Fifty-two years of The Ann Arbor Film Festival

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published March 23, 2014

In an era when every neighborhood has its own film festival and every freshman has made a film, it’s right to celebrate one of the pioneers, The Ann Arbor Film Festival, bringing us the finest in film fare for 52 years. AAFF came to life at a special moment in our city’s — and country’s — cultural history. The 1960s were charged with the energy from the civil rights movement, anti-war protests and the flowering desire to voice individual expression; this charge propelled cross-disciplinary collaborations in the arts and spawned some insane creative works. At the heart of Ann Arbor’s art scene was the Once Group, a community of artists spanning many media, who put on performance-based “happenings” and a range of festivals. One of the group members, George Manupelli, founded the AAFF in 1963.

52nd Annual Ann Arbor Film Festival

March 25-30
Ann Arbor
Single screening: $7-$9

“My sense is that one of the things that (Manupelli) brought to that group was the filmmaking,” said AAFF Executive Director Leslie Raymond. “But there were architects involved in the group, musicians, dancers and it was really out of that sort of movement that the film festival was born.”

The Festival’s boundary-blurring legacy lives on bringing us brilliant tastes of what’s happening in experimental and independent film today. Program Director David Dinnell travels to film festivals around the world as part of his job. He spoke about some of his favorites, beginning with “From Deep,” a feature-length, experimental documentary about basketball created by Brett Kashmere — a timely choice as the Wolverines bask in the glow of the Sweet Sixteen.

“I’m absolutely not a sports fan at all,” Dinnell said. “But I found it a really compelling film because it looks at American history through basketball, which includes the history of race in this country — and it spends a good part of the last third of the film on the intersection of hip-hop and basketball from the ’90s on to the current time. I just thought it was really illuminating that way.”

Grounded in a sense of history, the festival hosts retrospective programs revisiting the works of prominent filmmakers and bringing them in to talk about their work. This year’s series looks at the works of Joseph Bernard, Penelope Spheeris and Thom Anderson.

Bernard is an artist from Detroit. He started out as a painter, but worked for a decade making collage-like films in the Super 8 format, which was made for small, personal filmmaking. These films have rarely been exhibited, making the screening on March 26 an exceptional one.

“Joseph Bernard was at the Art Institute of Chicago and he was able to study with Stan Brakhage, who was a seminal experimental avant-garde filmmaker from the period when the film festival came about,” Raymond said.

Spheeris, who many of you may know as the director of “Wayne’s World,” will be featured in the Penny Stamps Speakers series and the AAFF about her first “auteur” film, “The Decline of Western Civilization,” a cult classic that delves into the punk rock scene of Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In addition to those screenings, there will be a program for her short films, including two shown originally in the AAFF in 1971 and 1973. Another of her films with a fierce cult following, the 1984 film “Suburbia,” which features young punk rockers and musicians of the day (including Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) rounds out AAFF’s Spheeris program.

“(Spheeris) has done a lot of well-known popular films,” Dinell said “but she’s also had this sort of parallel career as an independent filmmaker … she has this really amazing capability of just being present with her subjects and really capturing unguarded glimpses of their lives. I think that really comes out in the third film.”

The festival is finalizing its education program “Expanding Frames” this year, which offers workshops, discussions and collaborates with various University departments. The favorite “What the Hell Was That?” panel is a space to ask questions, because, as the AAFF staff explain, when something’s an experiment, you’re not supposed to “get it,” but rather observe how you react to it.

“I think one of the things that’s really great about that panel is that the title is really inviting in a way,” Raymond said. “There’s not a sense of barrier … you don’t have to have a special language or you don’t have to feel like you need to unlock a secret meaning, but this is a place to really explore the work and get deeper into it — meet some of the filmmakers and things like that.”

Beginning Tuesday, the screenings will attest to the festival’s history and tradition of innovation. Some of the films look back at the careers of artists, while others push the traditional limits of narration and imaging by blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, or employing new filmmaking technologies such as Lidar — a way to render images through radar-like sensors.

“That kind of spirit of exploration and personal expression really has continued all the way through each year,” Dinnell said. “Technology changes; different concerns about the medium or about fiction — all these things constantly evolve and change, but I think the underlying force is this exploration in expression.”