OpEd: Makers need an audience

One of my missions as an artist and educator has been to tear down the perceived barrier of entry to art. Now, as the Ann Arbor Film Festival executive director, I continue to aspire to this ideal.

Jennifer Reeder, whose film "A Million Miles Away" won the 52nd Ann Arbor Film Festival Eileen Maitland Award, says: "People need art. We need to either express ourselves, or to absorb expression. We need literature, we need music, we need filmmaking, we need art which is totally outside of the way which we normally express ourselves. You don't need to be someone who is a maker. The makers need the audience."

Evidence shows that engaging with art, as a maker or a viewer, can have positive mental and physical health benefits. A study published by the Arts Council of England shows that engagement with the arts is associated with longer life expectancy.

With the rewards of viewing so close at hand, the good news is that if you like movies, you will surely discover something to like at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

It's one of the best opportunities to see a world-wide variety of viewpoints on film. Most of the filmmakers are independent, one-of-a-kind artists, and venues such as the AAFF are the only place to see their unique works. The films we show are from familiar genres - action, narrative, animation, drama, comedy, thriller, documentary. They extend the language of the movies beyond the mainstream and commercial forms that we all know so well. The array of stories brought to the screen are diverse, both in content and in the telling. A story might be simply that one thing happens, then something else happens. A story might also be what happens when we push what is possible in the medium. 

Over the years, many filmmakers who have shown work at the AAFF have pursued successful careers in Hollywood. A film by the next George Lucas (director of THX-1138 and Star Wars), Gus Van Sant (director of Elephant and Drugstore Cowboy), Jay Cassidy (editor of American Hustle and An Inconvenient Truth), or John Nelson (visual effects for Gladiator and I, Robot) could be shown at the next AAFF.

Everybody is encouraged to reflect into each film whatever it is that you see. All thoughts, feelings, memories, and other associations that come up are valid. Just as Martin Luther pointed out in the 16th century, an intermediary is not necessary to access the divine. Everybody comes to the films with their own history. Just watch with an open mind and you will be rewarded with insights into shared human experiences and individual differences.

The films open a space not only for reflection but for conversation as well. Festival founder George Manupelli envisioned that the structure of the Festival would contain the values and the purposes of the Festival. With approximately 300 films submitted each year in its early days, a group of individuals would review the work to help determine what would play during Festival week. George "asked that not only did they watch every frame of every film submitted, but that they only meet as a group, a minimum of four people at a time so that discussion could take place and some educational process would happen."

See things in a way that you hadn't before. Discover something new about the world or about yourself. Feel connected to others in the community through dialogue.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival has been around for over 50 years, fascinating, challenging, enchanting, even appalling and often surprising tens of thousands of viewers - some have been attending for decades. It's an event that is a highlight of Michigan's cultural year. The uninitiated owe it to themselves to sample its offerings. The entry cost is minimal. The benefits could be life-changing.

Leslie Raymond has been the Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival since the autumn of 2013. An experimental media artist for over 25 years and professor in digital art for fourteen, Raymond began her relationship with the Ann Arbor Film Festival as an intern during AAFF #30, in 1992. 
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