How the Ann Arbor Film Festival renewed its commitment to making experimental film relevant

When Leslie Raymond assumed executive directorship of the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) in 2013, she had deep concerns that the experimental festival had pursued a narrower audience than ever before.

Raymond, who has participated in the festival in various capacities since 1992, critiqued the festival in a 2009 blog. She expressed particular apprehension at the festival's increasing tendency to program screenings so that stylistically similar works were grouped together, a strategy that Raymond said "tries the patience of the generalist."

"Someone who does not make 'experimental' moving image art a central life interest becomes bored and restless," she wrote. "I admit that many of us who do love experimental work also get bored and restless. Trying to help the audience 'get it' becomes a moot point because people are getting impatient."

Raymond calls former AAFF program director David Dinnell "incredible." But when Dinnell departed the festival last year Raymond also saw an opportunity to push back against a vision that she says had "started to shift away from the foundation of the festival." For the 55th AAFF, which runs March 21-26, Raymond and new associate director of programs Katie McGowan have implemented multiple strategies to engage a broader swath of filmmakers and filmgoers.

"We happen to be in Ann Arbor, where we have this incredible, diverse, broad, interested audience who are wanting alternative music, alternative food, and alternative film fits right into that," Raymond says. "We want to serve that audience as well."

Democratizing the process

That effort began with some basic changes to the way AAFF selects the films it screens. McGowan notes that in recent years many festival films were curated, rather than being chosen by AAFF's cadre of screeners, who view and judge each film that's submitted to the festival. For this year's festival, Raymond and McGowan curtailed curated programs and reemphasized the role of the screening team. Each of this year's 2,500 submissions was viewed and judged by at least two screeners in a three-round process.

"I think that we have a renewed sense of trust and an importance that we're placing on the screening process," McGowan says. "It's open to multiple viewpoints and perspectives rather than just one program director."

After eight years screening films for AAFF, Robin Sober definitely noticed the difference this year. Although Sober says festival leadership didn't directly communicate the intention behind this year's changes, organizers sought input from the screening team about how to improve the screening process. She expresses particular appreciation for a new "buddy system" that encouraged screeners to communicate with those who were appraising the same submissions.

"It was sort of more of a community feeling, or like being part of something, because we could have more conversation," Sober says. "It felt more collaborative."

As Raymond and McGowan made the final picks from the resulting list of screener-approved films, they selected for diversity across the total pool of festival films and within individual programs. McGowan expresses particular satisfaction that this year's program features more humorous and "rambunctious" films.

"In recent years I think the festival has been a little quieter," she says. "I like a lot of those quiet films, but I think this year is a break from that in that we have a much wider variety."

"A tapestry of voices"

Festival leadership also sought to present a wider variety of not just films, but filmmakers, in this year's lineup. McGowan and Raymond were particularly interested in increasing representation of female filmmakers and filmmakers of color.

"Something we think a lot about is inclusion," McGowan says. "If we take a step away from our festival and look at festivals and at the business of cinema, it's too often white, straight males at the top. Given that we have the luxury of not engaging in the commercial film world, I think we also have this responsibility to make sure that a tapestry of voices are showcased."

This year the festival sought and received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to present programming representing the black diaspora. That programming will include a presentation by New York-based members of the New Negress Film Society, a collective of black female filmmakers. Detroiter Ingrid LaFleur will also curate a program entitled A Prerequisite for Rebellion, which will feature several films examining how black people respond to trauma inflicted by racist social systems.

"Rebellion isn't necessarily like a large historical moment, although there's plenty of those," says LaFleur, who is known locally for her multi-media series of "Afrotopia" events (and her recently announced run for mayor of Detroit). "What I'm referring to is more the personal ways of resisting white supremacy and really carving out spaces that are healthy for our black bodies and minds and our souls."

McGowan notes that Asian film will also be well represented at this year's AAFF, including an appearance by Taiwanese filmmaker Yuan Guangming and a screening of the 1926 Japanese film Page of Madness. She says she wants to remove the "blinders" that many Westerners have about the scope of experimental film.

"The experimental film world is too often portrayed as a monolithic medium or field, when really there are all different types of experimental film," she says. "We are really working hard to showcase those different styles nationally and internationally."

Moving forward by looking back

While there's a forward-thinking bent to this more open-minded approach to experimental film, it also marks something of a return to form for AAFF. Raymond was a devotee and personal friend of now-deceased AAFF founder George Manupelli – and it shows, according to Terri Sarris, a filmmaker and University of Michigan lecturer who has taught a class on AAFF's history.

"(Raymond is) really enthusiastic, really aware of and interested in maintaining the sort of things that drove George Manupelli in the early days: definitions of what experimental is, and a willingness to let that evolve and think about that in critical ways," Sarris says.

In the same blog post in which she criticized the festival's move towards specialist audiences back in 2009, Raymond recalled getting "teary-eyed" at a lecture Manupelli gave on AAFF that year, entitled "An Unauthorized History." She still references that presentation in articulating her own goals for the festival.

"(Manupelli) had a different vision for what the Ann Arbor Film Festival would be – that it would not be a tastemaking kind of a platform, but that it would be open," she says. "There were intentions to just encourage more people to get in on it and make movies. As long as there were people who wanted to make films, George wanted to show them."

Although broadening audience appeal is a common strategy to boost revenues or revive a flagging organization, Raymond says that's not the case for AAFF. The festival is the longest-running experimental film festival in North America and Raymond says attendance is accordingly robust, with an annual audience of 10,000. Her interest isn't in selling more tickets so much as bringing new faces to the table.

"It's about making art relevant," she says. "It's about helping open the door so that people can see it, experience it, find meaning in it for themselves personally. I think that, in the larger picture, is something we want to see with art in general in our culture."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

All photos by Doug Coombe.