This spring break, I was supposed to meet up with a group of friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That plan, of course, was disrupted, like many others. We were heading towards the Ann Arbor Film Festival, North America’s oldest festival for avant-garde and experimental cinema. My friend Andrew described his experience last year as one of the best weeks of his life: “Nobody’s famous, so you just get to talk to filmmakers and make connections super easily.”
When SXSW was canceled we decided to start our airbnb refund. Then, in a few days’ time, Cannes announced its postponement to an undecided later date. March is when the film festival season usually takes off, and cinephilia really thrives in a communal atmosphere. I’ve always loved festivals, whether it be the overwhelming amount of movies I could force myself to watch in a short period of time, or the heated conversations I would have with friends and strangers alike.
Luckily, amidst all the theatre closure, some festivals decided to keep the momentum going by moving their screenings online. Ann Arbor is one of them; but instead of making the films temporarily available on specific platforms, like SXSW or DC Environmental Film Festival, Ann Arbor live-streamed its entire program from March 24 to March 30. The board explained that in doing so, they hope to recapture something like the collective atmosphere of moviegoing. I, for one, was a huge fan of this novel festival going experience. The live-stream chat window was constantly active with people around the world fiercely debating about or virtually applauding for the films, and the Q&A zoom sessions after each program was full of inspiring insights. Festival director Leslie Raymond also jokingly pointed out that they might be getting more exposure by going online, since people around the world can now tune in to the festival without the trouble of traveling (albeit the minor inconvenience of time differences). When the festival was supposedly reaching its end, without the pressure of having to evacuate the theatre, the programming board decided to present extended award screenings by popular demand, which was a welcomed treat.
My favorite film in this year’s program is perhaps Danski Tang’s “Umbilical”, an animated short exploring the mother-daughter relationship in the light of generational trauma. “Blue” by Laura Magnusson also approaches trauma, but with breathtaking underwater cinematography and graceful movement techniques. Simon Liu’s “E-ticket” is a cinematic collage in the form of a flicker film. In our group chat, a friend commented that “the funny thing about Ann Arbor is I can’t tell if it’s my connection being unstable or the film itself.” Liu draws from his personal archive of 35mm still photographs, capturing snapshots from a high school trip in India to living alone for the first time. Shelly Silver ’80 is someone I’ve looked up to for a while now; I’m obsessed with the humanistic force in her work, specifically her ability to find a sense of magic in familiar day-to-day imageries that draw from a tradition of observational documentary. Her new film “a tiny place that is hard to touch,” shot on location in Tokyo, Japan, is yet another intimate portrait, this time of two women’s concurrent journeys. Lastly, an unexpected surprise that came out of the festival: I messaged filmmaker Leilei Xia of animated short “Scar,” and found out that we had met at a model UN conference in middle school but have since lost contact. Quite incredible to think about how our paths crossed again in a completely different setting.
I am beyond thankful that Ann Arbor made the second week of quarantine much more enjoyable than it could’ve been. The live-streaming format provided me some much-needed sense of structure as days started to blend together, and it was wonderful to make new connections and reignite old ones with fellow filmmakers and cinephiles. Ann Arbor is a non-profit organization sustained by foundational support and audience members, and since this year’s festival was presented free of charge online, they are losing a huge amount of ticket revenue. If you can, consider donating to help them survive these trying times. Maybe I’ll see you at the festival next year.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.