OpEd: Detroit and Ann Arbor, Partners In Film

Elliot Wilhelm is the director of the Detroit Film Theatre series at the Detroit Institute of Arts since 1973, and has been Curator of Film at the DIA since 1984. He has also been the host of the weekly Detroit Public television program “Film Festival” since 1995.

While I've been informally known for forty-plus years as the "Detroit movie guy," and before that as the kid who started the Wayne (State) Cinema Guild, the fact is that much of what inspired me to spend the better part of my life exhibiting films in one of the world's great theaters – which happens to exist within one of the world's great museums – is due in large part to experiences I had in Ann Arbor many years before.

I must have been 11 or 12 years old when my best friend's father took the two of us – as a special treat – to a movie one Saturday evening at the Ann Arbor Cinema Guild. The film was Duck Soup. It not only started my lifelong love affair with the Marx Brothers, but the experience of seeing the movie with a packed auditorium full of alert, enthusiastic, wonderfully responsive moviegoers turned out to be seminal. 

Just as important an experience for me was entering a film I made into the Ann Arbor 8mm Film Festival at Canterbury House when I was 16 years old – the 8mm Festival being an offshoot of the legendary (and still vital) Ann Arbor Film Festival. My 3-minute film was named the 8mm winner (not Super 8 mind you, but REAL 8mm), and I received a fifty-dollar check as a prize. I immediately retired – undefeated - from filmmaking after that honor, yet Ann Arbor would for me remain forever associated with the cinema: classic films, experimental films, independent films, and, above all, audiences that were open and alive to the experience of moviegoing and all of its infinite possibilities.

It's no wonder, then, that I'm so delighted that Detroit is now a part of these early years of the already-amazing Cinetopia International Film Festival, the brainchild of the invaluable Russ Collins, director of the equally invaluable Michigan Theater.

Cinetopia – the Cinematic Utopia – exists, of course, as a state of mind rather than any specific geographical location. Why, then, shouldn't it grow to become more accessible and available to all film enthusiasts in the region? As critic Pauline Kael once remarked, "people will often use any excuse to NOT go to a movie." The existence of Cinetopia in both cities effectively removes one of those excuses. A big one. After all, even though it's a short hop between Detroit and AA, and though Cinetopia is a great excuse for residents of one place to visit the other, the reality is that most moviegoers will probably choose the festival experience closest to them. And while there are slight differences in film choices in each city (we're proud to be hosting the Detroit Voices program, for example), this third year of Cinetopia will bring – for the first time – a true "festival village" feel to the Detroit manifestation of Cinetopia. 

With screenings in two theatres at the DIA, as well as at College for Creative Studies, The Charles Wright Museum, Cinema Detroit and the Science Center, festivalgoers can walk from one screening to the next, virtually without down time, while grabbing a bite at one of the food carts or restaurants in the area. As Jean-Pierre Léaud said in Day For Night, "Look at all these films! If we're lucky we'll have time to grab a sandwich, instead of wasting time in some half-baked bistro."

Detroit, perhaps the most interesting city in North America right now, is ready, as it always has been, for new cultural experiences. This city's moviegoers have unwaveringly supported the DIA's adventurous film programming experiment – the Detroit Film Theatre – for four decades, and I'm convinced that a full-throttle international film festival like Cinetopia is the logical and inevitable next step. We're a big city, a great city, and we deserve a great film festival. Now we have one. It's up to all of us to make it work.