“Welcome to the new world of independent cinema,” proclaims the tagline for the 47th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). The choice of words seems odd, because AAFF has been screening the cutting edge of experimental film since the festival’s conception in 1963, smack in the middle of pivotal decade for independent films in America. The festival’s website bills the annual event as “the longest-running film festival of its kind in North America.” Maybe today’s filmgoers are being welcomed into this new world of cinema, but the AAFF settled into the frontier long ago.
Perhaps that’s what makes this year’s theme, a journey into unexplained territories, so profound. In 2006, a censorship controversy over a handful of submissions jeopardized the festival’s state funding until a successful joint lawsuit filed by the AAFF and the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union successfully got the charges dismissed.
Now, with that storm fading in the rearview mirror, it’s time for filmmakers and festival directors to keep looking ahead to see what cinematic ground has yet to be covered. Whenever there are new boundaries to cross within the continuously evolving artistic medium, no one wants to be left behind.
“We’re trying to make (our program) as accessible as possible without sacrificing the artistic quality — without watering down our programming whatsoever,” said Donald Harrison, executive director of AAFF, at a press preview on March 3. He added that the idea of this year’s program is to make audiences feel as if they are visiting a brand new place.
There were a record 2,650 submissions to the festival this year (a 25-percent increase from last year), which were whittled down to the 125 films screening in competition. Combined with the numerous out-of-competition screenings and special events scheduled to take place between March 24 and 29, even the most knowledgeable connoisseurs of independent and experimental cinema are guaranteed to plunge into uncharted territories when they take a gander at the programs offered by the AAFF.
One of the most anticipated events at the festival will be the appearance of Oscar-nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt, who will present the regional premiere of his latest short film “I am so proud of you.” The film is a sequel to his previous effort, “everything will be ok,” which won the Short Filmmaking Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Hertzfeldt, known for shooting all of his films using antique 35mm cameras, will also hold a question-and-answer discussion after the screening.
Several programs at this year’s AAFF will explore the history and origins of experimental film, highlighting the fact that even the festival itself is on its own journey forward. Two separate retrospectives of the late visionary director Bruce Conner (“A Movie”) will also be screened, presenting a rare opportunity to view the filmmaker’s work, which is not currently commercially available on DVD or anywhere else.
Harrison is especially excited about the Conner retrospectives, which he billed as a “must-see attraction.” He noted that Conner’s work is “for anyone who cares about art, about important, intellectual artists, not just in terms of film, but in terms of the last 50, 60 years of art.”
Even though the majority of Conner’s work was produced between the 1960s and ’70s, Harrison assured viewers that “his retrospective is going to be … as cutting-edge today as these films were when he made them.”
Conner often employed stock film footage as part of his work, and the idea of remix culture is another major theme being played out at the festival. Mark Hosler of the band Negativland, which gained notoriety in the early ’90s when Island Records sued it for sampling large portions of U2 songs in its work, will be on hand to show a multimedia presentation called “Adventures in Illegal Art,” which is about the band itself. Hosler will also co-host a panel discussion on the Fair Use law titled “Remixing the Rules: Copyright & Fair Use.”
In a demonstration of the interconnectedness of the film community, experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin, who made a documentary about Negativland called “Sonic Outlaws” in 1995, will also be at the panel discussion. During the festival, Baldwin will screen and promote his latest film “Mock Up on Mu,” a conspiracy thriller that also uses liberal amounts of pre-existing film strips.
Further contributing to the treatise on copyright laws will be “RiP: A Remix Manifesto,” which is billed as the first “open source” full-length documentary. “RiP” follows the struggles of remix artists who continually face uphill battles when trying to create original work out of pre-existing material, and it features well-known mash-up DJ Girl Talk (Greg Gillis). The filmmakers posted a rough cut of the movie on their website and asked visitors to create their own edits for it. These edits were then integrated into the film itself, engaging the audience on an entirely unique level that demonstrates the idea of filmmaking as a constantly evolving process.
“RiP” is one of the few feature-length films that will be screening in competition. The majority of the other competing features are short films that will be grouped together into themed showcases, including a “Terra Firma” program highlighting films with feminist ideals and an “Out Night” program that centers on LGBT issues.
Last year’s hugely popular animation category is back, this year dubbed “The Animated Forest.” Clearly it’s a dangerous forest; the description of the program comes with a warning to “beware of what hides in the woods.”
“With animation you see a lot of films that deal with very graphic — whether it’s graphically funny or graphically violent — subject matter in really creative techniques,” Harrison said. He cautioned that many of the films in the animation category will be very intense and that the program is not for everybody.
Almost all screenings will be held at the Michigan Theater, except for a midnight movie (“The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle,” featuring the Sex Pistols) showing at the State Theater. There will be a handful of lectures at the Work Gallery and a music video showcase at the newly renovated UMMA Stern Auditorium. The festival’s organizers also intend to expand the scope of the festival far beyond past years: Visitors can seek out an “alternative walking tour” of Ann Arbor and an international film tour featuring selections from the festival, which is scheduled to hit the road in June. Harrison pointed out how these efforts fit into the theme of geography and travel.
“We’re going to do more to make it so there’s not things just happening at the Michigan Theater,” Harrison said, adding that he’s hoping local businesses will get into the action as well. “You’re going to see more things happening throughout town.”
The festival is sure to be a strange and memorable journey through the land of experimental film, as envisioned on the “Super Mario World”-esque promotional poster designed and illustrated by Eastern Michigan University graphic design professor Ryan Molloy. From March 24-29, the Ann Arbor Film Festival promises to stimulate minds and take audiences on a journey through frontiers of cinema both old and new.