Chatting with Ann Arbor Film Festival founder George Manupelli

BY BLAKE GOBLE
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 29, 2009

Friday afternoon. The Campus Inn. It’s a cool, gray day and George Manupelli, the founder of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, is taking a brief moment to rest his eyes and catch his breath during the 47th AAFF. There’s a lot to do in town, and Manupelli is back on the scene. He’s kind of tired and uncertain about what he’s going to screen next, but it doesn’t matter; Manupelli is just glad to be checking out movies again in Ann Arbor.

In a recent interview, Manupelli talked about everything including the Festival, his time at the University and his ongoing work over the years. But before all that, Manupelli opened up and talked about his roots and interest in film and art.

“I had a classmate. He was 17, and he went to the movies and recorded them — you know, religiously; every aspect of the film. And this is 1948,” Manupelli said.

He continued, “He’s telling me that film is light, sound and motion, you know. And I said 'Oh, gee, what a concept.' How advanced. I didn’t realize it was advanced, but it was abstract. And not in a way anyone thought at the time.”

Manupelli was what the modern Festival would like to label as an "experimental" filmmaker. He found his calling behind the lens, trying anything and everything as a filmmaker.

“I bought a Bolex camera, then just started taking images,” Manupelli explained.

For him, it wasn’t about emulating National Geographic image quality or Dickensian intricacy. He just dug making movies. “I took one film class — it was completely hokey — from the communications department at Columbia.”

From there, Manupelli took on all sorts of cinema work. He created the “Dr. Chicago” trilogy, all of which were filmed in Ann Arbor. He presided over the Ann Arbor Film Festival for 20 years. And Manupelli was a professor here at the University of Michigan in the School of Art & Design, a place where he felt he needed to share new insight into art through sight and sound.

“I came here in ’62. The curriculum then was drawing, painting, design — period,” Manupelli said. “I tried to get them to do sound as design. You don’t need to be a musician to make music. I didn’t get to teach film for nine years, and (I worked) without pay; I took the deal because I wanted to get at the students.”

Despite having no resources or financial support to teach film classes at the time, Manupelli still created the AAFF. Students, politics, experimentation and a sense of fun guided him along the way. The Festival became a bastion of diversified topics. There were documentaries covering subjects including military coups in Chili and boxer Rubin "Hurricane” Carter. Today, the films in the Festival are screened according to themes including geographical location, gender identification and animation.

So, after such a prolific career in art, what is Manupelli doing these days?

“I make little things, I like to do the simplest kinds of things. Just glue this and stick it down. Then write a scenario for it.” Manupelli said. “It’s like the ‘Chicago’ films. I get location, props, actors, costumes. I call them three-dimensional cartoons.”

Manupelli has always been a man of many ventures. After teaching at art schools, making movies and deciding to just quit painting after doing it for 20 years, there's no saying what he’ll pick up next. Honored Thursday night at the Festival as a distinguished guest, Manupelli can be certain his legacy has been cemented into place.