Film Fests of the Great Lakes State By Mike White. The Sun Always Shines Over Ann Arbor Working for free for long hours without even college credit was going against my grain, but I thought, "an internship will do me good," when Vicki Honeyman, director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, came in looking for volunteers...

The Sun Always Shines Over Ann Arbor

Working for free for long hours without even college credit was going against my grain, but I thought, "an internship will do me good," when Vicki Honeyman, director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, came in looking for volunteers.

On my initial trek to festival headquarters I was struck with a sense of peculiarity. The nerve center of the fest resided in the back of Vicki's Wash & Wear Hair-Honeyman's place of business. While customers sat in the front section of the building, getting their locks shorn and jawing on about Vicki's fabulous collection of fifties furniture, I sat in the back with the piles of films, entering information in the fest's database that I culled off canisters and entries.

My daily trip to the Ann Arbor post office (sometimes requiring two or more trips when the films really started rolling in) appealed to me particularly. I'm a post office junkie and felt myself exhilarated each time I walked back to Ann Street with a basket full of films. And I do mean films...

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is just that-all films and no video! That's not so strange, I suppose, as the viability of video is a rarity in major festivals. There was a stringent adherence that under no circumstance would video be allowed - not even for pre-screening purposes. This insured that if a filmmaker's print were shown that it would have been run through a projector at least once to verify that it was technically functional (the sound and picture were there). This also circumvented waiting for last-minute UPS deliveries.

During my internship learned quite a bit. I saw the way film festivals function, the various attitudes of filmmakers, the importance of community relations, et cetera. However, I must admit that I squandered a plethora of opportunities to learn more. I never shirked any shifts or cried foul about going to the post office or picking Vicki up some coffee when the weather was inclement. Yet, for someone who considers himself a cinephile, I missed the meat and potatoes of the festival-the films themselves.

Instead of coming to the screening events, I spent my evenings driving sixty-some miles roundtrip for a few hours with my then-girlfriend (my now ex-wife). I don't say these words out of spite. Even then, I regretted denying myself the opportunity to check out all of the films I entered into the database day-in-day-out. I also abrogated my ability to make new friends and possibly find a home among the hipsters of Ann Arbor. As is my modus operandi, I did the bare minimum-keeping pretty much to myself the majority of the time.

Luckily, when the festival ran, I made the time to come out. I spent several nights in the darkened Michigan Theater paying rapt attention. It was the first film festival I had ever attended. Quite a few of the films bored me. A couple sickened me. A handful made me laugh. I can remember a film or two that pushed the limits of filmmaking and truly impressed me. However, for the most part, the films that left an indelible mark were Christopher Gallagher's Where is Memory and John O'Hagen's Five Spot Jewel. (Vicki helped me track down the former film, while I'm still searching for the latter).

After five years, I started talking to Vicki again through the wonder of email. She welcomed me back to the fold with open arms and invited me to this year's fest. The 38th Annual Ann Arbor Film Festival was bigger and better than ever, with the new addition of a second screen to the historic Michigan Theater, federal grant money, and more staff and space for the festival offices. And then there were the films...

Over the years, I had forgotten that the AAFF is the venue for experimental films. While I applaud experimental filmmakers, their work isn't often suited to my philistine tastes. I tend to find the majority of experimental works tiresome and overlong.

One flick that stuck in my craw as being particularly contrived was Ken Paul Rosenthal's Blackbirds, which consisted of a split screen presentation of the infamous footage of the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings. The images ran ad nauseum at various speeds, in color, monochrome, and negative. They may have even run backwards, but I can't be certain. It was a struggle to pay attention to this heavy-handed social critique.

Not every avant-garde flick had me squirming in my seat. Matt McCormick's Sincerely, Joe P. Bear, was a wonderfully strange and creative use of found footage. McCormick employed reels of what appears to be promotional footage for an ice company. Starring a well-coifed 1950's beauty cooling her jets on some big blocks of ice, she's joined by a guy in a bear suit. The film is narrated by an unnatural voice reciting a fanciful love poem. It was equal parts sweet and surreal.

