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AADL Productions Podcast: 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival

Thu, 03/18/2010 - 4:42pm

When: March 18, 2010

Tuesday marks the start of the 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of Ann Arbor's world-class annual events. AAFF's Executive Director, Donald Harrison, stopped by to give us a quick overview of what we have to look forward to in this year's festival. Aside from the many great films on offer, Donald talks about some of the panel discussions and live performances. This year's highlights include an evening with legendary experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger and a specially commissioned soundtrack, performed live by composer Flying Lotus, to Harry Smith's 1962 film Heaven & Earth Magic. Two of this year's events happen at AADL: Bison Boys & Famous Monsters of Michigan: 1970s Super-8mm Films of Jimm Juback & Cary Loren and Gerry Fialka Discusses Dream Awake: How James Joyce Invented Experimental Cinema & Disguised It As A Book.


  • [00:00:02.52] [MUSIC]
  • [00:00:03.14] ANDREW: Hi. This is Andrew.
  • [00:00:04.98] AMY: And this is Amy. And you're listening to the AADL Productions Podcast.
  • [00:00:09.05] ANDREW: In this episode we talk with Donald Harrison, executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He stopped by to talk about what we can look forward to in the 48th Annual Film Festival happening March 23-28, 2010.
  • [00:00:26.85] AMY: What's new this year?
  • [00:00:28.83] DONALD HARRISON: Well, this year we're going to present 40 different programs, that's approximately 170 films from 20 countries. There's going to be ten free programs at this year's festival of those 40 programs. So those are opportunities for our community to come and see some of the best filmmakers and artists from around the world present their work. We have a lot on tap. We've got special programs that are very exciting, we have our films and competition programs, and then we also have our opening night program on Tuesday is a really fantastic line-up. We have a reception in the lobby of the Michigan Theater. It's one of the times where we really see the whole community coming out celebrating. It's an open bar, we have food, there's music, and then we show a screening of shorts that pretty much cover just about every type of genre and usually one of the biggest turnouts of the whole festival. The atmosphere that night, the electricity, is an opportunity for people to really come out and have one of the best festival experiences. And I would say the Awards Program, again, on Sunday night is similar. It's towards the end of the program so I'd say the energy isn't quite as electric, but it is an opportunity to see some of the shorts that the jurors that year considered the best, and usually a lot of people in town make sure that they come out and see that program.
  • [00:01:44.82] ANDREW: So, tell us about getting Kenneth Anger and when those talks began, and how you got a name like Kenneth Anger to come to the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
  • [00:01:53.57] DONALD HARRISON: Well, Kenneth Anger is coming in from a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and that was a grant we applied for, and we pitched them on bringing Kenneth Anger here to Ann Arbor and the reasons why we felt were compelling, because it is history with our festival with the avant-garde of cinema, and with our history with the avant-garde of cinema. And we were very excited when the Academy decided that this was an important festival, it was important to bring him here at the point in his career where he's in his 80s, and there's probably not going to be a lot of opportunities to hear him speak about his work at this point. So, yeah, we were pretty excited when we got the news that we're getting the grant. Kenneth Anger's making his plans to come here. We're bringing in a film critic, Dennis Lim from the New York Times and Village Voice. He's going to be doing a conversation on stage, Michigan Theater Saturday night.
  • [00:02:42.38] AMY: So who else is coming, who are some of the bigger names?
  • [00:02:45.47] DONALD HARRISON: On Wednesday at 5 o'clock we have Bill Brown and Sabine Graffet, and they're going to do a free program, it's called Time Machine, over at the U of M Museum of Art. It's going to be sort of digital interactive media meets old-fashioned documentary and storytelling. Bill Brown was a juror here a couple years ago, and has shown just about everything he's ever made in Ann Arbor. This is going to be a real departure from people who know his work. It's going to be a pretty fun, I think, playful and interactive program. So that's one of those things, again, it's an opportunity to just go into the museum, you don't have to even pay, it's free, and see something that you're not going to probably have a chance to see anywhere else.
