Multimedia Arts

#1 Rated Ann Arbor Film Festival Now Features High-Tech and Multimedia Art of Ann Arbor

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Leslie Raymond, Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, speaks at the festival in 2017.

“It’s unusual, experimental, and avant-garde,” says Ann Arbor Film Festival Director Leslie Raymond of the historic film festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently rated #1 in the country by USA Today in its 57th year. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the fourth oldest film festival in the United States and the oldest experimental film festival.

What makes Ann Arbor consistently rated one of the best places to raise a family (CBS Local, Livability, Niche, Money) is the cultural events like this, particularly with a long and storied history like the Ann Arbor Film Festival. It’s one of the reasons people with Michigan roots come back to raise kids here, or stay to found startups. From software to security to life sciences to mobility tech, SE Michigan is now an increasingly attractive option for tech workers who love a balanced livable lifestyle and the cultural events that make any community a great place to live and work.

Now, you don’t even have to attend the full film festival in March, which can pass before you notice. The Ann Arbor Film Festival recently launched a program where people can view feature films from the most recent festival one at a time at the State Theatre outside the festival season. We sat down with Ann Arbor Film Festival director Leslie Raymond and Communications Manager for Development and Marketing of the festival Cathy Mizgerd to hear the latest on how the Ann Arbor Film Festival has evolved to embrace interactive and multimedia art, and to operate outside its usual season, in a growing tech town that is happily involved in this iconic cultural event.

History of the Experimental Ann Arbor Film Festival

First of all, how did this little film festival get to be one of the top experimental film festivals in the country and supported by the local tech and business community? “The Ann Arbor Film Festival was founded in 1963,” Mizgerd tells us. “One of the features that makes it so popular is that it is an experimental film festival,” she says.

“It was founded directly out of the counter-culture revolution of the Sixties in Ann Arbor,” Leslie Raymond adds. “The film festival was rooted in the ONCE Music Festival in the early Sixties in Ann Arbor, the Avant-Garde movement… and the Happenings movement, in which art is called a happening, with everybody coming together following a recipe.”

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Program Guide to last year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Artists at the time were exploring making art accessible to the public and focused on daily life and participation of the audience, a la John Cage’s piano piece “4:33” that is composed of the sounds made by the audience for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds it takes to complete the piece with pianist seated before a closed piano keyboard cover counting off the movements with a watch.

“Out of that creative hotbed came the film festival,” Raymond says. “This paved the way for festivals like Burning Man.”

“Out of that creative hotbed came the Ann Arbor Film Festival,” Raymond says. “This paved the way for festivals like Burning Man.”

Making The Festival New Again

Leslie Raymond is a filmmaker from SE Michigan who says she was introduced to film festivals on the last day of film class by a professor who handed the students a list of film festivals. She came back to SE Michigan to volunteer with the Ann Arbor Film Festival almost 30 years ago, and took over as director 7 years ago now. Raymond was a teaching artist for years. Mizgerd says a lot of has changed since Raymond took over as director of the festival, including that they had to decide to move on from traditional hand processing of film.

“We had a brief discussion on keeping it that way, but that’s never what he intended,” Raymond laughs. “It’s just the medium he had available to him at the time.” The film festival developed an online submission portal for films, which was later updated and aggregated by a local tech company InfoReady, which created a new digital film submission portal and online review process for the Ann Arbor Film Festival to bring them even more up to date with current technology.

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The audience at the 2018 Ann Arbor Film Festival engages with the discussion on the film being screened. Courtesy photo.

“Several technologists also sit on our board,” Raymond says. The tech community has been very supportive of this iconic local festival continuing and gaining community support, Mizgerd says.

“Several technologists also sit on our board,” Raymond says. The tech community has been very supportive of this iconic local festival continuing and gaining community support, Mizgerd says.

“I met Leslie at the festival several years ago,” Mizgerd says of her involvement in the program. “Leslie took over as director 7 years ago. I was fascinated by the culture around the festival. It’s experimental because it’s about film as art…. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is an intersection between film and art and is more like a museum than a set of films with commercial interest. We had this film last year called Wolves From Above, and that’s all it was. Just wolves filmed from above. It was so beautiful and so quiet. By the end, you couldn’t help falling in love with wolves.”

We ask if the festival has seen a push for nature-inspired or climate change-oriented films, and Mizgerd says the issue has arisen naturally the last few years and they’re considering creating a themed series to address it, though they don’t request particular topical films, she says. The festival is more of a showing of what artists are thinking about and the media they’re working with at the time. Sometimes films are created according to the particular tech available to the artist for recording, she says.

We had this film last year called Wolves From Above, and that’s all it was. Just wolves filmed from above. It was so beautiful and so quiet.

Cathy Mizgerd, Director of Communications, Ann Arbor Film Festival

“Access was important to the founder of the festival,” Raymond says. “One of the reasons this festival is so accessible to the public is that he felt shut out of bicoastal film cultures. This was an alternative space to share films worthy of sharing if you didn’t have an in in New York or San Francisco. We still make sure that every film submitted is seen, at least by the screening committee, and discussed.”

InfoReady, which streamlined the online submission platform for the film festival, built the system by adapting the festival’s existing platform for managing grant applications. “It has been a nice partnership,” Mizgerd says, “and we feel fortunate to be in a community with tech expertise. Tech has changed access artists have to the medium.”

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Filmmakers at the 2017 Ann Arbor Film Festival on stage.

High-Tech Art Around Ann Arbor

Next year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival runs at the end of March. North Quad and the Ann Arbor Art Center are also hosting installations, performance art, and VR or interactive film art with the Ann Arbor Film Festival in a program partnership with The Michigan Theater Foundation called AAFF Presents. Many of these events are free to the public and give people a chance to interact with the artists.

The public is welcome to opening night in March for the Taste of Ann Arbor-style food sponsor party for the film festival, at $50 a ticket. This ticket is included in a seasonal festival pass.

For more information about all Ann Arbor Film Festival programs, visit aafilmfest.org.

November 19, 2019

About Author

laurakcowan Laura K. Cowan is a green tech editor and narrative journalist with 15 years’ experience promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets. She was called best copyeditor in the business by mentor and Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis, Jr.. A deep study of consciousness, nature writing, and sustainable technology topics allows Ms. Cowan to draw out meaningful stories of diverse professionals from indigenous healers to technology executives in a blend of news and literary journalism styles. She is currently co-founder and editor of tech news blog Cronicle Press, columnist and editor for Ann Arbor’s Crazy Wisdom Journal, and a contributor to local and national magazines such as The Ann Arbor Observer and Reiki News Magazine. Ms. Cowan’s writing and speaking have appeared with Automobile Quarterly, Writer Unboxed, Inhabitat, CNBC, and The National Society of Newspaper Columnists.


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