New book by local author chronicles Ann Arbor film scene's "anarchistic" roots in U-M student groups

Ann Arbor resident Frank Uhle, with the help of University of Michigan Press and Fifth Avenue Press, has published a book detailing the history of Ann Arbor’s film scene and its roots in student film societies. The book, titled "Cinema Ann Arbor: How Campus Rebels Formed a Singular Film Culture," will launch June 20 at Literati Bookstore.

Uhle, a first-time author, started working on the book in 2016, intending for the project to fall in line with the University of Michigan's (U-M) bicentennial the following year. The book features several interviews with film legends such as documentarian Ken Burns and producer John Sloss, as well as hundreds of archival photos and flyers from various film societies and their events.

As an undergraduate at U-M, Uhle worked as a film projectionist as part of one of many student film societies on campus, which showed experimental art films that couldn’t be seen in traditional cinemas. From the 1920s to the 1990s, many of these films were protested by the public for being obscene or inappropriate. In 1967, Ann Arbor police intervened and arrested students for showing these controversial films.

"There was no rating system like we have now," Uhle explains. "It was just students showing and watching these films for the fun of it. Film societies were anarchistic and subversive."

The book also details the collaboration between students in these societies and university faculty, which resulted in not only the development of a film studies program at U-M, but also the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). Uhle describes the festival in its early days as a "renegade" event, growing out of film society events into the event Washtenaw County residents know today.

"Somehow Ann Arbor was just the right size, with just enough community members who would want to go out and see these weird, interesting movies year round," Uhle says.

Uhle moderated a roundtable discussion about these film societies on March 24 at this year’s AAFF. Uhle says the societies ultimately made Ann Arbor into the film hub that it is now, even as the societies faded from university culture with the dawn of rental services and, later, streaming.

"People were exposed to a broader type of film because film societies were there," Uhle says. "These societies built up a culture that people continue now. Venues like the Michigan and State theaters have an audience who are more inclined to see interesting movies."

The book launch at Literati will include an interview with Uhle conducted by 107one radio host Martin Bandyke, as well as a book signing.

"I want to thank U-M and 5th Avenue Press for taking this on in such a spectacular way," Uhle says. "The end result is amazing, and beyond my wildest dreams."

To purchase a copy of "Cinema Ann Arbor," click 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.
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