Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti returns to original vision with three days of movies

The founders of the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti will finally realize their vision for a multi-day event dedicated to movies at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti June 2-4.
The founders of the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY) will finally realize their vision for a multi-day event dedicated to movies at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti June 2-4. Founders Martin Thoburn and Donald Harrison had to pivot to a mix of virtual and outdoor formats during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they're returning to their original vision for IFFY this year.

The festival's first season was set to launch a few weeks before the first COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, but had to pivot to a virtual format and a drive-in with Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority support later that summer. IFFY organizers focused on an outdoor event in 2021 as well, while simultaneously planning to come back bigger in 2022.
IFFY cofounder Donald Harrison.
"This year, we wanted to bring IFFY in its fullest form to the community, with all new films," Harrison says. 

IFFY evolves

The festival will present six collections of films over three days, including a mix of short films, a selection of the "best of" the London International Animation Festival, and a feature documentary, "Hamtramck, USA." The documentary's two creators will be in attendance for a question-and-answer session with the audience. IFFY 2022 will feature films from all over the globe as well as local creators.

This year IFFY brought on Natalia Rocafuerte as festival director, as part of its mission to transition from a Low-Profit Limited Liability Company (L3C) with a social mission to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

"Becoming a nonprofit is a more sustainable model for us to grow in the years ahead," Harrison says.  
IFFY festival director Natalia Rocafuerte.
Although she's originally from a border town in Texas, Rocafuerte says she found the Ypsilanti area "inviting and welcoming."

"I want to support what's happening here, and coming on as director for the third year of the festival is a great way to get involved in the Ypsilanti community through the arts, especially film, which is my passion," Rocafuerte says.

Harrison says that while the festival is being held in June this year, the plan was always for it to be a spring event, and IFFY staff hope to offer the festival in April in the future.

Programs from Michigan and around the globe

Thursday night kicks off with a program entitled "Michigan Made," followed by "Hamtramck, USA." Harrison says he's excited to bring "Hamtramck, USA" to IFFY and can relate to filmmakers Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman on a personal level.

"I released a feature film right as the first pandemic shutdown hit, and they've never had an in-person screening," he says. "It's a fantastic feature documentary, and having the filmmakers coming to IFFY might not have happened in other circumstances."

Toko Shiiki's short documentary "A Thousand Pebbles on the Ground" will be shown as part of "Michigan Made." Shiiki is an Ypsilanti Township resident and IFFY volunteer whose work was featured in the first IFFY. 

She says she really wanted to share the story of the film's main "character": her friend Roger, a Chinese-American medical worker on the front lines of the pandemic in Philadelphia. She says he's "fundamentally such a funny person," but he also shared his quieter, honest thoughts about his father passing away, tending to COVID patients, and dealing with anti-Asian bias.
Filmmaker Toko Shiiki.
"I thought it was interesting to share with people who don't know about Chinese-American persons so much. He's also working with COVID patients, and in between, this racial difficulty," Shiiki says. "There are all these multiple layers."

Her director's statement for the show encourages audiences to "rethink their prejudices against Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans."

Shiiki says that being a part of IFFY has helped connect her to other filmmakers in Michigan and elsewhere during a time when many people are feeling isolated.

"Especially because of the pandemic, people are so separated, isolated, and lonely," she says. "Talking with some of the filmmakers was motivating to me."

The two Friday evening programs are a selection of animated shorts from the London International Animation Festival, followed by the "Underground Picnic" program.
IFFY film programmer Hafsah Mijinyawa.
Films are curated collaboratively by IFFY staff and volunteers, but Rocafuerte was instrumental in putting together the "Underground Picnic" program featuring "queer and femme filmmaker artists."

"I wanted to bring in a lot of queer filmmakers and filmmakers of color, people from the borderlines," she says. "I am super excited and I have a lot of ideas for next year as well."

Saturday night features a program called "The Stars in Our Eyes," followed by a program called "Acoustic Convergence." "The Stars in Our Eyes" features short films that resulted from IFFY's first ever open call for submissions, which drew interest from more than 100 filmmakers, Rocafuerte says.

Harrison calls "Acoustic Convergence" "a really adventurous program."
Natalia Rocafuerte, Hafsah Mijinyawa, Toko Shiiki, and Donald Harrison at Riverside Arts Center.
"This year, we're excited to explore the acoustic within film and video," Harrison says. "For anyone interested in sound and video, it's a can't-miss."

After the past two years of the pandemic, Harrison says it'll be a significant change to watch movies on the big screen with other film enthusiasts.

"So much of our life has been on the smaller screen, so being able to be back in the theater, feeling the acoustics, watching movies, and being in a space together is really meaningful," Harrison says.

Tickets for each of the six programs are $8 each in advance or $10 at the door. Festival details and advance tickets can be found here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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