NIGHT & DAY: 48 Years Of Independent Film

It's a big week for movies in Ann Arbor (even bigger next week). The Michigan Theater will be showing the delightfully absurd A Town Called Panic (a childlike sense of humor or robust hallucinogens are encouraged) and Michael Moore breezes into town to celebrate (and screen) the 20th anniversary of his landmark doc Roger And Me. Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is playing at The State Theater, as well as the terrifically gritty Fish Tank, a throw-back to British kitchen-sink realism.

On the music front, it's all about the pop pop pop of, well, pop music. The Clientele bring their 60's psychedelic-inflected dance pop to the Blind Pig and the incomparable Grant Lee Phillips appears at The Ark to croon his wonderfully rich palate of ear-pleasing tunes.

But the talk of the town will undoubtedly be the opening of this year's Ann Arbor Film Festival, an event that just grows in stature, entertainment and audience each year. The revolution started with former artistic director Christen McArdle and now continues under executive director Donald Harrison, who took the reins less than two years ago.

A native of Southfield and U-M grad, Harrison studied documentary and experimental cinema at San Francisco's Film Arts Foundation before returning to be a part of AAFF. Since taking the festival's helm he has joined the board of the Michigan Theater, the Detroit Film Center and the advisory board of the Aurora Picture Show in Houston, TX.

Harrison took time out of the last minute craziness in planning next week's festival to answer a few questions.

AAFF's focus on experimental and independent film makes it stand out from most other film fests. It also means that audiences are less likely to rub elbows with celebrities, catch Hollywood premieres, or witness the 'next big thing'. How do you draw crowds to movies that are both challenging and below the radar?

While I understand the fascination with celebrities, I believe that the majority of audiences most want remarkable and engaging experiences. People nationwide flocked to the "The Gates" exhibit in New York's Central Park not to see celebrities, but to have a shared experience with art and to get outside of their everyday lives. Our festival is not directly a part of the celebrity movie industry but we are becoming increasingly known as a great forum for engaging with some of the top film artists in the world. Each year we see film professors bring their students to the AAFF from across the country because of the rare and valuable experience it provides.

As more people regionally realize that experimental, independent, and art-focused films can provide rewarding experiences, the more we anticipate our audiences to grow. Mainstream media is already saturated with celebrity-driven, Hollywood content and we believe there is tremendous value to providing a high-quality alternative within the world of independent film.

The Detroit Independent Film Festival just wrapped up a successful week and sponsors are already committed to next year. Saugatuck's Waterfront Film Festival and Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival just keep growing. Last summer saw the first year for the Blue Water Film Festival in Port Huron. Is there a point where the market becomes over-saturated? Is there a danger that Michiganders will get film fest'ed out?

I lived in San Francisco for 10 years, where there were more than 50 films festivals in a given year and obviously a community to support them. I think we are nowhere close to a saturation point in Michigan for high-quality film festivals. It's important, however, as film festivals grow that they maintain high standards and provide great films. Otherwise audiences that are newer to the concept of film festivals may not gain an appreciation for the tremendous type of experience it can provide. The opportunity to attend a film festival and interact with the filmmakers is one of the strongest aspects. We're fortunate to have many of the filmmakers in attendance this year from around the world and more than a dozen premieres of new films.

AAFF went through some... shall we say, audience-challenged years... but has been on quite a roll lately. Now that local involvement and attendance are blossoming how do you plan to draw more interest from metro Detroit audiences, communities like Royal Oak, Birmingham, or Troy?

This year we hosted local screening salons that involved more than 250 people in our submission process, allowing them an opportunity to participate directly in the festival. We also presented three events in metro Detroit this past fall, including a new collaboration with MOCAD called Shadowbox Cinema.

I believe that relationships are integral in the film world and that connections can generate a multiplier effect. We participate actively in our local and regional communities. Last year I represented the AAFF in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Buffalo, Traverse City, Midland, and Boston. This extra outreach has led to new relationships and as a result we are seeing more people attend from those cities.

So, you took over as executive director of the AAFF about a year and a half ago. What new ideas have you brought to the program this year, and what do you hope to bring in the coming years? Anything revolutionary on the horizon?

This year's program is going to feature more live performances with film, media and music. We're excited to share the world premiere of a live musical score, written and performed by experimental hip hop star Flying Lotus, to the 1962 avant-garde animation classic Heaven & Earth Magic. We commissioned this new work and plan to continue collaborations in the future with musicians scoring films at the festival. Local musician Frank Pahl is going to premiere a new score with his "Little Bang Theory" performing on toy instruments to a 26-minute 1933 silent film titled The Mascot as the finale of our Saturday morning "The Kids Are Alright" program (recommended for ages six and up). Montreal-based artist Daniel Barrow will perform a "manual animation" program, which combines live drawing, overhead projection, music, video and old-fashioned storytelling. We're also excited to share Time Machine at the UMMA auditorium, which is an interactive media performance by Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat.

In 2010 we will continue to build our traveling tour (more than 35 cities visited in 2009) and will produce our third DVD collection of short films, both of which directly support the participating filmmakers. These initiatives extend our impact beyond one week of the year and more widely promote Ann Arbor as an epicenter for the art of film and new media.

Looking to the horizon I see an opportunity for the festival to become a bigger destination festival for those around the world interested in the art form of film and new media. I also see opportunities to create more year-round programming, educational workshops and the creation of an Ann Arbor Film Festival archive. With increasing community support, a growing regional film culture and our 50th anniversary approaching, these are real opportunities. This is an exciting time for our organization.

The Michigan Film Incentive has been a bit of a hot button issue for some. There is no doubt, however, that the industry is growing here. What do you think of the incentive and does AAFF benefit from it?

I was initially skeptical of the film incentives, but I've seen many positive benefits across all types of industries. Colleagues of mine in L.A. now have Michigan on their radar and friends in San Francisco have flown here to do production work. I see the skilled work force here in southeast Michigan coming together well with our state's many natural attributes for film productions. Our festival, though not industry-focused, has benefited by the increased interest in film and our region's growing film culture.

I know you're not supposed to play favorites... but if I had to recommend three festival events to my family --who aren't exactly cinephiles-- what would you suggest?

Yes, it's true I don't have favorites in our festival - I'm excited about all 40 programs that we are presenting. I also recognize that not every program will appeal to everyone the same. I would strongly recommend Opening Night, which will engage anyone with a pulse. It's one of our biggest programs of the festival, with an electric atmosphere in the Michigan Theater, a lively reception (with music, catering, open bar) and a screening of memorable short films.

The Matt McCormick feature narrative Some Days Are Better Than Others is strongly story-based and will appeal to most moviegoers. It's playing in our smaller Screening Room and will likely sell out, so advance tickets are highly recommended.

The documentary Expansive Grounds is also recommended. It's a provocative examination of Berlin's new Holocaust memorial and the complex issues it raises for German cultural identity across generations. The film is preceded by Salt, a stunning self-portrait of famed photographer Murray Fredericks in the sensory-deprived salt flats of Australia's outback.

Of course I must also make a hard pitch for everyone to turn on their sense of adventure during the AAFF. Some of the greatest rewards will be experienced in some of the least buzzed about programs, especially our films in competition shorts programs

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