There’s no pressure at the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival. It’s doubtful your friends will shun you if they discover you failed to catch “Craig Baldwin — Society of Spectacle,” a collection of films that uses the found-footage format to transform traditional documentary filmmaking. You probably won’t find a group of partygoers this weekend discussing “The Strawberry Tree,” a poetic film that captures the final sigh of a Cuban fishing village; whereas it’s likely you’ll hear someone regurgitating their love for “The Hunger Games.” In other words, the Ann Arbor Film Festival isn’t here to give you social currency — that’s not the point.
The point — over the next five days, in more than 10 different venues — is simple: film. To view films you won’t find anywhere else, discuss movies face-to-face with the artists who created them, jump locations (the Michigan Theater to the Raven’s Club to Sava’s) to catch as much as you can, and fundamentally appreciate a frontier of creative expression — without the hype of Hollywood marketing. The festival doesn’t want to operate on that level — it’s casual avant-garde.
“We want to have artists’ work presented in the best possible environment, in the cinema, and engage audiences with what’s possible on the screen,” Donald Harrison, executive director of the festival, said. “The festival is very committed, dedicated to the spirit of independent film … across the spectrum of what’s possible in the cinema.”
A lot of emphasis is put on the artists behind each film, more akin to Picasso than Brett Ratner, according to Harrison.
“We’re very much about being a forum, a celebration for filmmakers as independent artists, and presenting an incredibly diverse, broad scope of what artists are thinking about, what they’re exploring, what they’re challenging,” he said. “We’re out to present, reflect the world to itself in a true sense, not one that is channeled through a commercial-film image.”
While that may sound a bit intimidating, the festival isn’t an exercise in artistic snobbery. In fact, it intends to represent the opposite ideal: an exchange of opinions and values in an environment characterized by openness and conversation. There are 12 free screenings at this year’s festival and 25 percent of the festival is free and open to the public, encouraging attendance among the event’s skeptics.
“(There are) a lot of opportunities to go hear artists talk about their work, see artists’ work, engage in conversation about what we’re watching together, what we’re exposing ourselves to, what we’re consuming or digesting on the screen,” Harrison said.
“That’s one of the most important things for a healthy culture … a big part of why art is important in our lives,” he added.
There are about 50 events in the coming week, and with such a breadth of options, what should we see? Harrison understands the amount of material is enormous, but he maintains whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran, “you just got to try to go to it all.”
“You can’t, but you got to try,” he said. “It’s the challenge of seeing as much as possible … I would encourage people to approach it differently than they would going out on a typical weekend to the movies, where you might’ve heard about the film (or) read a review.”
Films and filmmakers are coming to Ann Arbor from locales as close as Detroit, and as exotic as Singapore and the Netherlands. Student-made pieces will be shown today, and throughout the festival, audiences will be exposed to documentaries, music videos, historic underground works and a midnight showing of George Lucas’s first feature length film, “THX 1138.” And the best part is that the experience doesn’t end after the credits roll.
“One of the most exciting parts about our festival is so many of those artists are here,” Harrison said. “They’re all flying in, they’re coming from around the world, (giving attendees) an opportunity to not just hear them talk about their work, but, to go up to them and have a beer — it’s a very accessible festival.”