Ann Arbor Film Fest fans celebrate 50 years of experimental film | Michigan Radio

Ann Arbor Film Fest fans celebrate 50 years of experimental film

Mar 26, 2012

The experimental Ann Arbor Film Festival kicks off its 50th season Tuesday, March 27.

More than 5,000 films have been screened at the festival over the past five decades. The festival has gone through its ups and downs during that time, too, including cuts to state funding and a high-profile censorship controversy several years ago.

Donald Harrison, the festival’s executive director, says more than 230 films will be shown this time around, many by obscure filmmakers.

"We really encourage people just to have that open mind, that sense of discovery," says Harrison. "We guarantee that people will see things that really affect them in a rewarding way, and of course they’ll see things that maybe they don’t care as much about, but that’s probably someone else’s favorite film in the festival."

We caught up with two longtime fans of the festival - an audience member, and a filmmaker – to hear some of their favorite film fest memories.

Festival-goer: "Every year I find at least two or three films that are just amazing."

John Johnson has been going to the Ann Arbor Film Festival since the late 1960s, and considers himself a big fan of the event.

He's such a big fan that when a film he likes doesn't win an award at the festival, he sends the filmmaker a "a few dollars myself and tell them what a great film it was."  He says he's probably done that about four times, three of which have resulted in a letter back from the filmmaker and a DVD copy of the film.

One of his favorite memories was when he saw Claude LeLouch's "Rendezvous" at the 1976 film festival. He says the film "totally blew my mind," left him with goose bumps.

Johnson says every year he finds "at least two or three films that are just amazing, from my point of view." He says it's worth sitting in the theatre for hours to get to the films "that are just amazing that you would have nowhere else to see."

Filmmaker: "It’s probably the festival’s fault that I became a filmmaker."

Leighton Pierce, a filmmaker and installation artist, calls the Ann Arbor Film Festival his favorite, in part because the films are screened in the Michigan Theater, a "gorgeous" space with nice seats and an organ player.

"Normally experimental film is shown in dark, basement-like places," explains Pierce.

He first entered the festival in 1981 with his 16mm film "He Likes to Chop Down Trees."

The film won a $100 prize, which Pierce says "was a thrill! It's probably the festival’s fault that I became a filmmaker because that kind of encouragement early on can really like be a dangerous thing."

The organ music heard in the radio piece is from Steven Ball's "Havin' a Ball!," where he plays the 1927 Barton Theater Organ at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.