Preview: 56th Ann Arbor Film Festival returns to the Michigan Theater, March 20-25

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The 56th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) kicks off today and runs through March 25. Most of the screenings and events will be held at the historic Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor. The AAFF is known as the oldest avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America.

To offer us a preview, we spoke exclusively with AAFF Executive Director Leslie Raymond.

Q: Please start by giving me some highlights of this year’s film festival.

A: “One of them is certainly “The Big House.” It is a 2-hour documentary about the Michigan football stadium. It came out of the department of screen arts and cultures at U of M. Two professors and a visiting professor led a class of students to make the film. It was part of the 200th anniversary of the University of Michigan. It’s everything about the stadium. The focus is not the football although football is happening in the background at all times.

They had incredible access to all the different parts that go on. The first half of the film is kind of a day in the life of the stadium. Everything from folks coming to work there in the morning, getting sniffed by dogs through getting set up for reporters and cooking that goes on in the kitchen. You see a walk around all of the neighborhoods around, all of the tailgating, through the game to the end. We think it’s going to be a powerful draw. We’re doing the North American premiere. It held its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago.”



Q: What about some of the other world or North American premieres?

A: “We’ll have a special illustrated lecture by John Nelson, who just won an Academy Award for his role on the “Blade Runner 2049” movie. He is somebody who grew up in southeast Michigan. He went to the University of Michigan and was involved in the film festival. Many, many years ago he was on the screening committee and showed a film at the festival. He went off and has a career in Hollywood doing special effects. He won an Academy Award for his work on “Gladiator”, he just won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for leading special effects for “Blade Runner 2049.” He’ll be giving a special illustrated lecture that will be free and open to the public. We’re thrilled to have him back.”

Q: Can you talk about some of the filmmakers who will be coming to town?

A: “We’ve got a good number of filmmakers who come each year. I think we have 70 or 80 different folks who are signed up. We have a very robust hosting program. We have folks in the Ann Arbor community who open up their homes and put up filmmakers for the week of the festival.

Travis Wilkerson, whose film “Do You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?” will be here presenting his film. He made a film about a personal story of his. It’s a documentary where he is trying to uncover the truth of a story about his grandfather, who generations ago, had a store in the south. He shot a black man who came into his store. Travis is trying to uncover the truth. The film is about his personal journey. I think it’s a very important discussion to have in the contemporary moment. I think there are some very lucid and enlightened moments in the film in terms of thinking about race dynamics.”



Q: What can you tell us about the awards program on the final night of the festival?

A: “On winner’s night, we will show two different programs of some of the awarded films. We have three distinguished jurors who are in town the whole week watching the films. This year, they are all filmmakers, established in the avant-garde realm. We’ll get a chance to see at 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock on that Sunday, March 25, some of the things that really rose to the top for them. They are awarding $20,000 mostly in cash, some in-kind awards, to the filmmakers. It’s everything from Best of Festival to Best Narrative to Best Animation to Best Sound Design to Best Emerging Filmmaker and so on.

We also have a special appearance this year from an all-female drum corp from Toledo called Bitch Thunder. They will be playing in the Grand Foyer in between the two winner’s screenings. Then, they are going to match to the after party after the second one. It should prove to be a very fun night. If you are somebody who has thought about coming to the festival or maybe only has time to come to a couple of things, winner’s night is a great night to come.”

Q: Anything else you’d like to say to wrap up?

A: “People say to me, ‘I don’t know how to think about avant-garde and experimental film. I never went to school. I don’t know the language.’ My best answer for that is… don’t worry about it so much. Just relax about it. When you listen to music that doesn’t have lyrics, there’s no pressure to find some deep hidden meaning. It’s sort of the same with the films we show. Don’t worry about it. It’s more take it in and let it wash over you and see what comes up in your own mind. It’s your personal experience of what this film and this creative expression is that a filmmaker and artist has put there before you. The other piece of it is: Talk to your friends who you came with or meet somebody there. Talk to them about it. It’s a great way to learn more about yourself  and other people. We really hope to see you at the 56th festival.”

Once again, the 56th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) kicks off on March 20 and runs through the 25th. Most of the screenings will take place at the Michigan Theater at 603 E Liberty St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. View the complete schedule and order tickets online at




The Ann Arbor Film Festival crew (L-R): Mary O’Byrne, Hannah Latham, Cathy Mizgerd and Leslie Raymond. (Jason Rzucidlo/AmericaJR)


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