New Leadership at the Ann Arbor Film Festival Eyes Next Gen of Filmgoer

Leslie Raymond and the Ann Arbor Film Festival go way back. Raymond recalls stopping by the AAFF office for the first time in 1992, shortly after she completed her bachelor's degree in film and video at the Rhode Island School of Design.
"I just went over from Vicki's Wash and Wear Haircuts over to the film festival office, and introduced myself and asked if there was any way I could help," she says. "I remember posting a lot of posters up all over metro Detroit and hanging out and watching a lot of films."
After two ensuing decades in which she's exhibited numerous works and participated in various panels at AAFF, Raymond last month stepped into a fresh role as the festival's director. She brings with her not only extensive personal experience with the event, but also enthusiasm for an expanding interpretation of the term "film festival." 
In her own work, Raymond has segued from the traditional celluloid filmmaking she learned in school to a variety of "new media" experiments that incorporate live performance, digital video and non-traditional presentation methods.
"When I went back to school in '97, I went because I wanted to get in on the digital thing," she says. "I felt a responsibility as an artist, as a creator of culture, that I needed to understand what this was that's coming down the pipeline."
Jason Jay Stevens, Raymond's husband and frequent artistic collaborator, says that's a brave move for an artist trained in traditional filmmaking.
"From the outside that might not seem like a big change, but from the inside it's a huge step," Stevens says. "It really was a change in media, not unlike a painter deciding to go into sculpture."
The AAFF itself has slowly adapted to new media, accepting digital submissions for the first time less than ten years ago. Raymond says it's important for the festival to keep an open mind towards the current range of new media and whatever is coming next.
"In our mission statement it says that we are supporting the artistic production of film and new media," she says. "I think that there are a lot of people working with new media who don't have the festival on their radar, and vice versa. I would like to try to bridge that gap."
Raymond says the festival has developed an "international reputation" over its 50-plus years, but that it's thrived here because Ann Arborites understand and appreciate that there's "a political component" to telling stories in a non-mainstream way.
"We see so much mainstream media," she says. "Whether it's going to see a blockbuster movie or watching the news, those sorts of mainstream outlets are influenced by economic and political mechanisms, and I think that's something that Ann Arbor in particular understands."
However, Raymond notes several key groups AAFF needs to better engage with going forward. One of those is the festival's flagging membership. "Membership gives people a place to really plug in," she says. "We need to build it back up. I don't think a lot of attention has been given to that."
That should help address what Vicki Honeyman, who was AAFF's director back when Raymond was still an intern, describes as Raymond's greatest challenge. "Money," Honeyman says. "It's always a challenge. I think she definitely won't have issues with getting people to attend the festival, but finding funding is always hard."
Raymond says she also hopes to reach out further to metro Detroit film critics and entertainment writers. Although AAFF merits an annual preview piece in some local print outlets, writers generally don't attend the festival to cover the event or review films. 
"We would like to develop relationships with writers who want to come back year after year, and cover it in depth," Raymond says.
Tom Long says AAFF's press outreach has varied over his years as a film critic at the Detroit News. He generally writes an annual preview of AAFF, incorporating reviews of several festival films if he receives advance screening copies. Long says that while he's been to the festival "a few times" himself, its "sheer breadth" can be daunting, and a more general preview-style piece serves readers best.
"If I review The Avengers, the next day you can go see The Avengers," he says. "If I review something at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, it's toast. The next day, it's gone. The review is of almost no use."
Raymond also makes note of wanting to better engage a group particularly dear to her own heart: local artists. AAFF has previously featured dedicated programs of local work (and Raymond's work has been among them), but she says there's a fine line between incorporating local films into the festival and spotlighting them in a program of their own.
"I don't know that it's dialed in right now," Raymond says. "I think they have tried a lot of things. It is important that we celebrate our regional talent and, if we are going to separate it out, that we do it in a way that distinguishes it instead of there being any chance of that feeling of ghettoization."
Jen Proctor is an Ann Arbor filmmaker and teacher whose work has been shown in the festival; she also serves on the festival's screening committee. Although she commends Raymond's approach to engaging area artists, she says it may not even be necessary to spotlight local films every year.
"The festival is a rigorous and prestigious festival, and I think that kind of rigor and prestige should apply to the regional filmmakers as well," Proctor says. "Even though we have great filmmakers in this state, they're not necessarily making work every year."
To keep that "rigorous and prestigious festival" going strong, Raymond knows she has a case to make with the next generation of festival-goers and with traditional moviegoers who may think experimental film isn't for them. She says it's a "deeply seated, personal mission" of hers to actively engage the public in art, citing the increasingly popular "Museum 2.0" idea of involving museum visitors through new technology, hands-on experience and social media feedback. Experimental film isn't just for diehards, she says; anyone could enjoy it, as long as they're made to feel welcome.
"The whole contemporary art world is this very strange entity," she says. "And with that, the film festival can fall into this category where your average Joe is like, 'That's a little weird. I don't really understand that, so I'm not even going to bother.' I think artists have alienated the general public, but I really feel like it's the responsibility of artists to reach out to the general public and invite them in."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a member of the Detroit Film Critic's Society.

All photos by Doug Coombe