Friday, September 29, 2023

Avant garde cinema in A2

a smiling woman dressed in festive garb films herself and the crowd behind her with her mobile phone
In Huahua’s Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations, a documentary directed by Daphne Xu, the titular star is shown livestreaming as she dances, sings and chats with fans

The 61st AAFF brings the best of world cinema to the midwest

For 61 years the Ann Arbor Film Festival has brought experimental and avant-garde cinema from across the globe to Michigan. The Festival allows filmmakers who step outside the confines of a linear narrative, to tell their stories with an accent on sensory experience, using film as art in rebellious, uncompromising ways. Scott Boberg is Deputy Director of the Festival, a new position created last August. Toledo City Paper sat down with Boberg to learn the lowdown on this year’s Festival which will feature 207 films, many of them shorts, along with 12 feature films. Festival dates, March 21-29, will showcase films chosen from entries submitted over the summer.

Festival origins and influence

The festival got its start when George Manupelli, a filmmaker and instructor at the University of Michigan, decided to create a place, outside of Hollywood and the New York art scene, for avant-garde and experimental film in the Midwest. The festival started on campus for artists to get together to screen unusual films that had been submitted by filmmakers. Creating a place for creative expression that wasn’t tethered to the expectations of commercial filmmaking provided a chance to share ideas with other filmmakers. Throughout the years, artists like Andy Warhol and filmmakers like a young George Lucas, showed their films at the festival. In 1977, the band Devo debuted their film, “Are We Not Men,” which became a first-place winner, demonstrating that experimental film can have an influence on popular culture. In 1973, “Frank Film” by Frank Morris, an 8-minute animated short, won the Festival’s first-place award and went on to win that year’s best animated short at The Academy Awards.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards. If a film wins one of three awards, one of which is the Ken Burns Documentary Award, that film will be considered for the Academy Awards. In the past 50 years, over a dozen films nominated at the Academy Awards built momentum at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with a half dozen or so winning. Boberg rightly points out that this creates a bridge between more known films and the Festival as a gateway to audiences discovering experimental and boundary-pushing films.


“This year’s festival has 2,800 entries with over half of those films coming from other countries,” explains Boberg. “It’s incredible that there is awareness around the world about this festival from places as far away as Nepal. The features are a mix of experimental narrative films and documentaries — there is even a category for music video.” Screenings will be held at Ann Arbor’s Michigan and State Theaters (and on campus for 35mm projection). Boberg points out that there will be film and video installations around the city, adding, “Some will play off early motion picture devices like the nickelodeons of the early 20th century. At the Ann Arbor Arts Center, a filmmaker that does live manipulations of images that are projected using various materials like broken glass along with live music improv, will host a workshop. Filmmaker Amir George, a Festival juror this year, will be showing a film about his own body of work in the context of the great African American artist, Romare Bearden, overlaying text onto Bearden images. Special events include an LGBTQ+ Out Night, and an all-ages program on Saturday morning curated by kids, for kids.”

A hybrid festival

While it’s always ideal to experience cinema surrounded by others in a theater, reach is important too. The online option for the Festival undeniably helps these films, particularly experimental films which do not receive a wide general release, to be discovered and enjoyed. This is the second year the festival will be hybrid —  both in person and online experiences — with films available for all 12 features starting Tuesday, March 21.

For more information on scheduling, events, tickets and passes go to

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