Blog: Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison is Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the longest-running independent and experimental film festival in North America. Since he joined the festival in 2007, the AAFF has doubled in size, increased its audience by over 50%, expanded its traveling tour programs to more than 35 cities, and produced its first three DVD collections of short, award-winning films.

Donald, a native of Southfield, Mich., spent 10 years in San Francisco focused on film, music, creativity and community. He worked for several years as a non-profit arts manager at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, where he also studied documentary and experimental filmmaking (FAF is now part of the SFFS). Prior to his filmmaking pursuits Donald served for several years as director of momentum for One World Music, an experiential creativity and leadership training company based in Oakland, Calif.

Donald earned his B.A. in social psychology from the University of Michigan and received an Alden B. Dow Creativity Fellowship in 2006. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Michigan Theater Aurora Picture Show in Houston, Tex. He also is a volunteer for Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone, working to establish a teen-run video program.

Donald Harrison - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3 - Ann Arbor Illuminated: 50th Anniversary of the AAFF

There are more than 1,000 film festivals in the United States. In fact, there are so many there's now an annual film festival summit,  which even offers a certification program for film festival professionals. What started as an independent alternative to the theatrical movie system is now becoming an industry unto itself.

As the Ann Arbor Film Festival nears its 50th anniversary, its unique and trailblazing role in the landscape of independent cinema enters into the foreground. The AAFF is the oldest festival in North America dedicated to independent and experimental film. It was started in 1963 by George Manupelli at the University of Michigan campus to provide a platform for independent filmmakers and artists to share their non-commercial work with audiences. Ann Arbor's annual celebration of cinema struck a chord in the community and began drawing enthusiastic crowds to see the risk-taking, ground breaking, sometimes controversial films of artists such as Kenneth Anger, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and hundreds of others. From its earliest days the AAFF provided a meaningful home for independent filmmakers well before "independent film" became a movement in the late 1980s.

The world of movies and media has changed dramatically since the first 16mm films illuminated a smoke-filled Lorch Hall during the 1st Ann Arbor Film Festival. Motion pictures have migrated to video, cable TV, airplanes, the internet, and mobile devices (and smoking is now banned across the state's public venues, not just in movie theaters). Yet nearly 50 years and thousands of films later, the AAFF continues as a stalwart of artist-made, non-commercial and avant-garde cinema. Despite political attacks, funding cuts, and economic pressures, its purpose remains remarkably intact: to serve as a critical forum that supports independent, experimental filmmakers and to engage audiences with rewarding, challenging, visionary films.

I see a great opportunity ahead for Ann Arbor as our film festival approaches its 50th season, taking place March 27 – April 1, 2012. I picture a community ready to celebrate film as a dynamic and vital art form. I envision a city honoring its robust, radical, and long-running heritage within film culture. I look forward to exploring some of the AAFF's unparalleled cinema history with hundreds of talented filmmakers from all over the world, surrounded by tens of thousands of enthusiastic audience-goers. And, of course, I see a festival fully charged with cutting-edge films, moving art installations, educational events, memorable parties, and creative surprises.

As the 50th AAFF approaches, the international film and art worlds will turn their gaze to Ann Arbor as a pioneer of independent film culture. I invite each of you to embrace this and fully immerse yourself in our weeklong event, honoring film as an art form during the upcoming 49th festival, March 22 – 27, 2011.

Post 2: Film Beyond the Formulas

I am not a film snob*. I believe that film is an art form that should be appreciated and experienced by everyone. But what does this mean "film as an art form?" Aren't all movies art?

Today we are spoon fed formula-based media on almost every screen we see. Think about the last movie, TV show, web video, or commercial you saw that did not have a clear point of view, story or soundtrack designed to cue your feelings. Find that hard to do? Most of us have become so accustomed to receiving media as passive viewers that it's become normal, expected, and prescribed.

Enter experimental film: beautifully nuanced landscapes that widen your attention span; flickering, vivid, abstract images; animation techniques you can't even describe; dynamic edits and layers, free form and fragmentary clips; evocative soundtracks or sometimes no sound; no plot; no characters; no clear point of view. Finding yourself in unfamiliar territory? Artists exploring what's possible with the art form of film are only limited by what can be presented on a screen.

