From its humble inception in 1963, when a modest assembly of local film students and filmmakers crammed into the Lorch Hall auditorium to screen a few independent movies, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has relied on the give-and-take of goodwill: nurture and be nurtured.

The festival, which kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, strives to be a guardian of creative expression by fostering independent and experimental film. Created in a decade when constant innovation in the film medium dared artists to step onto the very edge of the avant garde, the festival will retain its original mission of promoting filmmakers who accomplish the unconventional and the extraordinary.

“There’s total creative freedom here, as a forum for the avant garde, and that is so rare,” said Christen McArdle, the festival’s executive director. “It’s a showcase for the arts and for the people who do cutting-edge work.”

But film junkies cramped in a dim and smoky auditorium could only do so much. It took the community’s support to transform such inauspicious beginnings into the international event the festival has become, boasting more than 2,000 film entries from 31 countries (13 of the films were programmed at the world-famous Sundance Film Festival). Having separated from the University in 1980, the festival is now an independent nonprofit arts organization, relying entirely on the Ann Arbor community.

“Something like (the Ann Arbor Film Festival), which is a celebration of experimental art, is something that the community should be aware of and celebrate and keep strong,” McArdle said. “It’s the first thing to get cut when money goes down, like we’re seeing in Michigan right now, and the only way to keep arts organizations strong is through community support.”

McArdle, who makes her debut as festival director this year, has a new strategy to encourage precisely that kind of audience participation and patronage. This year will see the unveiling of the Audience Awards, in which audience members vote on their favorite film of the night. A $500 award will be bestowed daily during the six-day festival for a total of $3,000 in prize money.

“I think it’s one of the most interesting awards, and I hope it encourages people to be more invested,” McArdle said.

In addition to the audience awards, the festival doles out $15,000 in prize money to a film or films selected by a three-person jury. This year, the jury is composed of experimental filmmaker Courtney Egan; last year’s festival winner for Best Michigan Director, Richard Pell; and David Baker, director of the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International.

The judges will choose the top in artistic achievement from the approximately 100 films in competition. But win or lose, the films selected to compete have already made it through a rigorous screening process.

Filmmakers submitted a record 2,000 entries this year.

McArdle said the current method for culling the very best – amounting to only 5 percent of the submitted works this year – will probably need to be revamped because of such overwhelming interest in the festival.

For this year’s process, two committees, consisting of three members each, spent between 20 and 30 hours per week watching all the entries. The process took months.

While the overall quality is exemplary, the festival headlines a handful of major films.

“Wassup Rockers,” a film focusing on a group of L.A.-based Latino teenagers, has had a particularly large amount of pre-festival hype.

McArdle described another of the festival’s most anticipated films, “Camjackers,” as “really fun and high-energy – very young.”

The festival officially gets rolling tonight in the opulent Michigan Theater lobby, amid live music by Los Gatos and plenty of boozing and schmoozing. As a revered defender of cutting-edge culture, the festival promises an atmosphere where community members, film lovers and filmmakers can mingle together at the altar of great art.

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