Ypsi film festival returns with horror and international programs, filmmaking workshops, and more

This season, the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti will feature 10 film programs, two free and two paid public workshops, a gallery video installation, discussions with filmmakers, and a live listening event.
When independent filmmaker Micah Vanderhoof returned to Ypsilanti after living several years on the West Coast, she was dismayed to find out that the city still didn’t have a local movie theater similar to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater.

"It can root a community and bring people together," she says. "It’s a founding place for a city."

It turns out she wasn’t alone in wanting to build a cinematic community in Ypsi. Four years ago, Ypsi filmmakers Donald Harrison and Martin Thoburn were discussing ways to bring more film, and more filmmakers, to Ypsi. From there, the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti, or iFFY, was born. 

"When we brought a single film program in 2019, we sold out," Harrison says of iFFY’s humble beginnings. "People we didn’t know showed up. They were excited and had a great time. We knew this could work."

While the first three years of the festival did work, even with online and drive-in screenings during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harrison and the rest of the iFFY team expect this year to be bigger than ever. The four-day festival will take place April 19-22 at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in downtown Ypsi, having found a home there after 2022’s festival. iFFY will be presented this year not just by a team of filmmakers, but by a nonprofit. The festival received 501(c)(3) status at the end of 2022.
iFFY cofounder Donald Harrison.
"We have a group of six people who are all involved in making decisions to connect to the community and beyond," Harrison says. "This is the year to get more people connected and caring about it. The potential is huge."

This season, iFFY will feature 10 film programs, two free and two paid public workshops, a gallery video installation, discussions with filmmakers, and a live listening event, titled "Movies For Your Ears," presented by Michigan-based audio production collective Radio Campfire. Workshops at the festival will include Detroit-based filmmaker Garrett Sammons’ free workshops on filmmaking on a budget and using free online AI tools in the filmmaking process, as well as animator Gary Schwartz’s "Kinda Iffy" puppeteering workshop. Workshops are designed to connect attendees with the filmmaking process in addition to film screenings.

"We’re broadening and diversifying the scope of the festival. Part of that is doing workshops in high schools and local community centers like Corner Health [Center]," says Vanderhoof, the festival's operations manager. "We’re hosting hands-on workshops, critical analysis workshops. We want to make sure folks are chewing on everything."

The festival's programs are also designed to open attendees' minds. Vanderhoof curated a program called "Hauntologies," which she hopes will make viewers question what horror as a film genre can really look like. 

"I definitely want to refocus the genre but also broaden what people sometimes make of it," she explains. "It gets pigeonholed a little bit into stereotypes, but I feel like horror can be transformative and challenging without being too terribly abstract."
iFFY Operations Manager Micah Vanderhoof.
Vanderhoof gives two examples of films from the program that show "how everyday things can be horrifying in a relatable way": director Asuka Lin’s cyberpunk film "AI Mama," about a programmer attempting to resurrect their dead mother through AI; and the animated "Everybody Goes To The Hospital," a look into writer/director Tiffany Kimmel's mother’s traumatic experience in the hospital.

Harrison says the iFFY team has a strong sense of collaboration with the festival's featured filmmakers, with some of those filmmakers making their way into the team itself.

Toko Shiiki, who showed her films in iFFY’s 2020 and 2022 seasons, joined the iFFY team as a curator in 2021 and is reprising that role this year. Her program this year, "Gems Across the Seas," aims to show that stories can be relatable and eye-opening when the actors are speaking a different language from audience members.

"I’m an immigrant from Tokyo, and I was really fortunate to be able to watch so many movies from different countries, and realized I was really lucky. There aren’t many places like Tokyo," says Shiiki. "I thought if I was curating international things, I want to find as much as possible from different places, and show films that people may need help finding."

"Gems Across the Seas" will include shorts like writer/director Kayla Abuda Galang’s "Learning Tagalog with Kayla," a slice-of-life-style film disguised as a language-learning cassette tape; and director duo Aqsa Altaf and John X. Carey’s "Zafar," showing a Pakistani immigrant trying to speak with his mother in Pakistan on the phone while driving for a ride-sharing company.
iFFY Film Programmer Toko Shiiki.
"If I can be a bridge to show people that coming from other countries isn’t too different, that’s a great thing I can do," Shiiki says.

Shiiki not only comes to the team as a curator, but as a member of iFFY's newly founded nonprofit board.

"When I came to Ypsilanti in 2005, I found a community of creative people who would share art and music weekly, and we sort of lost that," she says. "When Donald [Harrison] told me they were planning a festival, I immediately wanted to submit, and when he asked me to join the board last year, I was interested. I’m enjoying doing this work so much."

In addition to the film programs, iFFY will also host an afterparty each night at a different Ypsi business, such as Keystone Bar and Arcade and Bellflower. The afterparties are intended for attendees to connect and discuss the films they watched, but also to prompt networking between filmmakers. Further opportunities to connect will be available through the many workshops presented prior to and throughout the festival weekend.

Harrison says the iFFY team connected with Ypsilanti Community High School staff last year in order to bring filmmaking workshops to interested students. Those opportunities will continue this year. Vanderhoof and Shiiki have been leading many of these visits to demonstrate film equipment and share filmmaking methods with students. 
The iFFY staff at Natalia Rocafuerte's studio.
"We’re giving students the opportunity to act in front of the camera, use a slate, and do the filming, to create a trailer for iFFY that we’ll show at the festival," Shiiki says. "We’ll film one day and then we’ll edit together. It’s going to be fun, showing what we create in the outreach workshop."

Accessibility has been a huge focus throughout the festival planning process, according to Harrison. Ticket prices will be as low as $6, in addition to some free events. And featured artists will have the option of being paid a screening fee, or being entered to win an audience award or juror’s award. 

"We want people to feel invited," Harrison says. "We have some serious art, but we want it to be fun, memorable, and adventurous. We also want to make sure those showing films are being compensated for showing their work."

Harrison says iFFY's many outreach efforts are all intended to foster community connection and pride around the event.

"This isn’t about me or Martin having our own festival," he says. "I’m interested in helping steward a festival that is Ypsi’s."

iFFY runs April 19-22 at Riverside Arts Center. Tickets and a festival schedule are available here

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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