MASTERMIND: Christen McArdle

After four years working in the film industry in star-soaked Los Angeles, Cleveland native Christen McArdle was hungry for a little reality. Her Midwestern upbringing told her it was out there somewhere, but it sure wasn’t in L.A. So when a good friend moved to Michigan in 2005, McArdle made a couple of calls. That fall she moved to Ann Arbor, the new executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Before long McArdle was up to her eyeballs in a Midwestern reality that tested her convictions and threatened the film festival’s very existence.

Days before the 2006 festival opened, a state legislator took issue with the content of some of the festival’s films, spurring debate about whether or not the festival - traditionally a beneficiary of Michigan Council for the Arts and Civic Affairs funding - should be using state money.

“I was curious about the ethos and the state of the Midwest,” said McArdle. “Honestly, it was the perfect example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ I’m not especially politically active, I was just wondering where the culture is. And now I know.”

The state withdrew money it had already granted the festival and threatened to cut the AAFF off from future arts funding, too. Rather than compromise the festival’s international reputation for edgy and experimental independent film, the AAFF board decided to stop applying for state funding – or any other money with strings attached.

Suddenly McArdle was at the center of a raging free speech debate with more than $20,000 on the line and no room in the budget to absorb such a blow.

Some encouraged her to quietly go with the flow. Tone down the festival’s content; take the state’s money. Or close the doors and let the event, now in its 46th year, fade away.

“Don’t make waves,” they told her. “You’re not from here. You don’t know how we do things.”

That didn’t cut it with McArdle, who’s heard about the “way things are done” so often since coming to Ann Arbor that she keeps her “I respect that, but…” handy on all occasions.

“I’d like to see people take more risks and have less fear when they’re making decisions,” she said. "I think Michigan needs to embrace change a little more; I think they hold onto history a little too much. History should be respected, but change is important in these times."

For a span of several months in 2007 the festival was all but broke. McArdle worked the phones day after day, raising money to cover paychecks so she and the rest of the staff could buy groceries.

Determined to have some fun despite the dire financial situation, McArdle and staffers Chris Csont and Donald Harrison devised a fundraising campaign built around pure, brazen silliness. The Endangered campaign raised $75,000 in four months.

In exchange for donations made on the festival’s website, staff and volunteers agreed to perform a random act of audacity, as chosen by donors’ votes. They toured downtown Ann Arbor in big hair and tight pants for Glam Rock Karaoke, and staged a badminton game with Detroit Roller Derby girls and people dressed as giant animals. If you missed it, check YouTube.

“I didn’t want it to be predictable,” McArdle said. “The staff created the campaign by bouncing ideas off each other and I gave the green light for absurdity.”

The campaign pulled the festival out of debt, and - after the festival and the ACLU filed suit - the state changed its arts funding guidelines in December. Around the same time, Variety listed the Ann Arbor Film Festival as one of ten favorites in the world.

“I’m not sorry any of this happened,” she said. “A lot of good came out of it.”

But in the meantime, McArdle has been so busy with the film festival that she's had few chances to explore the corner of Michigan she now calls home. A classically trained musician, she performs on viola at venues around the country, when she's not out preserving other people's artistic expression.

She appreciates the sense of community she's found in Ann Arbor, something distinctly different from the atmosphere in Los Angeles, or even in the town where she grew up.

“There's an awareness people have here, and an investment, she said. "People will go out of their way to do things for the quality of their community.”

And she can look back now and laugh about coming from California – what she was looking for and what she found. Things could have gone much, much differently for the film festival, but you get the feeling for McArdle there was really only one option.

“When I think about (the choice of artistic ideals over state money) its a personal thought.  It’s not ‘If I had done that, where would the festival be?’ It’s ‘If I had done that, who would I be?’”

The 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival will take place on March 25th through the 30th, 2008. It will showcase avant-garde, documentary and independent films from around the world.

Special guests include: Larry Flynt, cinematographer and documentarian Ellen Kuras, and NY artist Steve Kurtz, whose mistaken arrest by the FBI for bioterrorism will be featured in the documentary Strange Culture.

Filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, George Lucas, Gus Van Sant and Brian DePalma have all had their films shown at the Ann Arbor festival.

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to Concentrate and Metromode.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski.  Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.