  • [00:03:28.43] One of the other very exciting special programs this year is a world premiere of a live score from Flying Lotus to Harry Smith's animation from the 1960s called Heaven and Earth Magic. This is a performance that we've commissioned, so it's the first time anybody's heard it or seen it. And Flying Lotus is one of the hottest musical acts right now in the world. He's been featured in The New Yorker, he's got Thom Yorke from Radiohead working with him on this new album which is coming out in a few months. So this guy is really blowing up. He's getting really big, getting a ton of press. The fact that he's coming to Ann Arbor in a few weeks to premiere this live score to an avant-garde animation from the 1960s is also getting a ton of press worldwide. So that's one of the big shows. That's going to be Friday night on stage at the Michigan Theatre. He's an electronic hip-hop experimental music artist, and he does a lot of multimedia as well. So that shows going to be a pretty big deal for a lot of people, not just within Ann Arbor but within the midwest. We have a lot of people we're hearing coming in from Chicago, from Toronto, from pretty much all over, and that's going to be one of the big turnouts for this year.
  • [00:04:33.14] ANDREW: Has the Ann Arbor Film Festival commissioned work often before?
  • [00:04:38.00] DONALD HARRISON: I don't think we've commissioned a lot of work. The real heart of the festival is the films that are submitted in to the festival, and those are what we consider as part of our Awards competition. This year we had an opportunity to bring Flying Lotus in and do something special. That's something we'd like to do every year, whether that's one or two programs, just so that you have something that you're not going to see at any other film festival in the world. But this year we're very fortunate to have a lot of world premiers -- U.S. and North American premiers of new work in our competition program. We have more than a dozen premiers -- a lot of those filmmakers are coming in. We have a filmmaker coming in from London to premiere his film. Our Wednesday program, Diamond Pivot Bright, is going to feature three world premiers out of the five films with those filmmakers in attendance. It also is going to have a very special screening before the program of never before seen footage from Iggy Pop in 1973. So, Ivan Kral who's worked with Patti Smith and he's here in town, he's going to present that footage before the program. So it's technically four world premiers as part of that program with all those filmmakers in attendance. To us that's really exciting because not only do you get to see it before anybody else introduced this work to the world, but those filmmakers are here so you get a chance to ask them questions and to go up and meet them. And that's one of the things that makes a film festival, especially a film festival like Ann Arbor where a lot of the filmmakers come in, really a special experience, much more so than just going to a movie and going out for dinner.
  • [00:06:09.16] AMY: So who are some of the local people that will be in the festival?
  • [00:06:12.40] DONALD HARRISON: We have six local filmmakers in this year's festival. We have Jack Cronin who's filmed Sleeping Bear is going to play opening night. Beautiful documentary about Sleeping Bear Dunes and a very artfully made film, black and white. That's opening night. Zeynep Gursel, her film Coffee Futures is going to be Saturday afternoon, I believe, in the 1 o'clock program at the Michigan Theatre. That film was shot in Turkey and it's a political comedy. She pretty much ties together coffee ground readings in her native country of Turkey with sort of the relationship between her country, Turkey, and becoming a member of the EU. So it's about a 20-minute film. She is a professor of anthropology at University of Michigan. So she'll be on hand to answer questions about her film. Peter Hurwitz is also a local filmmaker. He's somebody who made a lot of important work, avant-garde work, back in the '70s and '80s, and you can see he's screened his work with Stan Brakhage and with some of the biggest names in experimental cinema. He hasn't made work in a long time and this is his new film he's been working on for about seven years and it's, again, a world premiere. Peter will be here, he's very excited, and it's just a beautiful work of an artist who -- he pretty much hand-painted both sides of the 16 millimeter film that we're going to screen. To us that's the kind of thing where this makes this festival really special. We have a few other filmmakers -- Chris McNamara is going to show work. He's a professor at the University. Alexis Bravos, also a University of Michigan professor. And Scott Northrup is going to show a short film as part of Out Night, and he's a professor over at CCS in Detroit.
  • [00:07:56.77] ANDREW: Did you see any trends in this year's submission? I remember last year we talked about how there was a lot of interesting animation coming in. Do you see anything in particular this year in the things that came in?
