The First-Timer’s Guide to Attending the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival

Mar 02, 2016

Six days of exciting film viewing are about to launch as the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival returns March 15 – 20 to the Michigan Theater. The world famous avant-garde festival presents the work of filmmakers who are more artist than Hollywood mogul.

For a first timer, going to the festival can be puzzling, not to say daunting. This is not your neighborhood cineplex. Keep reading for ways to enjoy yourself while viewing films that probably will never appear on HBO.

The 40 programs have been chosen from more than 3,200 submissions from 35 countries. Screenings take place from midday to near midnight. This year, filmmakers will travel to Ann Arbor from Colombia, the US and Finland, among other far-flung climes, to see their work on the big screen and talk with experimental film aficionados.

Most of the films are competing for cash and in-kind materials. Two award shows on Sunday evening will present some of the winners.

Each of the festival’s three jurors will present surveys of their own work or a selection of works they consider significant.

Audiences come from all age groups — anyone who appreciates the widely varied images and genres on display. They know this is a rare chance to see films that will not stream on Netflix or make the marquee of a cineplex. More than half will be making their world or North American debut. Some shows are family friendly. Most need an adult perspective, even if the medium is animation.

Here are some tips to help festival newcomers have a good time:

  1. Stay calm; it’s just a movie
    We’ve all been to the movies. Commercial movies have a stake in being understood, using plot, recognizable characters, and familiar structures to help viewers follow along. You filled the seat. Hollywood wants to meet you halfway. Films in the AAFF do away with familiar formats to free the medium for the full range of human expression. If you don’t get it (or don’t think you do), don’t worry. Some films are meant to be vague. Some are evocative and strange. Some are meant to be experienced in the moment -- they may not make sense until weeks later or never.
  2. Don’t expect to see blockbusters
    Expect to be surprised. There will be all kinds of films: documentaries, cartoons (“animation” in festival-speak), narratives (films that tell a story). You may see a film that’s Oscar worthy. AAFF is one of a handful of film festivals that qualifies films for Academy Award consideration. What you won’t see: Die Harder and Louder.
  3. Look for showing hosted by a filmmaker
    Pick up a program guide. Pay attention to the slides shown between screenings. A film’s title is often the first clue to what the filmmaker is trying to convey. The program synopsis may be enlightening – or not. What the heck were they thinking? Hear from the person who made the film what he or she hopes to communicate.
  4. Watch actively, question and categorize
    Every movie is a collection of a thousand choices, careful selections and thoughtful omissions. Assume everything you see on screen is there for a reason. Try to guess why this color? Why that sound? Each element helps you grasp what the work means as a whole. AAFF films are meant to be seen. It’s a visual experience, and one you won’t see often. AAFF may be your only chance to see some of these unique films.
  5. Talk, brainstorm, guess and share It’s OK to feel bewildered.
    The filmmaker is trying to make you think, so you’re doing the right thing. Use the pause between films to talk with your neighbor about what you’ve just seen. You might just stumble upon the perfect interpretation as you try to put it into words – but that isn’t required.
  6. Film festivals are like art museums but the images are moving
    You may not enjoy everything you see, but just wait. Most films are short so something else will be along soon…like walking into a different gallery at a museum to find something you like better. But you’ll only get to see it if you’re in Ann Arbor March 15 – 20.

Learn more at the Ann Arbor Film Festival website and don’t forget the hotel packages available if you need a place to stay. See you there!

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