Film Festing Online With the 59th Ann Arbor Film Festival

I’m just going to say it. Going on a year without being able to go to the movies has been a special kind of bummer. And to make it perfectly clear, I’m not a terribly sociable person. I suck at small talk. I don’t enjoy large, dense crowds. As a theater attendee, I always choose the seats closest to Zimbabwe and proceed to sneer at strangers who decide to join me there, way up high in the back of the theater in what is clearly the “go away and leave me alone” section. But all this aside, I have come to deeply cherish attending the theater and being immersed in a full body & soul experience that only full surround sound and a cinema screen can provide. I’ve even come to appreciate the community element of watching film. Being able to share a particular cinematic experience with strangers is, all things (and crunching noises) considered, something special. It’s easy to understand why filmmakers value the theatrical experience. It not just a matter of aesthetic appeal and presentation, but rather the emotional benefit of their audience.

So, things have changed. We are at home and our screens have been downsized. But not all has been lost. In lieu of our unique global circumstances, film festivals have been taking their programming online to enable audiences to enjoy the escapism of film at home, and to help filmmakers to continue working and sharing their vision. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is one of those events, having made an excellent and successful 11th hour online pivot last year. As much as festival and film enthusiasts likely miss the in-person experience, a silver lining around this sort of pivot is that events that normally were fairly regionally limited have found their audience opened up pretty significantly thanks to the newfound accessibility of an online streaming format. It’s something that I hope will persist in some form once things “get back to normal.”

In the spirit of festival season and missing hiding in the balconies of my local movie palaces, I’m making a very very short list of content at this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival which I am really excited to spend time with. The festival is the fourth-oldest film festival in North America and the longest running experimental film festival in the world. I was introduced to it during my time as a student studying film and design in the Ann Arbor area, and have consistently been a patron and fan of the festival ever since. AAFF is a bit unlike contemporary film festivals in that its programming features not just filmmakers in the traditional sense, but artists and creatives who utilize all manner of multimedia—from ultra lo-fi, analog mediums to incredibly sophisticated digital techniques, to blends of both—in order to create unique visual experiences and weave intricate narratives. For a newcomer to experimental film, exposure to “avante garde” narrative techniques can be jarring. But if you stay awhile, watch, and are patient, it’s not terribly difficult to find something that will get you thinking and even talking about it long after it’s screened. I found my personal niche at the festival with its strong animated and music-centric programming. AAFF exposed me to an incredible world of creatives and concepts that I likely would never have discovered at any other film event.

The following are 4 “Recommended Viewing” favorites which I was able to see prior to them being programmed, and then 4 “Never Seen; Excited For” pieces which I’m, well, excited to see for the very first time. Narrowing down the list this far was….difficult. But I’m hoping that they will give you a little taste of what’s in store at the festival. The Ann Arbor Film Festival commences next week starting on Friday, and tiks and passes are now on sale. Treat yoself.

Recommended Viewing: Circular

This was one of my most favorite pieces during the screening process for the 59th AAFF, and I’m thrilled that it was ultimately selected. It’s heartbreaking that we won’t get to experience this film on the massive screen that it deserves (unless of course you are a viewer blessed to own a TV over 50 inches, in which case lord bless and carry on). It’s a sonically and visually mesmerizing film that left me with an eerie sense of calm and completion. For a less gushing description of it, it’s somewhere between being an art film and a music video. But also, so much more. Please watch it.

Recommended Viewing: TIE

So, in all honesty, everything from Films In Competition 12 is likely going to be great fun, the Almost All Ages program is one of my favorites every year. But I think TIE will especially be a real kick for folks. It’s bizarre, heartwarming, and a smidge disturbing in an Alice In Wonderland meets Adult Swim sort of way? Not sure that comparison is doing the film justice. The animation is lush and extremely well executed. One thing that will be missed from its would be theatrical screening will be the immersive sound design. My recc: shut all the doors or use your headphones for this one.

Recommended Viewing: Bad Mood

This is another quietly powerful animated piece which stood out to me during the screening process, and that I am happy to see included in this years program. It uses extreme simplicity of design and narrative to create a deeply compelling and very human story. The painterly look and stark sound design makes this one of those animations that I personally think transcends the medium. As a motion designer myself, it’s easy to get caught up in the flashier trends of contemporary illustration and animation. Seeing outstanding work like this executed with such minimal movement and color palette underscores the idea that animation is not merely about technique and huge complexity. It’s about artistic intention and utilizing the hidden strength of simplicity.

Recommended Viewing: FragMANts

I remember finishing watching this and thinking, pretty verbatim, that it was such clever fuckery. Happily, that feeling will hopefully soon be shared by thousands of other viewers. In simple terms, this is an exquisite corpse style compilation of people, objects, sounds and voices, which are pieced together into a garishly glorious cacophony of symbolism and sound. Also, it’s just really funny? I at least found it hilarious in a really good way. Check out Films In Competition 15 and please enjoy this one.

Never Seen; Excited For: Displacement

This one seems to promise some good old fashioned eye/ear melting goodness with its synopsis: “An expressionist composition exploring illusion, fear, and wonder, through flickering stop-motion animation, electroacoustic music, and analogue video synthesis.” Sign me up for some synthesis. My body is, as it always was, ready.

Never Seen; Excited For: A Machine to Live In

This is one of those films that hooked me based entirely on the thumbnail image for it. The trailer implies it will be somewhere between Koyaanisqatsi and a Beyoncé visual album. The synopsis is just as promising of a wild, metaphorical adventure: “…sci-fi documentary about the utopian imaginary, set in the Brazilian hinterlands.”

Don’t threaten me with a good time.

Never Seen; Excited For: The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant

I don’t have very many words to add to that synopsis, really. It says it all, and pretty much had me at “celebrate the destruction of the Confederacy” and “synth jams”.

Never Seen; Excited For: BIPOC Experimental Animation

So I cheated—this is a blanket recommendation to just watch the full program. I’m hyped for it. The art world has an unfortunate reputation for being fairly homogenous and exclusionary when it comes to elevating certain artists and types of content. What isn’t discussed enough—and perhaps should be—is the reality of the art world. It’s vast, and populated by a hugely global swath of creators who often operate outside of the realms of contemporary galleries and artist collectives. Art, as a study and practice, has no natural boundaries, and the ones that are created for it are flawed, and fragile.

What’s exciting to me about this program is that folks will be able to get a brief glimpse into this side of the art world via the platform of one of the most well known and respected art and film events in the world. And the fact is that it was never very difficult to find incredible artistic talent from around the world. The Ann Arbor Film Festival simply established that it was actively seeking to elevate creators from its already global audience, and ultimately put together a program of high quality work. We’re starting to see programming like this much more among other mainstream film festivals and events, and it’s really heartening to see. Make it so, and let it continue.

As the old saying goes…see you at the movies.

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Hafsah Mijinyawa

Hafsah Mijinyawa

Film, Design, Root Beer | A breakneck journey of self-discovery at the height of your thirties. | wetcloudmedia.com | superlunar.com