A return to form

BY JEFFREY BLOOMER
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 31, 2008

"The Betrayal," a prodigious, decade-spanning documentary that follows a family's immigration from wartime Laos to New York City, won the Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival to conclude the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival on Sunday.

Julie Rowe
"The Betrayal"
Julie Rowe
Larry Flynt
Julie Rowe
"The Orbits Inside" (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ANN ARBOR FILM FESTIVAL)

The feature-length film, also known as "Nerakhoon" and directed by the longtime cinematographer Ellen Kuras ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), won a $3,000 prize supplied by the award's moniker, filmmaker Ken Burns, who is a graduate of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.

A series of screenings Sunday night showcased more than a dozen films selected by the festival's jury, which included Bill Plympton, a renowned animator; Michelle Silva, an eclectic filmmaker and restorationist; and Bill Brown, an experimental documentarian from Texas. They recognized a total of 25 films with more than $18,000 in cash prizes designed to foster the continuing work from the honored filmmakers.

Among the top winners was "Diente por Ojo," a lurid, interconnected tale from Spain, which took the Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film, and "kids + money," a winner of the Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary Film that examines the material drives of young people in Los Angeles. Both films won $1,000.

"The Mermaid," an innovatively animated tale of a man who lusts after an unlikely target, and the stop-motion experiment, "Spontaneous Generation," split the Chris Frayne Award for Best Animated Film, which carried a $1,000 prize. "Yours Truly," a much-discussed, startling noir short won the Peter Wilde Award for Most Technically Innovative Film, good for $500.

Other awards honored filmmakers in categories like funniest film, best international film and, of course, best experimental film. On the local end, LSA Senior Lecturer Terri Sarris split the award for best Michigan filmmaker with Dean Denell, and the announcement of her recognition earned audible approval from the theater crowd Sunday night.

After two turbulent but productive years for the festival that saw a successful anti-censorship battle with the state of Michigan (which led to a special presentation Saturday night by First Amendment activist and porn mogul Larry Flynt) and an uphill battle to secure its $75,000 fundraising goal, the festival was smooth and continued the tradition that has earned it national acclaim.

As with every year, there were some technical hiccups, as well as uninitiated audiences who seemed weary of some of the more venturesome screenings.

One screening Thursday night, called "Cracking the Space-time Continuum," seemed particularly prone to audience disillusionment. Some shorts in the presentation were singular, like "Black and White Trypps Number Four," which was constructed out of footage of a Richard Pryor performance and looked like a moving Rorschach test. Others, like "Polar" and "Burren," seemed distinguishable only in the particular kinds of wind-tunnel-like, degraded noise and the size and color of abstract shapes or blurry clips warming up to a warp-speed slideshow. Not all viewers were up to the challenge, and as some began to walk out mid-performance, an audience member spoke up. "We're all in this together!" he implored them as they left, which got a nervous laugh from the crowd.

But even when the films were hit-or-miss, viewers continued to file into the theaters abuzz through the weekend, leading to several sold-out shows.

This might have been at the behest of the more hands-on curation the festival featured this year, which included "themed competition programs" that organized the screenings of films into distinct packages like "All That Is Animated," which packaged the festival's popular animated films, and "The Orbits Inside," which examined issues of identity and cultural institutions. Though some festival-goers said the themes were not always cohesive or representative, others said they planned their attendance around them.

On the final night of the festival, the organizers seemed at ease, and the audience was content. It was another successful year for the festival - a stamp of authenticity for adventurous moviegoers and a loyal, independent champion of film art. Despite the recent legal battles, it was clear Sunday that its strong, charmingly seditious identity remains intact.

- Abigail B. Colodner and Andrew Sargus Klein contributed to this report.