Nearly 50 years ago, according to the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s website, “a casual group of fascinated students, filmmakers and film enthusiasts crowded into the smoke-filled Lorch Hall auditorium” for the first Ann Arbor Film Festival. Now, people come from around the country to the Michigan Theater to see films from all over the world.

Ann Arbor Film Festival

Tonight through Sunday
Michigan Theater

This year, at the 48th festival, the focus is on fully international films — films from other countries or about other countries. Rather than a starkly divided collection of film based on the boundaries of nationality, the movies on display at the AAFF promote dialogue and work together.

“A lot of time goes into crafting the lineup,” said the festival’s executive director Donald Harrison. “It’s like a gallery curator selecting pieces for a gallery. We put the films together so that they speak in a bigger conversation.”

But the cohesive theme of the festival does not limit the films.

“We don’t really set out with a focus. We look at what’s coming in and we see themes emerge — every year there are adventures and surprises,” Harrison said.

This year alone, filmmakers from 67 countries submitted 2,500 films. From these, 170 films from 20 countries will be shown.

“It’s an extensive process to narrow it down,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to say what criteria we’re looking for. For the most part, we look for filmmakers who approach their work as an artist — we look at craft, intention, purpose and always for new voices, ideas, stories and techniques. We look for exceptions.”

Since its founding in the ’60s, the festival has been dedicated to providing a forum for daring and novel films of all varieties and genres. This year’s festival promises to continue that tradition.

The opening night will feature a broad collection of short films that exemplify independent filmmaking, followed by a catered reception with a DJ and an open bar. Following opening night, the festival will also present, among other programs, “This Animated Life,” a collection of animated films, “The Kids are Alright,” a showcase of short films for children; and live performances. As part of the series, an animator will be narrating his film’s plot while he does the film’s animation in real-time in the theater.

“It’s an experience that will only happen once,” Harrison said.

The festival fuses older cinematic achievements with new voices and ideas. The fresh and the old-fashioned will be fused as audio-visual and hip-hop artist Flying Lotus performs the world premiere of a live score to Harry Smith’s 1962 animated film, “Heaven & Earth Magic.”

This year will also be remarkable because the festival received a grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to bring world-renowned experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger to Ann Arbor for a screening of a selection of his restored films, followed by a conversation between Anger and film critic Dennis Lim.

This year, the film festival’s organizers are trying to make it a more interactive experience, promoting more conversations to connect people.

“The more we create interactions and dialogue, the more (the festival) becomes something you don’t want to miss,” Harrison said. “It’s important to engage the audience in the art of film, to have them connect with the artists and celebrate the art’s form and challenge conceptions.

“It’s been a lot of work,” he added, “but it’s rewarding and we have a great community. There are lots of individuals, local and regional, who want to see this grow. Afterwards, people have told me how it affected, inspired or motivated them. It’s rewarding to know that the festival has that strong value of art — to inspire people to create.”

Other than providing a place to view cutting-edge films, the festival will also create an “electric atmosphere,” Harrison said. With filmmakers like Matt McCormick coming from his premiere at South by Southwest to show his film “Some Days are Better than Others,” featuring James Mercer of The Shins and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, many of the showings will be packed.

“In one of the most beautiful theaters in the country you can expand your palate and your ability to see culture,” Harrison said. “Just being packed in the theater is something you don’t forget. It’s like going to see your first concert or your favorite band play live.”

With 170 films showing, the festival offers something for everyone this year. This year, the films range from a 16mm film that explores the structure of the haiku through a portrait of a farm to a documentary about Jerusalem’s only gay bar.

“It’s just as much an opportunity for scientists as it is for artists,” Harrison said. “I hear people talking after the films, and it’s really about meeting artists, challenging each other and sharing in the experience.”

The AAFF also gives the University an outlet for expression. Zeynep Gürsel (“Coffee Futures”), Chris McNamara (“The Use of Movement”) and Alexis Bravos (“A Deep Well”) are all faculty members who are presenting films in the festival.

“This year we have a lot more films from members of the University community,” Harrison said. “There are a lot of talented people there and it just worked out well that so many of them had films ready to submit this year.”

The 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival continues to dedicate itself to finding distinctive and challenging films to unite all members of the community. The festival will run from March 23 to 28 at the Michigan Theater.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.