Ann Arbor Film Festival's 60th anniversary will address historic omissions and look to the future

The festival will include programs highlighting women and LGBTQ+ filmmakers, who were overlooked in the event's early years, while also working to build a more inclusive future.
When a person reaches a milestone birthday, they inevitably reflect on their life's highlights thus far, as well as some mistakes made along the way.

So it should come as no surprise that North America's oldest annual avant-garde and experimental film event, the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF), will be doing the same as it hits the six-decade mark this month. The 60th AAFF will take place March 22-27 at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater for the first time since 2019, with some programming also available online.

"It's a big year, but we're still in a pandemic, so we've tried to not get too wound up about trying to have a big, blowout, crazy celebration," says AAFF Director Leslie Raymond. "I just think it's great that we're going to be back in the theater this year. … And in terms of celebrating our history, it's the special programs that will really be telling our story, and those will only be available at the in-person festival."
The Ann Arbor Film Festival at the Michigan Theater in 2018.
About 150 films will be screened in competition at the festival, chosen from a pool of nearly 2,900 submissions from over 90 countries. Three distinguished filmmakers will judge the festival, distributing a total of $23,000 in prizes. This competition is the beating heart of AAFF, but there are always numerous accompanying events, including special programs that will highlight both AAFF's history and its future ambitions.

"We'll be acknowledging historic absences," Raymond says.

Examining the past

One of those historic absences, particularly in AAFF's early years, is women filmmakers. In response to those past omissions, this year an AAFF program focused on Women Make Movies (WMM) – a New York City-based organization founded by Ariel Dougherty and Sheila Page with Dolores Bargowski in 1972 – will showcase some of the organization's earliest works.

"There was no roadmap for what we were doing back then," says Dougherty, who will present WMM's program. " … We were trying to tell women's everyday kind of stories. Some of that came out of the fact that both Sheila Page and I spent three or four years teaching young kids and teenagers filmmaking. And we knew that they made really interesting, different kinds of stories that weren't available anywhere in cinema. We thought a community of women could do the same kind of thing. That was the experiment."

WMM is now primarily a distributor of women's films, but the organization began as a training ground, providing women with tools and instruction, but also encouragement and the freedom to play. (The films generally had no script and featured non-actors.)

"We were not aspiring to be Hollywood," Dougherty says. " … One of the things I've only learned in the last 10 years or so is how experimental the work was. We didn't consider it experimental when we were doing it."
Women Make Movies in 1974.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ filmmakers have been celebrated at AAFF through a dedicated award since 1997, and the fest has offered a popular LGBTQ+ competition program called Out Night since 2001. But this year a special program, called "A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth: Out Histories at the Ann Arbor Film Festival," will aim a spotlight on queer films that have played at AAFF throughout its run. (Conveniently, it's scheduled immediately after this year's Out Night program on Thursday night.)

"There's a world in which we could have just programmed all films from the '70s as 'buried queer treasures,'" says Sean Donovan, curator of both Out Night and "A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth." "But in terms of inclusivity and representation, the festival has improved over the years. There really weren't many films by trans filmmakers, or that acknowledged trans voices, until the last 10 years or so, so that was a very important thing to include in the historical program."

AAFF has even experienced growing pains in regard to the medium of film itself. AAFF was exclusively a 16mm film festival until 2003, when it started accepting 35mm films. In 2004, it expanded to include video and digital formats.

"(The change) did not come without a lot of inner struggle," Raymond says. 
Ann Arbor Film Festival Out Night curator Sean Donovan.
One special program, "Sadie Benning: Pixelvisions," gets at the tension surrounding these media. Sadie Benning is the daughter of filmmaker James Benning, whose work has been featured at AAFF in the past. As a teenager, Sadie Benning filmed some video diaries with a Fisher-Price Pixelvision 2000 – a low-resolution children's camera that used audio cassettes and was only briefly available. That footage will be included in the "Pixelvisions" program.

"When she was producing that, we weren't there yet," Raymond says. "We weren't accepting video."

Another program, called "AAFF x Video Data Bank: Medium Meet Medium," will aim to bridge the gap between film and video works. The program offered an opportunity for recent University of Michigan grad Emily Martin to marry her past work as an AAFF programming assistant intern (and later screening committee member) with her current work as distribution and communications assistant at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Video Data Bank (VDB). VDB acts as a distributor and archive for moving image/video art.

"The program showcases both video and film work, and tries to bring the two mediums into conversation with one another," Martin says. " … There's this tension between film and video, and that comes up in a general historical sense, but also in an institutional sense, like the way film festivals are structured, or (the way) distribution companies for this kind of work are structured."

AAFF will also reminisce this year by way of a program called "A Mind-Bending Education: 30+ Years of Interns at AAFF," wherein attendees will hear about different paths taken by past AAFF interns; and a screening of AAFF founder George Manupelli's classic film "Dr. Chicago."

Looking to the future

For all the focus on the past at this year's festival, there are also some new and noteworthy developments. AAFF is paying all of its filmmakers for their work for the second year in a row, and this year's payment will be twice as much as last year's (fulfilling Raymond's stated goal). For the second year in a row, there was a reduced submission fee for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) filmmakers, in the interest of diversity, inclusion, and greater representation at the festival. Raymond notes that the festival shows diverse work from around the world, but George Floyd's murder and the ensuing widespread protests prompted AAFF to do more to support BIPOC filmmakers.

"We want to open the doors and welcome new voices and include them," Raymond says.

Raymond has been working hard to move the festival forward, despite losing several staffers during the pandemic.
Ann Arbor Film Festival Director Leslie Raymond.
"I have struggled a lot just trying to stay on top of things and keep some creative energy flowing," Raymond says. " … We're as tiny and scrappy as we've ever been. But I was a teaching artist for 14 years before I started with the film festival. I don't have business acumen, or whatever it is you need to take this to the next level."

So, as the 60th AAFF approaches, Raymond is putting a call out to the local community. 

"We really need support and help to figure out how to evolve our organization to actually be sustainable," Raymond says. 

Fortunately, though, finding groundbreaking, memorable work to present at the festival never seems to be a problem. 

"I wish we had an extra week," Raymond says. "We had so much good work come in the door this year. It's going to be an incredible festival."

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.