Every year for the past 53 years, mid-March brings a change in the air for the city of Ann Arbor. It’s not due to the first breaks of spring that melt the snow, or the mix of dread and excitement that comes with the end of the scholastic year. This March, like the 52 before it, film aficionados flood to the city to celebrate the oldest experimental film festival in the United States, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, housed downtown at the Michigan Theater.
Established in 1963 by George Manupelli, a former University professor, the festival has a long and impressive history of artists and filmmakers brought to Ann Arbor. Ahead of its time, the festival showcased early work by big names like George Lucas, Yoko Ono and Gus Van Sant, and can boast an appearance by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1966. Manupelli, who passed away in September 2014, will be honored at this year’s festival with an exposition of his early art as well as with a showing of one of his early films, accompanied by a live musical performance.
Executive Director Leslie Raymond and Program Director David Dinnell have both been involved with the festival for quite a while. Raymond has been executive director for a year and a half, but has been involved with the festival since 1991, when she began as an intern. Dinnell has been programming for the festival for the past seven years, and both are very familiar with the process of establishing a firm lineup each year.
The screening process for the festival begins with an open call to artists, available to anyone who has made an experimental film in the past two years. This preliminary process goes from July to November the year before the festival, which are then viewed by 20 volunteer screeners and reviewed multiple times in a narrowing process. The films come from about 30 countries, with the United States sending the most, but with many pieces coming from Europe and, increasingly, South America and Asia.
“I think the festival has really grown internationally and we’re seeing more and more works coming from abroad, which has been really interesting,” Dinnel said.
Submissions have increased from 300 to 3,000 since the acceptance of digital film mediums starting at the 42nd AAFF. The festival also features artist retrospectives, a revisiting of early works by experimental filmmakers who have made a lasting impression on the field. This year’s festival will include the first ever North American retrospective of Polish filmmaker Wojciech Bąkowski, as well as Tacita Dean.
“We take into consideration that the festival is a week-long event, so we include some historic work but most is contemporary,” Dinnel said. “The historic works that we do feature allow someone to deepen their appreciation for historical precedent.”
The festival is very integrated into the Ann Arbor community, relying heavily on local volunteers to keep it together each year. There is also a current and historical connection between the University and the festival, beginning with its creation by Manupelli.
“It’s very much a community organization,” Dinnel said. “That has helped the festival not only survive, but foster over the past decades due to a lot of community support. People who live in town really value the organization so they’re willing to help us out every year in various years.”
“The festival has relationships throughout the University, with the Stamps school, the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures is a natural fit and we’ve had a very longstanding relationship with them,” Raymond added.
In the past five decades, there has been much room for change, yet the festival has maintained a sense of familiarity in its dedication to showcasing the top experimental films of the time. Arguably the biggest change in its history was the expansion of accepting films other than 16mm, which was the only accepted platform until the 42nd festival.
“(16mm) was a medium readily available to artists, and the 1960s were really a heyday of artist-made, avant-garde film because of it,” Raymond said. “It started to become apparent in around the late ’80s that maybe it was time to open up to video. It allowed the festival to remain contemporary, to look at work being made in a contemporary medium by contemporary artists.”
The current prevalence of digital media has changed, for many, what constitutes a film viewing experience. The festival is a reminder of the beauty of viewing a film in the way it began, in a theater.
“With the advent of digital tools, the Internet has allowed artists to readily share their work on YouTube or other platforms,” Dinnell said. “We find ourselves really thinking about what it means to go with a couple friends on a Thursday or Friday night and sit in the Michigan Theater with hundreds and hundreds of other people and give your attention fully over to what’s on the screen.”
“We appreciate that that’s a completely different experience than just watching a 10-minute film that somebody shares that you click on a link to watch. It’s a fundamentally different experience even if that work is the same work,” Dinnel added. “It’s almost like listening to something on your iPod and then listening to it live in a concert hall. There’s a real energy that happens when you’re watching film, giving it your full attention and sitting with hundreds of other people, and the image is 20 feet tall with an amazing sound system.”
“The scale and the social context still remain essential and important,” Raymond said.