The term "experimental film" can conjure up ideas of boring art-school exercises, but Donald Harrison says the genre is much broader, and more enjoyable, than it gets credit for. "'Experimental film' doesn't mean people are experimenting," Harrison says. "We tend to use that term for people that are working outside of traditional three-act structure. It really encompasses a huge spectrum of what's happening in films." Harrison's a guy who would know a thing or two on the subject; he's the executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Harrison and his festival co-conspirators are preparing for the big birthday with a record 233 films, incorporating both new work and films that have screened at festivals past.
Looking back over those 50 years, the festival has amassed a pretty impressive list of alumni; Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and George Lucas have all shown at the festival in years past. Festival program director David Dinnell says the festival offered an early proving ground for luminaries like Gus Van Sant, director of Good Will Hunting and Milk. "This was a space for him to be able to do shorter works," Dinnell says. "Where else were those going to be able to be seen? They're films that are exploring the form of cinema. They're interested in what's possible, what cinema can be, what it can do."
A Van Sant short, The Discipline of the DE, originally screened at the festival in 1979, will make a repeat appearance this year. So will George Lucas' first film, THX 1138, an early cut of which screened in 1968, before anyone even knew who Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were. Also among the historical highlights this year is a retrospective of the work of experimental film giant Bruce Baillie, whose film Castro Street has been placed in the U.S. National Film Registry. The retrospective, which Baillie will be present for, really brings things full circle for AAFF; a much younger Baillie presented a much shorter retrospective at the very first AAFF. "He's in his 80s," Dinnell says. "He rarely makes appearances."
Of course, in addition to the many tips of the hat to AAFF history, this year's festival will present a variety of brand-new work. Harrison says this year's film selection process was especially tough because of the sheer number of film submissions for the big anniversary. "We spend half the year in our selection process and it was definitely more intense," Harrison says. "We put a lot of extra care and time into it." So what makes a great AAFF film? Harrison says the fewer rules set in the selection process, the better. "As soon as we try to set a boundary, we find a film that breaks that boundary," he says. "And we're trying to find films that do break boundaries, that go beyond our expectations, that ask more of the audience."
Films in competition this year include a handful of feature films, but mostly a wide variety of shorts (see the sidebar for our picks for "Best of the Fest"). Harrison says the AAFF has "flipped the model" of most regional film festivals. "Usually features come first, and shorts are in the minority," he says. "We feel that artists working outside of that 90-minute, feature-length constraint feel free to take more risks." The festival will also feature program blocks dedicated to Arab, Japanese, animated and other genres past and present.
Despite all the work that's going into putting the 50th AAFF together, Dinnell says that after a "short rest" it's right back to planning the 51st fest...and, perhaps, the next 50 years. Harrison says that although he's anticipating this year's walk down memory lane, he's ready to roll up his sleeves for what's next. "There's something exciting to looking beyond 50 as well, as far as where are we heading," Harrison says. "That's exciting, to be able to get this history, to get that foundation underneath us, and then look at what's ahead of us." | RDW
Ann Arbor Film Festival • 3/27-4/1 • various Ann Arbor venues • 734.995.5356 • aafilmfest.org • $7-$95
Best of the Fest Not sure what to check out at the festival? We had a chance to review a handful of this year's films and we put together this handy guide of our favorites. Take a look:
It's Such a Beautiful Day This animated film from the legendary Don Hertzfeldt follows what happens to a man after he wakes up in a hospital with a traumatic brain injury. Mixing in snatches of live-action to mind-blowing effect, it's an incredibly moving – and disturbing – portrayal of a man losing his mind.Screening 3/27, 8:15 p.m. at the Michigan Theater (Opening Night Screening)
The Strawberry Tree This documentary portrays the final days of a rural Cuban fishing village that would be destroyed by a storm only days later. In long takes, director Simone Rapisarda exchanges friendly banter with the villagers as he films, creating a lively cast of characters whose world is about to be shaken. Screening 3/29, 9:15 p.m. at the Michigan Theater
THX 1138 If you're alive, you've probably seen Star Wars. But have you seen THX 1138? The 1984-like sci-fi film starring Robert Duvall was George Lucas' first film and a student version of it screened at the AAFF back in 1968. Darker and creepier than the Star Wars trilogy, but just as good. Screening 3/31, 11:59 p.m. at the State Theater
Kudzu Vine If you've been down South, you've probably seen the massive kudzu vines that have a way of entangling just about everything. This black-and-white documentary explores the history and legend of the vine, setting up a creepy atmosphere portraying the plant almost as a sentient, alien being. Screening 4/1, 1:00 p.m. at the Michigan Theater