Cool Jobs: Donald Harrison on filmmaking and his new Ypsi event space

Ypsilanti resident Donald Harrison has devoted most of his career to creative pursuits, first as executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) and now as an independent filmmaker and co-creator of an Ypsi arts venue. But Harrison found his way into the arts almost entirely by accident.

Harrison majored in social psychology at the University of Michigan (U-M). 
After graduating, he enrolled in a program that placed him in London. For six months, he interned in over a dozen different offices, one of which was the British Film Institute.

"Until then, I wasn't a film person or filmmaker," Harrison explains. "And it certainly wasn't anything I saw as being my profession. But while I was there, I helped run their film festival. While I thought it was interesting and fun, I had no idea how influential the experience would end up being for me."

Upon completing the internship, Harrison moved to the San Francisco Bay area. He did sales work there and worked for the Film Arts Foundation, which led him to begin making his own experimental documentaries. When the foundation fell victim to a changing economy in 2006, Harrison decided it was time to move back home to Michigan. A creativity fellowship in Midland allowed him to return to the state and make a short documentary about boogie-woogie music.

From there, Harrison returned to the Ann Arbor area and began making films. He volunteered at the Detroit Film Center and at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). Harrison reached out to AAFF just as the ACLU was suing the state of Michigan on the festival's behalf. He jumped onboard as a consultant, helping to stabilize the festival during the challenging but successful legal battle. Harrison then became AAFF's executive director, a position he held for four years. After completing a successful run, including the celebration of the festival's 50th anniversary, Harrison took another leap — this time into operating his own independent studio, 7Cylinders.

One of Harrison's favorite projects since striking out on his own is a video for the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) explaining the library's Summer Game. Fast-paced, irreverent, and packed with pop-culture references, the video won an American Library Association PR Xchange Award in 2015.

"(AADL) gave us a lot of creative license and really welcomed us to make something unique and creative," Harrison says.

At 7Cylinders, Harrison now works with lead editor and producer David Camlin. The duo has created micro-documentaries for the Huron River Watershed Council, including a film about climate change and another about fly fishing on the Huron River. Not all 7Cylinders' work is Washtenaw County-based though. For the film Tea in the Land of Thunder, Harrison joined representatives of Arbor Teas on a trip to meet their tea producers in Darjeeling, India. The film has made the rounds at five film festivals.

In addition to his own artistic exploits, Harrison recently co-created a new local space to house others' creative endeavors. Harrison and Mark Tucker (co-founder and creative director of FestiFools) were at a First Fridays event in December 2015 at Ypsi clothing boutique Mix when Mix owners Bonnie and Edward Penet mentioned that they had a small empty theater in the back of the store. Formerly the Mix Studio Theater, the space was up for rent.

"I was asking the question, 'What if we had a space that wasn't commercially dependent in responding to the pressures of running a business?'" Harrison says. "We were looking for an opportunity to have a space that didn't have to make decisions based on numbers or revenues and instead could be a gift for all of us to do the things we want to do."

Harrison says he and Tucker rented the space "almost on the spot," branding it the Ypsi Experimental Space, or YES. Many events have happened at YES since then. Most recently, the space hosted the Roustabout Theatre Troupe's play "Shakespeare, You Sexy Beast." The space has also hosted fundraising dinners, micro-cinema nights showing obscure documentaries, art shows, and artists' meetups responding to the presidential election.

"We are very interested in creating community, not just as a throwaway concept but by looking at what it means to bring people together across communities," Harrison says. "It's a lot like improv in that we say, 'Yes and,' and then see what happens."

A similar mentality seems to have defined Harrison's career, as he journeyed from London to San Francisco and finally to Ann Arbor and Ypsi.

"I'm one of those people who goes to the place where I want to live and figures it out from there," Harrison says. "My philosophy is to try as much as possible to do what I love for my work."
Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.