The films that really stood out for me were Paul Charney and Marc Vogl's Sunday Afternoon and Doug Wolens's Butterfly -- a comedy and documentary. Sunday Afternoon is a study in relationships or, more accurately, in the end of relationships. The catch is that there's but one line that could be perceived as actual dialogue-the rest of the razor-sharp rapport between the actors is expressed as descriptions of their speech. Thus, more than trite lines with which every audience member is familiar, Sunday Afternoon is a blueprint for a break-up.

Premiering at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Doug Wolen's Butterfly is intensely humorous at times-most often at the expense of the film's subjects. Capturing the crusade of Julia Butterfly Hill to save an ancient California redwood forest from logging, Wolens' work is narrow in its scope while being wonderfully wide in its focus.

Wolens takes the audience to the tree stand 180-feet off the ground where Hill spent two years of her life in an attempt to bring attention to her personal cause. We witness Hill as she scurries around breathtakingly high branches of the tree she's dubbed Luna. All the while, the audience has the opportunity to ponder whether Hill is incredibly brave or if she's just a foolhardy hippy.

More than life atop the Luna, Wolens shows the earthbound incidents radiating from the base of Hill's perch. Though Hill's action is the crux of the film, opinions on the ground often supercede her tree-sitting and deal with the larger questions of the morality of forestry and the politics of protest. Wolens doesn't overwhelm audiences with an abundance of figures about forestry; instead he employs wonderful shots of the vistas which Hill can see from her perch. He contrasts these shots with images of areas decimated by improper environmental management.

The theme of Butterfly that I found most interesting was the conflict within the protesters. While Hill was not a member of Earth First! when she made her climb to the top of Luna, she was quickly adopted by the group. As the film proceeds there's a definite shift in opinions among Earth Firsters who not only seem to grow weary of transporting supplies to the base of Luna, but who also appear to resent the attention that Hill is getting. Within breaths, the quirkily named Earth Firsters (Shakespeare, Orange, etc.) contradict themselves about the importance of harnessing media recognition and the detrimental repercussions to the cause by public scrutiny.

Comprehensively developed, the opinions, facts, and story of Butterfly unfold with a strong, steady tempo. By surveying the population of the town most affected by the clear-cutting of areas around Hill's post, Wolens succeeds in presenting a terrific array of opinions instead of opting to paint a stark dichotomy of righteous activists struggling against a corporate behemoth.

While I don't usually feel any qualms of guilt while taking in other film festivals, I guess that I felt some pangs of loyalty surfacing. I often felt underused as I lurked around the Michigan Theater, trying my best to kick back and enjoy the festival purely as a spectator.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is ignored more often than it is lauded. Thirty-eight years is a long time for a festival to survive and it's a rare fest that really sticks to its guns-promoting a single gauge of film along with non-commercial filmmaking. The AAFF is holding onto its indie cred with white-knuckled tenacity.

Some Call It Maize, We Call It Corn

A WEEK LATER and an hour away I was making my way through the crowds at the East Lansing Film Festival. Held on the campus of Michigan State University, Wells Hall was packed with folks milling around, waiting for the Friday night feature attraction, Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry.

For as experimental as the Ann Arbor Film Fest is, East Lansing's Festival is commercialized. Not that there's anything wrong with that! In fact, it's a wise tactic for the fledgling festival to take. Despite being a college town, East Lansing lacks the presence of even mainstream-indie films like Peirce's. Hosting commercially viable yet artistically challenging works is a shrewd way to fill theaters and maintain credibility. And, hey, I've got to admit that of the screenings I went to I tended to enjoy the "bigger" flicks much more than the "smaller" ones.

I was most impressed with Don McKellar's Last Night . Originally part of an French funded ten-part series of films dealing with the changing of the millennium, McKellar realized how quickly dated his film would become if had made the story purely millennial. Instead, Last Night is an apocalyptic film that deals with the frailty of human emotions.

Cleverly leaving the cause of the inevitable conclusion to existence of Earth as something alluded to rather than the crux of the story, Last Night is much closer to Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile than Michael Bay's Armageddon. Instead of a band of deep core drillers, terrifically real characters populate Last Night .

An ensemble piece, Last Night centers on Patrick Wheeler (played by McKeller who also penned the script), a lonely widower determined to spend his last night on Earth alone. However, he's disturbed early on in his melancholic wallowing by Sandra (Sandra Oh), a woman simply trying to make it home to her husband.