  • [00:08:05.98] DONALD HARRISON: As far as trends, between the 2,500 films that we received, you obviously are seeing certain trends in terms of technology. We got more work from countries we hadn't received work from before. So, the year before we had about 2,500 films from 45 countries. This year we had about 2,500 films from 65 countries. So with the access of technology we're seeing work coming in from new places. We had several films come in from Iran -- we're actually featuring a great documentary called Tehran Has No More Pomegranates, and that is going to be on Saturday night. That's an Iranian filmmaker who makes really a fantastic feature film and we're very excited to show that film But as far as trends in terms of what we saw, we saw a lot of people really playing with the technology, especially with digital media. So things like data mashing are terms that we hadn't really heard much of in the last year or two, but we started to see a lot of filmmakers play around with how you can sort of mash together some of the pixels. Whereas 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago, people were scratching on the film and seeing what you can do with the actual material of film and celluloid. Now they're starting to figure out through software and through manipulation of pixels, what new effects can we create. So that's something that we've started to see more of and that will be represented in some of the work you see, but there's still a lot of filmmakers who are in love with celluloid, in love with film. We're going to show a lot of work on 35 millimeter this year and on 16 millimeter. Even a little bit of super 8 we'll screen at the festival. Then there's very special performances such Daniel Bara, which is a Wednesday night special program. He's actually using very old techniques. He's using pretty much an overhead projector, he's going to be doing live drawing and sort of mixing transparencies, playing some music, storytelling. It's a very creative way of using sort of old school technologies to present a program in a very new way.
  • [00:10:08.23] AMY: I notice you have a new look, a new website, new logo. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
  • [00:10:14.10] DONALD HARRISON: Sure. We just released our new identity, the new website. For us it was very much about creating a framework for artists. We didn't want it to be as much about look at us and look at our new logo, but really creating this framework or this platform that's going to support the artists, because we're very much about supporting and showcasing the artists and what they do best. So the website in the background features different stills from a lot of the films that have played our festival. At the very bottom of the site you can see a credit for who those filmmakers are. And for us it's a way to sort of be creative in how we present the work. So far we're excited about the introduction and the new website, so hopefully people are able to find what they need. Ultimately we want it to be easy for people to come in and see some of this art, especially because we know that we present some challenging work. We definitely will present work where some people won't understand it. I'm sure there'll be some work that some people won't like, along with plenty of work that's going to really just amaze people and inspire people. And so for us we really want to, as much as possible, make it easy for people to get the information, to come in and experience the programs, ask questions, and engage with it -- that's really why we do this. We don't do this just to show films and say that we showed it, but really we want to get as many people engaging with the filmmakers, seeing the work and having experience together.
  • [00:11:40.76] AMY: I have a five year old -- what would he like to see this year.
  • [00:11:43.86] DONALD HARRISON: Well, I think your five year old might be old enough. It's right on the border of our Kids Friendly program, which is Saturday at 11:00 a.m. We recommended ages six and up. But you might be OK. I've leave it up to you, Amy. But that program is -- it's not just for kids, it's really designed to be a program that adults will appreciate, teenagers would appreciate, and a five or six year old. So there's not going to be any films in that program that we think are graphic or have highly inappropriate content, but there are going to be films that still challenge, whether it's visually or whether it's conceptually, a six or a seven year old along with an adult. One of the things at that program that's pretty exciting is we're going to have a premiere from Frank Pahl and his Little Bang Theory. So as part of that program they're going to get on stage and play some toy instruments to do a live soundtrack to a film from the 1930s called The Mascot and it's a black and white film of a little dog trying to overcome sort of different adventures. So, that's going to be a pretty memorable program. I think adults will appreciate it just as much as younger audiences. But we consider it pretty much all ages friendly, although I think a two or three year old might not be as fully engaged.
  • [00:12:56.83] ANDREW: What kind of lectures and panel discussions can we look forward to this year?
