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Cinefeast!

The Ann Arbor Film Festival: Bringing indie film to Mitten masses for 48 years

A still from Some Days Are Better Than Others.
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Published 3/24/2010

It's pretty safe to say that Michigan isn't exactly wanting for film festivals. In fact, the damn things are popping up like dandelions. Whether it's Jews, Palestinians, environmentalists or the GBLT community, if you throw a dart at a calendar, you're bound to hit a week when an ethnic or special interest group is screening flicks for local moviegoers.

And then, of course, there are the full-fledged fests, scrambling to find venues in order to turn their community into a destination for budding cinephiles. For your best chance at rubbing asses with celebrities, there's Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival, which has premiered Hollywood fodder like Flash of Genius and Religulous, while helping to revitalize the city's initially suspicious downtown. Heck, even Madonna made the trip back to Michigan to premiere her doc I Am Because We Are in 2008. Saugatuck's WFF (Waterfront Film Festival) has attracted both notice and crowds, while do-it-yourselfers have launched DIFF (Detroit Independent Film Festival) and DWIFF (Detroit-Windsor Independent Film Festival). The former wrapped up a successful first year at the Burton Theatre a couple of weeks ago (this year's sponsors are already signed up for next year) while the latter celebrates its third year in June. Meanwhile, both Grand Rapids and Port Huron have decided on a piece of the festival pie too, establishing their own cine-fests last summer.

For an industry that's supposed to have perished at the hands of Internet, there sure is a lot of enthusiasm for film fests. The obvious question is whether the Mitten State is in danger of getting fested out.

"I lived in San Francisco for 10 years, where there were more than 50 film festivals in a given year and obviously a community to support them," says Donald Harrison, executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. "I think we are nowhere close to a saturation point in Michigan for high-quality film festivals."

The granddaddy of all Michigan Film Festivals — actually, a cinematic senior on the global stage — the Ann Arbor Film Festival has been bringing independent movies to the masses for 48 years. And though it went through some troubled, audience-alienating times, the last several years have made it a must-attend event for those who fancy themselves serious film fans. Since 2005, the submissions (2,500 from 67 countries this year alone), crowds and accolades have been accumulating.

And, unlike most festivals, which knowingly appeal to celebrity hounds and I-saw-it-firsters who are obsessed with catching Hollywood releases before opening weekend, AAFF trains its sights on audiences who are truly looking for a unique cinematic experience.

"While I understand the fascination with celebrities, I believe that the majority of audiences most want remarkable and engaging experiences," Harrison says. "People nationwide flocked to the 'The Gates' exhibit in New York's Central Park not to see celebrities, but to have a shared experience with art and to get outside of their everyday lives."

And that's pretty much what you're going to get at AAFF. Most of the festival's selections are from little-known to anonymous filmmakers (with a few cult heroes thrown in for good measure). The film selections (170 this year) are defiantly experimental or independent in nature, with a focus on shorts, documentaries and animation. The festival attracts a who's who of the underground film scene. As far as true-blue film experiences go, you're unlikely to find a purer example of films for art's (rather than profit's) sake.

The real challenge facing the AAFF is whether it can convince metro Detroit audiences that movies they've never heard of by filmmakers they don't recognize are every bit as exciting and interesting as anything showing at Sundance, Toronto or Cannes.

So, for those of you whose eyes glaze over when you check AAFF's lineup of never-heard-of-them flicks, here are a few promising suggestions to get you started.


Some Days Are Better Than Others

Director Matt McCormick follows in the footsteps of fellow Portlanders Kelly Riechardt's (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) and Miranda July's (Me and You and Everyone You Know) with a melancholy, awkwardly episodic examination of personal disconnection starring the Shins' James Mercer and Sleater-Kinney's former singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Loss, heartbreak and small personal revelations are the name of the game for the film's three protagonists. Mercer plays a philosophizing slacker who's struggling to find meaning in his life and enough cash for rent. Brownstein is a wannabe reality TV star who works at a Humane Society shelter, and whose audition tapes reveal her emotions over a recent break-up. Renee Roman Nose is a thrift-store employee who becomes unsettled by the discarded urn of a dead child that shows up in her sorting bin. It's the kind of film where everyone needs a hug but no one gets one. The three plot threads thematically interconnect but ultimately have little to do with one another. Nevertheless, once you fall into McCormick's slow but lyrical groove, his film's quietly compassionate meditation on abandonment becomes quite moving.

One of eight narrative feature competitors at the South by Southwest festival (there were 831 submissions), Some Days Are Better Than Others plays at AAFF at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27. The festival expects the show to sell out so get your tickets now.


Heaven & Earth Magic 
with live musical accompaniment by Flying Lotus

Terry Gilliam called Heaven & Earth Magic one of the 10 best animated films of all time. Created by Harry Everett Smith, this surreal 1957 film made from cut-out photographs seems to presage the work of such animators as Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers. Lyrically hypnotic and filled with the kind of surreal imagery that haunts your nightmares, what makes this screening truly inspired is that AAFF commissioned experimental hip-hop star Flying Lotus (known for his sampled spins on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim) to compose and perform a live musical score. Expect top-notch turntable scratches, drum machines, samples, synthesizers and keyboards. Think of it as a preview to Flying Lotus' upcoming work with Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

The show is at 7 p.m. Friday, March 26. Flying Lotus will also perform at a Dark Matter afterparty at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555). Set time is 10:30 p.m. He'll be accompanying Dr. Strangeloop, who provides a mind-bending array of shorts films and film clips.


An Evening with Kenneth Anger 

For the hardcore cineastes in the crowd, this is probably as close as you're going to get to a true film icon. Anger is widely heralded as a master of experimental cinema, with 1963's Scorpio Rising lauded as a landmark in avant-garde filmmaking. He's probably best-known for his sordid (and controversial) bestseller Hollywood Babylon and, to a lesser extent, for his fascination with such occult figures as Aleister Crowley and Anton LeVay, as well as working with future Charlie Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil. Even at the age of 78, Anger managed to make cinematic ripples, releasing Mouse Heaven, his equally affectionate and disturbed video tribute to Mickey Mouse memorabilia. There will be two retrospectives of his work, and both will feature an appearance by the esteemed filmmaker.

The first retrospective — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27 — is followed by an onstage conversation with New York film critic Dennis Kim. The second (at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 28) focuses on his occult-inspired work.


This Animated Life

Always a crowd-pleaser, AAFF mines its many, many submissions for animated shorts that provoke, inspire, tickle or just plain weird you out. And inevitably there will be a hilarious Bill Plympton selection. Catch it at 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 26.

Also, I have it on good word that the sarcastic Tehran Has No More Pomegranates, the shorts in competition in All That Lies Between Us and Daniel Barrow's live animation presentation Every Time I See You Cry are sure-to-please programs for the adventurous.

Finally, if you're more of a mall multiplex filmgoer, intimidated by what you might be subjected to at the fest's various programs, a sure-fire approach would be to attend the final night's Awarded Film Program. These are the flicks that won the hearts and minds of festival-goers and jurors. It's a pretty good bet you'll see more than a few things you'll like. The programs run at 6 and 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 28.

The AAFF runs Wednesday, March 24, through Sunday, March 28, in Ann Arbor. For complete show schedule and festival screening locations, go to aafilmfest.org or call 734-995-5356.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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