I just flew into Dallas, and boy are my arms tired ... okay, kidding. I drove to Dallas, actually, with less than 24 hours at home between AFI Dallas and the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival, so between lack of computer time and some minor technical issues uploading pics, I'm just now getting this write up and gallery of shots from the Ann Arbor Film Festival up for you.
The fest very nearly bit the dust due to censorship and funding issues with the Michigan state legislature last year; apparently Michigan had its own ideas about the concept of "obscenity" which were not in step with the language that pertains to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Here's one of the films that was part of the controversy, Brooke Keesling's adorable short film Boobie Girl. Go watch it over on YouTube, and then you tell me -- is that film obscene by any stretch of the imagination?
A little legal wrangling involving the ACLU got that snafu taken care of, and with some immensely creative fundraising efforts and a stalwart devotion to maintaining Ann Arbor as an avant-garde fest showcasing lots of groovy experimental films and edgy shorts, the fest managed to stay afloat without compromising the vision of what it's come to mean to fans of film as art and creative exploration.
In spite of their funding woes, fest dynamic duo Christen McArdle and Donald Harrison did a splendid job of lining up a diverse and interesting program packed with some fascinating short films and heaps of experimental works. The Ann Arbor crowd surprised me with its remarkable stamina for frying their eyeballs with the experimental and artsy stuff (I have no hard proof that the abundant use of weed helped out with that, but let's just say that the group behind me at one screening reeked so strongly that I very nearly got a contact high just sitting near them ... hey, it's an artsy crowd in a college town, so what'dya expect?).
Friday night's highlight was fest juror Bill Plympton's presentation of his own work, followed by Plympton drawing pics for every one of the many fans who stood in line for one. Plympton showed clips from his newest feature, Idiots and Angels, which we'll have a review of from the upcoming Toronto Film Fest; for now, suffice it to say that the film is darkly comedic and looks great. Plympton hand-draws every frame of his films, and he had pointers for the filmmakers in attendance on how to make a living off short films.
Saturday night's schedule was packed with awesomeness, starting with Best of Fest winner Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), directed by famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who took a break from filming Sam Mendes' latest flick to fly out to Ann Arbor for her screening and a post-show Q&A. Also Saturday night, Hustler publisher extraordinaire Larry Flynt was on hand for a screening of Joan Brooker-Marks's doc about his First Amendment battles, Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone. I was a bit concerned that the Q&A would be punctuated by angry anti-porn feminists and religious types, but either they stayed away, or were too shy to ask their questions, or perhaps were intimidated by Flynt's burly bodyguards.
Other than one older woman who accosted me before the screening demanding that she "needed to talk to Larry Flynt, right NOW," the Q&A was pretty mild and amusingly fanboyish, with a couple of guys sheepishly admitting to having invested many of their own dollars supporting Hustler over the years, and one guy asking Flynt to autograph his voter registration card, a request Flynt graciously agreed to. Saturday night wrapped with a screening of Strange Culture, an intriguing narrative/doc about artist, activist, and accused bioterrorist Steve Kurtz, who was targeted as such after his wife, Hope, died unexpectedly of heart failure, and paramedics became suspicious of materials they had in their home in preparation for an exhibit on GMOs in the food supply. One of the "suspicious" items was an invite to exhibit at an art show that had some Arabic writing on it; it's a bit scary to think that the mere possession of Arabic writing can be seen to constitute a terrorist threat these days.
I spent some time with Kurtz over dinner before his screening, and I have to say that, after watching the film and talking to Kurtz, a brilliant and gentle college professor who still seems to be reeling by the direction his life has taken in the wake of losing his wife and artistic partner of 27 years, the prosecutor for this case is either completely blinded by his zeal to convict Kurtz for whatever he can, or he's just taken it so far at this point that he can't fold the case without losing face. Kurtz's story is a true cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that our Constitutional rights aren't being threatened by the fear-mongering over the need to protect us from terrorists (which, apparently, includes artists and people who disagree with our government).
Overall, the fest did an amazing job on its limited funding of both putting on a great show for film fans and taking care of festival guests. From the transportation coordinator, Rick Cronn, who tirelessly shuttled folks to and fro, to the intimate dinner parties for fest guests where much stimulating discussion about the fest's slate ensued over meals and drinks, to the always-stocked Green Room which flowed with snacks and beverages, it was great to see that the Ann Arbor film fest is not just surviving, but thriving.