I believe that we need more intervention in what we see and hear on the screen. We need to not only become more comfortable challenging ourselves as active viewers, but we need to embrace it, work at it and get used to thinking actively with films. Ask most teachers and they'll tell you the most powerful learning comes when the students' synapses fire and they "get it" on their own. I believe that same holds true with films that invite us to enter their reality and have our own individual experiences.

In my last post I argued that Hollywood's running out of original ideas. Recent evidence in a Newsweek article points to a growing creativity crisis in the United States. I suspect these are related, as our country places a high priority on commercial success as a measuring stick for artists and getting the "right" answer in the classroom. Where is the room for risk-taking, imagination, experimentation, discovery, and failure?

I believe that many people are ready for more than spoon fed media formulas. They're hungry for more original fare when it comes to film, TV and what they encounter on the screen.

In recent critics' polls, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was practically a consensus "film of the decade". It's a movie that disrupts the conventional narrative formula it follows. Avant-garde Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest non-linear feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (his short film based on this feature also won an award at the 48th Ann Arbor Film Festival). Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's unconventional western, Meek's Cutoff, received the most critics' praise recently at the Toronto Film Festival.

So what does it mean that Jackass 3D screened at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC? I think adventurous times lie ahead for film-going audiences. I certainly hope we are willing to embrace the challenges, risks, and rewards offered by filmmakers pursuing their full artistic visions.

* Film snobbery - a definition

Post 1: Michigan Plays Los Angeles

Are you starstruck yet?

Since passing the nation's most attractive film incentives in 2008, we've seen more than 80 feature film projects shoot in Michigan. It's clearly excited a regional interest in film culture, whether or not you believe the incentives are an effective economic tactic for our state.

I'm not here to argue the pros and cons of the film incentives, although I do believe that our new governor should give them a full five years before determining their merits (as articulated recently by Mitch Albom). We have a long history of filmmaking here in Southeastern Michigan (e.g., the Jam Handy Organization) and I believe that we should focus on rekindling our region's spirit of imagination, innovation and original thinking. We need to cultivate our own culture of creative artists and enthusiastic audiences.

Although Hollywood has flocked to Michigan to produce their films, they're also running short of new good ideas. Have you noticed the wave of recycled film titles recently? There are more than 86 movie sequels in development or production in 2010 including: Alien 5, Evil Dead 4, Blair Witch Project 3, Avatar 2...and, Friday the 13th Part II, the sequel to the remake! Oh, and a childhood favorite of mine, Gremlins, is now slated for Gremlins 3 (in 3D of course!).

I'm also not here to argue that we should boycott derivative Hollywood movies or sequels. Some of these are entertaining and have their merits. I am, however, challenging our community to look beyond the stars to deepen our appreciation and understanding of film as an art form. Let’s become a region that makes and seeks movies which offer more than just a business plan and box office goals.

As director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of our area's most internationally renowned cultural events, I am motivated to spark the imagination of film-goers and deepen the quality of film culture in our community. Our festival serves as one of the largest forums for cutting-edge, experimental, and truly independent cinema in North America. We celebrate and support filmmakers as artists, providing a stage for those bold enough to dream and create beyond commercial considerations.

In this difficult economic climate I can understand our region's focus on building the creative class and seeing the arts as part of business revitalization efforts. I do argue, however, for the importance of cultivating a culture that supports artists who are creating non-commercial, imaginative, and even radical new work. I believe there is value in developing artists who inspire with their ideas and not with their business savvy. I doubt that any great, influential films started with a budget and a marketing plan.

As I look around Southeastern Michigan, I see an area that has the right ingredients to play more than a back stage role for Hollywood. Our region has a long tradition of innovation, leadership, strong work ethic, and producing great ideas. I believe that now is the time to build an active, robust and vibrant local film & arts culture. That's the foundation for dreamers to become doers and for a creative renaissance to begin.

Whether the studio film industry is here to stay or not, let's use this opportunity to kick start our own film culture and inspire our collective imagination. Catch an art house gem at the Michigan Theater or Detroit Film Theater. Get more adventurous with indie fare at the Burton Theatre in Detroit or Hott Lava happenings in Ann Arbor. Start your own film collective, host screenings, take video editing and production classes, or just start making and showing your own work. And, of course, don't miss your annual chance to get inspired, challenged and rewarded by film as an art form at the 49th Ann Arbor Film Festival – March 22 – 27, 2011.