Last Tuesday night, live salsa music filled the faux-gold glitz of the Michigan Theater lobby. Silver-coated Ding Dongs dotted the grand staircase, a buffet table of merchandise stood sentry by the door, and no one was abashed in storming the tables of free food and beer. A dozen people in gowns and powdered wigs milled through the packed crowd with silver trays – and why not? This was, after all, the opening of the 44th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival, the most proudly eclectic show in town.

Morgan Morel
Kristin MacDonald

It’s a film festival for the indie set. Renowned for its emphasis on experimental film, the festival features a large number of cash-prize awards sponsored by such film community notables as Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”), Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”) and the University’s own Lawrence Kasdan (“Mumford”).

This year, the festival attracted about 2,000 entries from all over the world, a high number because of the festival’s fairly recent decision to accept video and digital submissions in addition to 16mm. An impressive 118 entries made it to the screen over the past six days, and the selection was diverse. Ranging in length from one minute to 90, the featured films included documentaries and dramas, animations and collages, political commentaries and experiments with time.

With such breadth available, each night’s program could afford to mix freely the witty, the unapologetically artsy, the angry and the sad.

But mostly it was invention that lay at the heart of the festival’s entries, in terms of both technical ingenuity and clever subject matter. “Afraid So,” a three-minute short based on a poem, featured the famous voice of radio personality Garrison Keillor intoning questions of classic anxiety: “Are there side effects? Was the car totaled? Are you still smoking?” Another resourceful short, “Ringo,” starred Roy Rogers and John Wayne, mish-mashing old movie footage around the country ballad of an outlaw and sheriff. And “The Mechanicals,” a Festival Audience Award winner from Australia, wryly depicted the electricity of a man’s morning routine as the secret work of a team of harried workers hiding in the walls.

The most winning pieces generally made the most of their brief length. The short film can be a powerful little medium, especially in our commercial-accustomed culture, where a quick punch usually makes the sharpest point.

Not every entry was so wise. “Business as Usual,” a short film from Canada, needed only about a third of its 10 minutes to depict robotic, suited businessmen at various stock exchanges around the world. A documentary collage from Russia about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo swirled the drama of her life into a kaleidoscopic jumble that, at 40 minutes, long overstayed its welcome.

Some entries, however, suffered for their brevity.

“Psychic Driving,” in particular, felt unsatisfactorily explored – despite Hollywood-quality production, its protagonist, an unknowing victim of a government-mind-control experiment, ended up hard to root for, and the film’s disappointing ending underscored the necessary trick of determining when to add exposition. In 20 minutes, emotional attachments are decidedly difficult to develop.

Except in the case of documentaries.

The festival’s most moving pieces proved to be its documentaries, and the diversity of their topics rendered it a crash course in subcultures as enlightening as it was unexpected.

One doc following a group of poor Louisiana brothers opened with the striking image of a boy in a bathtub combing a live rooster with an afro pick.

“I’d fight anything just to see it get killed,” the boy’s voiceover later intoned as he casually dangled two cats above an eager dog.

Another piece explored the late-’60s rumor of Paul McCartney’s death. One bespectacled interviewee, a former staffer at The Michigan Daily, boasted happily of his contribution to the rumor, which was allegedly started in the Daily’s pages. He reminisced fondly about his questionable article as if unaware of the glaring tackiness of his giant cowboy hat and neon-cactus tie.

The festival’s longest entry, “B.I.K.E.,” admirably furthered the celebration of the unexpected by following one man’s attempt to join, of all things, the exclusive Black Label Bike Club, a group passionate about riding bikes (deeming car drivers “gasholes”), building bikes (out of found scrap metal) and jousting painfully on bikes. At one point early in the film, Tony, the protagonist and co-director, finds himself beneath a Brooklyn underpass preparing to board a double-decker bike, lift a jousting pole and awkwardly charge a slightly drunk man named Stinky.

Now there’s a scene you simply couldn’t make up.

The festival may enjoy a good deal of indie and international acclaim, but it ultimately rang with the warmly laidback character of a true community event, including local sponsors, panel discussions, open seminars, cash-prize audience awards and a whole string of evening after parties around Ann Arbor. Just consider Tuesday’s opening screening, which commenced with a presentation from Ann Arbor residents Davy and Peter Rothbart, founders of FOUND Magazine.

While I haven’t been to Sundance or Cannes, I’m willing to bet their audiences would never be treated to an act like Peter Rothbart’s acoustic rendition of the undeniably catchy “The Booty Don’t Stop.”

The audience not only roared – it eventually joined in.

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