The Ann Arbor Film Festival kicked off Tuesday night with cocktails, coffee and Stucchi’s ice cream only to quickly add provocative filmmaking to its list of stimulants. This is the AAFF, a five-day fiesta of all things avant-garde and a proudly surviving vestige of Ann Arbor’s more progressive-minded past.

Drew Philp
The lobby of The Michigan Theater was filled with boozers and shmoozers for the opening night of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. (ZAHARY MEISNER/ Daily)
Drew Philp
ZACHARY MEISNER/ Daily
Drew Philp
ZACHARY MEISNER/ Daily

The screening began with an earnest tribute to deceased AAFF participant Helen Hill, a one-time Festival judge and lifelong filmmaker, and the Festival couldn’t have selected a more appropriate start than the presentation of Hill’s quirky 16mm introduction to amateur filmmaking. The short film not only combined animation, live action and gentle humor to outline the medium’s different formats (and home-bathroom darkroom techniques) but spoke to the dedication and can-do spirit required of independent filmmakers to realize their art. Filmmaking’s a fun process, but it’s a demanding one, too, and the piece honored the commitment of these self-reliant artists as much as its inclusion honored one such artist in particular.

For the AAFF not only showcases the best of independent film from the world over but strives to develop a supportive community for those filmmakers as well. This week’s AAFF schedule features much more than just short film screenings, with several filmmaker spotlights, public lectures and Q & As and even a party or two. There’s also a special program planned to introduce wary newcomers to the admitted obtuseness of experimental film – a panel discussion self-mockingly entitled “What the Hell Was That?”

After all, independent film’s reputation for obliqueness is not entirely undeserved. One piece in Tuesday night’s line-up was practically the definition of esoteric: a single six-minute shot of Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s 1896 review of an early Lumiere brothers’ film, slowly dissolving on what looked like a can of paint (turn-of-the-century intellectualism literally visualized as watching paint dry).

This is not pure cinema. This is plain old art, in a medium that provides a seemingly endless opportunity for fresh expression, and the AAFF, by projecting these impossibly diverse pieces in the cavernous grandeur of The Michigan Theater, offers an all-too-rare way to experience it.

The prominent back story of this year’s festival is then all the more baffling. Ordered by the state of Michigan in a well-publicized battle to rein in its controversial content or face funding cuts, the festival boldly chose the latter, cutting ties with the government rather than censor its material. It’s the state that’s losing out. In a fight over First Amendment rights, the AAFF promises to be a lively opponent, with indignation to spare and the ACLU as back-up (as well as, apparently, friends with pocketbooks).

But why sever connection with one of the most respectable names in avant-garde cinema at all? The AAFF, now 45 years old, is one of the world’s oldest experimental film festivals, the proving ground for now-big names (Gus Van Sant, Michael Moore) and longtime home for artistic statements that are truly less subversive than explorative. The festival combed through more than 2,000 submissions to compile this year’s array and, if Tuesday night’s opening is any indication, it’s a set of works with as much humor and innovation as political commentary.

One of the night’s most satisfying entries was Frederic Moffet’s “Jean Genet in Chicago,” an inventive 25-minute short billed as an “experimental documentary” which uses the experience of French writer Jean Genet as an angle for approaching the political agitation of late ’60s Chicago. Wearing cut-out faces of famous Genet-contemporaries such as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, stand-in bodies reenact history in front the bustling background of the modern day city.

The following piece, Matthew Lessner’s “By Modern Measure,” makes a more poignant comment about the decided lack of such political agitation in our own generation. As a pair of young lovers bond over their mutual love of Taco Bell, Mountain Dew and Doritos, the short film’s French narrator calmly mentions the falling of bombs over Iraq half the world away. When the two profess to love Che Guevara, they tellingly can’t articulate why.

William Noland’s meditative “Occulted,” meanwhile, turns its scrutiny from the people to The Man. Its contemplative study of London’s heavy-duty government surveillance zeroes in on various unknowing passerby, watching in long, slow-motion takes as they patiently stand on curbs and metro platforms, doing absolutely nothing to merit concern.

Such watching characterized a good deal of the night’s offerings, which is perhaps predictable, considering the voyeuristic nature of film itself. That hyper self-awareness was prominent in such pieces as Francois Miron’s “Hymn to Pan,” a dreamy if unrevelatory scene of a dancer being filmed, and a German entry titled “Kristall,” which cut together old Hollywood bedroom scenes to examine the forced intimacy of people before mirrors. Its focus on old film clips is equally representative of a particularly popular independent film technique – the use of innovative editing and a fresh soundtrack to cull new meaning from old images. As film inherent plays with perspective, it’s a perfect medium to find meaning through juxtaposition.

Of course, not every piece works, but that’s natural of any art form with “experimental” in the title. One 15-minute collage of various pop-culture images in particular went about 14 minutes too long, pairing its repetitive mix of Hulk figures and baby dolls with tinny, pinball-like ’80s pop riffs in a kinetic explosion of color that could only be palatable as a screensaver. The messages of media inundation and gender stereotypes may be there, but are doomed to little impact when all you can think after several moments is how much you want to shoot the messenger.

At least you’re thinking. The festival’s commitment to intellectual exploration is palpable and has only increased in the face of the government’s censorship efforts. Even in the midst of its legal battle, however, the AAFF is keeping its characteristic sense of humor. The lobby’s merchandise table features a new addition this year, courtesy of the innovative folks over at local candy-maker Schakolad – a slab of fine chocolate imprinted with the word “Censored.” The AAFF has created its very own censor bar, and it’s indicative of the festival spirit: whether you like what you see, whether you even ” get” all of it, at the end of the day you’re guaranteed plenty to chew on.

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