Sporting a great cast that includes Genevi√?¬?√?¬®ve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright, and David Cronenberg (who plays an incredibly devoted gasworks employee), Last Night is beautifully shot and wonderfully written. The plotting of the film is direct with strong pacing helped by the flow of revelation and information about the characters and their situations.

Turning from narrative to documentary, I headed to the theater next door and caught Louis Prima: The Wildest! I didn't know much of anything about Prima going in to the film and didn't know much more coming out. If anything, Don McGlynn's film did more to confound me than enlighten me.

For example, judging by the ages-old interview footage with one of Prima's ex-wives-the golden-throated Keely Smith-I had to assume she was dead. What a shock I had later that night when I turned on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" to see Ms. Smith performing a cut from her new album, Swing, Swing, Swing!

While I enjoyed Louis Prima: The Wildest! for the abundant performance footage, to call it a documentary would be a stretch. It was more like an A&E biography gone awry. If anything, I'd have preferred McGlynn to dump the stock footage of New Orleans and Las Vegas and just give the audience more of Prima and Smith's act.

The next morning I checked out Jean-Philippe Toussaint's The Ice Rink (La Patinoire) . A movie about making movies, the principle draw this film held for me was the casting of Bruce Campbell who stars as Sylvester a big shot American actor. Meandering and blithe, if you're a Campbell fan or you dug Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, I can recommend it.

The film that I most anticipated at the ELFF was the new documentary on the Branch Davidian massacre, Waco: A New Revelation . I wanted to see if any members of the infamous Michigan Militia would turn out for this screening. Alas, the screening had one of the smallest audiences of all the screenings I attended.

Maybe people are sick of hearing about Waco in the wake of the renewed interest in the cover-up or perhaps it's just "old news." Regardless, I was itching to see the evidence of the governmental collusion to continue piling up. I was also curious to see how this film would compare to William Gazecki's Waco: Rules of Engagement -a film I considered the last word on the Waco massacre.

I'm pleased to say that Waco: A New Revelation proves better than a companion piece for Rules of Engagement . It stands on its own as a comprehensive analysis of the events surrounding Waco from a brief history of the Branch Davidians to the earliest parts of 2000 and the re-opening of the Waco investigation.

Director Jason Van Fleet does well to explain the confounding facts and contradictions that have been passed off as "fact" by the FBI and US Justice Department. As with investigations of other historical cabals, following the path of deception can prove maddening. This succinct documentary does well to present a boatload of information in a palatable manner-even if the subject matter is distasteful.

Along with the down-to-earth attitude of the ELFF staff and volunteers, I enjoyed the special attention that the fest gives to Michigan filmmakers with its "Michigan's Own" program. I made sure to attend the documentary section of the program as the first film screened covered a subject near and dear to my heart, Detroit.

In CASS, filmmaker Matt Gallagher presents the viewer with several "survivor stories" from folks who have refused to give up on Detroit. They spend their time and hard-earned money city once known as the "Paris of the West." Presently the city bears more of a resemblance to Beirut or some other decimated third world metropolis. Gallagher brings a unique perspective to the film via his Canadian heritage. Living across the Detroit River where trees, parks, and commerce fill the streets of Windsor, Gallagher tackles the bad reputation that Motor City has garnered over the last few decades and does little to disaffirm it.

Though Gallagher's documentary could stand some tightening, it was brightened in comparison to the next work screened, Joan Mandell's Tales from Arab Detroit . Suffering from a lack of direction and in desperate need of editing, Tales from Arab Detroit has an interesting concept at its core-the cultural differences between generations of Arabs growing up in America and their elders. Unfortunately, Mandell's work meanders aimlessly wanders through endless interviews and seems to be unaware of how to present material in a comprehensible, organized manner.

Kathryn Vander's film, Walk This Way, didn't deal with Detroit or its subcultures. Instead, at its center is a man, Ron Bachman. The film tries hard (maybe too hard?) to be an inspirational film about one person overcoming personal adversity. Walk This Way covers the life of Bachman who was born with a condition that left his legs shriveled and useless. His parents had his legs amputated when he was four and he has lived the remainder of his life as essentially half a man. Personally, I'd rather see a film about Johnny Eck.

Still in its infancy, I can see good things coming for the East Lansing Film Festival. Well organized, affable, and sporting a nice mix of marketable and innovative films, this fest packed a wallop! Lookout, it's a force to be reckoned with!

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