornographic films,” leading to the projection room being locked, the use of a “secret knock,” and a plan for what to do if the police arrived; in 1966, Andy Warhol appeared at AAFF with the Velvet Underground and Nico to perform “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” and two Yoko Ono films were screened; in 1968, George Lucas screened his student film, “THX-1138”; and further down the road, Gus Van Sant screened a short film (1979), and Vin Diesel won an award for his short film, “Multi Facial” (1995).
For many years, the fest only accepted and showed 16 mm films, but after 2000, the fest started opening its doors to alternative formats, including 35 mm, video, and digital. Regarding film genre, though, the fest has always been open to everything (documentaries, features, animation, shorts, etc.), and the films are submitted from countries all over the world. These days, the fest receives more than 3,000 entries for consideration, and they select and show about 200 over the course of five days. Variety magazine, in 2007, ranked AAFF one of its top favorite festivals in the world.
“Normally, we’d all have to research these films and get on a plane to go see them somewhere else, but the Ann Arbor Film Festival brings it right to our doorstep every year,” said Greer, who takes AAFF week off from work each year to attend as many programs as possible. “You just go downtown and mix and mingle and see films. … And they’re not something you can stay passive or withdrawn about. On the big screen, sitting in the dark, you hear these sounds and see these stories, and all these human beings and colors and richness and oddity – it’s like the Hubble Telescope, where you see all these things you couldn’t even imagine before. … My visual perspective is always altered. After seeing this films, I notice things on the trees, I notice things in traffic, I notice things on buildings, I hear noises that hitherto I hadn’t been attentive to. … These films really expand our consciousness.”
Another part of what makes the film festival special, though, is the temporary-but-tight community that’s created by the event. Many visiting filmmakers stay in the homes of AAFF volunteers (and other willing residents), who often also drive the filmmakers around town; and there are salons, panels, and after-parties, because talking about the films is almost as big a part of the festival experience as seeing the films.
“Before the next program starts, and after one is done, of course you start talking and asking people, ‘What did you think? What was your favorite?’” said Soper. “There are so many films in competition that it provides a real opportunity to connect that’s different from just going to see a film together. There are always people hanging out on the stairs and in the lobby – and they might be from somewhere else in the world, or from right here in Ann Arbor – and it feels more like a community. … At the Film Festival, even if I’m seeing something on my own, I’ll usually strike up a conversation with someone.”
“I see a lot of my friends I’ve known for years there,” said Kenneth Bawcom, a former carpenter and U-M Undergraduate Library employee. “ … I like that the films explore subjects you don’t normally see explored in mainstream film, and they’re often constructed differently, too.”
But while many attendees and filmmakers return every year – from Ann Arbor and far, far beyond – there are also always newbies, of all ages and backgrounds, who are experiencing AAFF for the first time. Tuesday evening’s opening night party, and Saturday morning’s family-friendly program, are often good places to start, but other popular themed programs, including Thursday’s Out Night program (featuring films with LGBTQ themes) and Friday night’s Animation program, are also good points of entry.
No matter where you begin, though, you’ll likely look around the auditorium and find an eclectic crowd.
“There are academics, kids in their 20s, … and people like me, who are 65 and turn out for the festival every year, and have been coming for years, and also just people who are really tuned into politics and art,” said Greer. “It’s this tribe of people, from really young people to people in their 60s and 70s, who share something in common. We’re so separated into demographics and categories all the time. What I like about the festival is that it breaks down those things that separate us.”
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