UPDATE: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the "Welcome to Commie High" screening and all other in-person events for the Ann Arbor Film Festival have been canceled.
In 2015, Ypsilanti-based filmmaker Donald Harrison met a young woman who camped out for two weeks in 1996 to get into Ann Arbor's Community High School.
"High school was a challenging time for me, and for a number of my friends, so the idea of someone actually camping out to be first in line to get in was intriguing," he says.
From that initial intrigue has emerged "Welcome to Commie High," a feature-length documentary about the history of Community High School, which will premiere March 28 as a special program at the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF).
Harrison, who is the founder and lead producer of Ypsilanti-based 7 Cylinders Studio, regards the premiere as an important touchstone for his team.
"We launched a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary four years ago right before the Ann Arbor Film Festival, so this is a benchmark for us," he says.
The film itself is a narrative glimpse into the history of one of the longest-running alternative high schools in the country.
"It's a combo film where you're getting some historic insight compiled with following a year in the life of the school from 2016 to 2017," Harrison says. "We don't think we are telling the story. There is not one story of Community High, but our film represents what many people feel the spirit of it is."
In their efforts to capture the school's essence, Harrison's team engaged with roughly 400 alumni and people connected with Community High. They conducted approximately 120 filming sessions.
"I'm grateful for everyone who has supported us in any way," Harrison says. "Four years ago, I didn't imagine the film as it is today."
Harrison originally set his sights on a 10-minute short film. Digging deeper into the subject matter led him to expand his vision to a 30-minute documentary. The project underwent another incarnation when the Kickstarter campaign received an astonishing amount of support. Even famed Michigan documentarian Michael Moore gave his endorsement.
"Funder support gave us the opportunity to bring the story to life," Harrison says. "It's a story for any parent who has thought about how to educate their child, whether they are from Ann Arbor, Michigan, or anywhere in America."
Beyond the AAFF screening, Harrison says his team is still finishing up fundraising as they explore distribution options. They've also teamed up with the Ann Arbor District Library to build an online archive about Community High.
"There will be additional archival material like interviews, photographs, and music," Harrison says. "What would be extras on a DVD, we are multiplying that by infinity and putting that on a website. It's going to be a treasure trove."
"Welcome to Commie High" will premiere on March 28 at 5 p.m. in the Michigan Theater's main auditorium. Tickets can be purchased on the AAFF website.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of 7 Cylinders Studio.