  • [00:13:01.24] DONALD HARRISON: Well, we have a lecture this year here at the library, Ann Arbor downtown District Library, and that's going to be Friday at 5 o'clock. And we have Gerry Fialka who is just a tour de force. If you haven't seen him you definitely want to check him out. He is an electric live wire of information, and he's going to be presenting a lecture, interactive workshop, about James Joyce and Finnegans Wake and how that really was a template for experimental cinema, for even the internet. So that's a free program, that's going to be Friday at 5:00. And Friday is actually quite a great line-up in terms of free panels and workshops, because we have a panel over at UUMA, over at the Museum of Art in their auditorium with an all-star cast of gum distributors. So we have Emily Doe from Wholphin, we have Ben Cook coming in from London, England from LUX, and we have Video Data Bank out of Chicago with Cinematech, SF Cinematech -- Jonathan Marlow's going to moderate that panel. It's an opportunity for us to really talk to people who are at the cutting edge in terms of what's happening right now, especially with short films, but with artists that are making film and with distribution between YouTube, between DVDs, downloads, podcasts. Things are changing really fast and these people are going to have I think a lot to say about what's going to be happening in the next few months to the next few years because it's going to be, I think, quite a bit different five years from now than it is currently today.
  • [00:14:28.62] AMY: I can't resist asking you this just because the Academy Awards were just on, but what do you think of The Hurt Locker and Avatar -- versus Avatar?
  • [00:14:38.39] DONALD HARRISON: This is a great question, Amy. So, part of running a film festival is that you sort of enter into this subterrenean tunnel vision-like realm for a few months. So I actually don't see a lot of mainstream films in the fall and in the winter. So I have not seen the Hurt Locker. I have seen Avatar, but I didn't even watch the Oscars because we were so focused on getting everything ready for our own film festival. So once the festival's over, I'll start to catch up on some of the films that I missed. But we actually have some films that we're going to present this year that may end up getting nominated for Oscars -- that's happened the last few years. And it's always interesting to see the type of work that we're showing that crosses over into more of the mainstream film industry, places like the Academy, galleries -- we see a lot of the filmmakers that we show end up showing their working in museums and galleries around the world. And so that's one of the fun things that following the festival seeing where these different works end up. Thursday at 9:30 Illuminations of The Beyond is going to be a real visually strong program -- filmmaker Joost Rekveld. That film as a half an hour and he's using sort of fractal theory, a lot of math-based computer generated imagery and it's absolutely stunning. It's on par from my point of view with anything you'll see in a film like Avatar at the Michigan Theater on the big screen. It's not in 3D but it really is just going to be a visual journey in terms of what that film's doing. That whole program is really just incredibly strong visually and much more on the abstract side of what experimental cinema can do. So for anybody who's curious about abstract experimental film, and maybe up for something that's going to be a little more challenging from what they're used to seeing, I'd say Illuminations of The Beyond is a great opportunity to do that.
  • [00:16:27.52] One of the things that's actually pretty different this year, worth pointing out, is that we have a feature narrative film, and we haven't had a feature narrative film that we've presented in the last few years. So Friday night, Matt McCormick who is a pretty well-known experimental and independent filmmaker out of Portland. He's going to be showing his narrative feature called Some Days Are Better Than Others, and this is starring James Mercer from The Shins, Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney, and this is going to be fresh off of his South by Southwest premiere. Matt's coming in for Ann Arbor -- he's very excited to be here. So we think that that's going to also be a pretty fast sell-out. So if people want to go to that show I would definitely recommend advanced tickets because it's going to sell-out. And Matt's a great personality, so having him here for Q&A adds quite a bit to that program.
  • [00:17:18.70] AMY: You can buy DVDs, too, you've got a store online.
  • [00:17:21.68] DONALD HARRISON: We do. AMY: What do you have for sale?
  • [00:17:23.37] DONALD HARRISON: We have a couple DVD collections -- some of the shorts from last year's festival and the previous year, and those are for sale on our website. They also are here at the Ann Arbor District Library that you can check out if you don't want to buy them. But I would encourage you to buy them because it does support us, we are a non-profit organization, and we split the revenue with the filmmakers, so it's a great way to support your local non-profit film festival and some of these artists who are making short work, and as you can all imagine, it's not the most profitable business to make short films for most of these people. So we try and do as much as we can to give out awards, to give revenue on our traveling tour that we do, and the DVDs that we sell. And hopefully help encourage more and more people to make shorts and make art with film.
  • [00:18:08.68] [MUSIC]
  • [00:18:16.55] AMY: To learn more about the 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival go to
  • [00:18:23.41] ANDREW: You've been listening to the AADL Productions Podcast from the Ann Arbor District Library.