Ann Arbor isn’t typically known for glamour. In fact, most people wouldn’t know it at all if it weren’t for the University that has engulfed it. But for one week out of every year the city becomes a hotbed of entertainment industry intrigue, flashing camera bulbs and red carpet-style murmurings. And for once, the spotlight isn’t on the students.
For the past 46 years, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has been one of the city’s most vibrant and distinctive cultural institutions, second only, perhaps, to the University itself. Spawned from a resurgence in cinematic experimentation during the ’60s, the festival grew to become one of the most widely-regarded avant-garde and experimental film festivals in the world. Yet only a year ago – despite the temptation to think a festival as well-established as this would be immune to such worries – it was dangerously close to extinction.
“Everybody was very disturbed,” said Christen McArdle, AAFF’s executive director. “It seemed like a lot of artists did get in touch with me – internationally, especially.”
The concern in the filmmaking community arose in 2006 after a group of state legislators cut the festival’s state funding. The instigating factor for this sudden controversy was an article published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy – a group opposed to state funding for the arts – which used several films shown at the festival as examples of state-funded art they deemed objectionable. Among the films named were Brooke Keesling’s “Boobie Girl,” an award-winning animated short about a young girl who wishes for bigger breasts and Jenny Bisch’s “The Arousing Adventures of Sailor Boy,” a sexually-suggestive piece of surrealism with vaudevillian undertones.
The thin line between pornography and art has always been a cause of struggle for filmmakers, so it was no surprise to McArdle that the sort of risqué material the festival specialized in would cause some discomfort.
“It’ll never go away,” she said, commenting on the ongoing art/porn conflict. “It’s an easy argument, and there’s no legal definition for pornography. It’s a hot button issue, you know, for everyone.”
McArdle also added that the actual content of the films listed by the legislators ultimately was beside the point. Referencing the films on the list that sparked the initial outburst of controversy, she said, “They never watched the films. The legislators and the special interest groups . they named 23 films and one performance, and I can confidently ask them if they watched them, and they’ll say no.”
Regardless – and despite outcries from filmmakers defending the integrity of their work and the festival – the AAFF was being zeroed out by the state. McArdle pointed to its history of pushing the envelope and taking chances with audacious and often controversial material as the main reason, yet she was quick to add that the festival was about more than just shocking its audience.
“The festival is about the dialogue that happens during and after the festival, and supporting those very artists that are making work that instigate this dialogue,” she said.
It’s that sense of community awareness among contributors to the festival that helped McArdle and others when they turned to filmmakers around the world for support. Almost immediately, they were met with a wave of positive response, as supporters running the gamut from members of the local filmmaking community to Hollywood heavies like Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) and Ken Burns (“The War”) came to the festival’s defense.
In March 2007, a lawsuit was filed by the AAFF against the state of Michigan to overturn its decision to stop funding. After months of struggle – and a growing fear that the festival wouldn’t have enough money to operate on – the AAFF achieved a great victory when the state legislature reversed its initial decision in December of that year, deeming the restrictions imposed upon the festival to be unconstitutional.
“It was a big decision to fight back and we knew it was going to put us in jeopardy, but it succeeded in the end,” said McArdle proudly.
Looking back on the number of contributors, as well as the wide range of people who lent their support, McArdle seems most astonished by the dedication and perseverance on the part of the festival’s advocates. She argues that one of the reasons for the overwhelming encouragement was a sense of duty to the art world and the community as a whole.
“It made everyone step back and look at the bigger picture,” she said. “I kind of loved that. It was very honest to me. I don’t think you see that all the time.”
People from all over the world are rallying behind the AAFF now. Charlie Koones, publisher of the entertainment industry’s most revered newspaper, Variety, ranked it as one of the “10 Film Festivals We Love” in his speech at the International Film Festival Summit in 2007 – not bad considering he had roughly 6,000 to choose from. And Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler Magazine, will make an appearance next week to coincide with the screening of a documentary about his longtime crusade for free speech.
Though it’s faced its ups and downs over the past year, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has beaten the odds and come out on top. McArdle sees it as not only a victory for free speech, but as a victory for all those willing to take a risk and stand up against artistic injustice.
“It was a David and Goliath,” she said, smiling. “We fought back and won.”