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Censorship battles, fund-raising fights haven't dimmed the Ann Arbor Film Festival

John Monaghan
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

In the back of a vintage yellow truck on a sunny October day, Gary Glitter wanna-bes in Spandex, hairspray and platform shoes moved their lips to "All the Young Dudes" and "Fat Bottomed Girls." Even people used to witnessing bizarre behavior on the streets of Ann Arbor were entertained, and the lunchtime show, called Glam Rock Karaoke, got some bystanders moving and grooving.

The performance was more than an isolated publicity stunt, though. This first so-called act of audacity on behalf of the Ann Arbor Film Festival was indicative of the "more fun, more interactive approach" that festival director Christen McArdle has brought to the event since she arrived in 2005.

The festival, which is celebrating its 46th year Tuesday through March 30, began in 1963 as a showcase for 16mm experimental films. Early entries came from Brian De Palma, Kenneth Anger, George Lucas, Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. Today, event organizers are trying to capitalize on recent positive press involving a successful fight against censorship and to remind viewers again why they might want to see a movie called "Frog Jesus."

McArdle, 30, arrived in Ann Arbor from Hollywood, where she worked for three years with John Cusack's New Crime Productions. Much of her time in Michigan has been spent battling state legislators who objected to funding a festival with content they considered "pornographic." Last year, festival officials sued the State of Michigan to repeal restrictions on arts funding, and on Dec. 7, a federal court ruled in the festival's favor.

The fest's stand that it wouldn't apply for state money until the case was settled meant the loss of about $75,000 from this year's $285,000 operating budget. Expecting the shortfall, organizers reached out to the community for help and orchestrated a series of clever and playful events to generate interest in the festival.

The ongoing acts of audacity occur when fund-raising landmarks are met. In early winter, when $35,000 had been raised, a game of Giant Animal Badminton was played by a pair of roller derby girls and a guy in a giant rat suit. A final act of audacity may occur this week, festival organizers say.

McArdle says that part of this year's fund-raising success comes from the hiring of Donald Harrison, 35, as community and development director.

"I came from the Bay area, and the biggest surprise to me was how this festival, which every filmmaker I knew wanted to get into, didn't have the same stature among a lot of people here locally," Harrison says. "This year, we are focusing a lot more on that local community."

For the last six years, Myrna Jean Rugg and Richard Cronn have opened one or both guest rooms in their 1915 Craftsman-style home to visiting filmmakers during the festival. Sometimes the lodgers leave early and roll in late from after-parties. Sometimes they hang out and form friendships.

Last year, Cronn arranged a field trip for current and past guests to visit downtown landmarks like the Fox Theatre and the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He may host a similar tour this year.

"We've been attending the festival for 30 years," says Rugg. "We thought it was important to support it more than just financially."

Public support has been especially vital this year, and local businesses have come through in the tight economy. Transportation has been provided by the local Saturn dealer, and Silvio's and Zingerman's are supplying after-party munchies.

For Sava Lelcaj, owner of Sava's State Street Cafe, involvement with the film festival sends an important message to the community. "As a new business, open only eight months, it makes more people aware of me," she says. "Plus it shows my support of an event that is known for its independence in a town that is full of very independent people."

Because local businesses and organizations are co-sponsoring some of this year's films, the fest hopes to attract a larger audience - potentially 12,000 as opposed to last year's 8,000.

The festival has a strong international reputation. It's good to have it on your resume if you're a filmmaker seeking an Oscar nomination for your documentary or short film. The event's popularity is reflected in the recent honor bestowed by Variety publisher and president Charlie Coones, who named the Ann Arbor event one of "10 Film Festivals We Love." The 10 were chosen from an estimated 6,000 worldwide.

Still, not everyone loves the festival, and allegations of cronyism have long haunted the judging. This year, a six-member board of screeners selected the 115 shorts and features that will be shown throughout the week and compete for more than $18,000 in prizes.

Even before his 16mm feature "The Eternal Present" was turned down in 2005, Canadian artist Otto Buj had criticized the festival for being "too narrow" in its view of experimental filmmaking. He believes that many of the techniques on display have already been incorporated into more mainstream cinema. The festival's longevity, he says, is based on "nostalgic obligation to uphold a tired tradition."

"Programming is complicated," counters McArdle, who says that only a small percentage of the more than 2,000 films submitted make the cut. She stands by the festival's content, though she acknowledges that the focus on rule-breaking experimental films has softened as more documentaries and straight narratives have made their way into programming.

Though a best-of-the-fest DVD will be available after the festival ends, McArdle believes that the experience is something you can't truly appreciate on your computer or big-screen TV.

"Sure, you can watch short films on YouTube," she says. "But what we're doing for you is curating. Audiences and filmmakers appreciate what we do because they know we're showing the films with the highest-quality projection possible."

In recent days, the festival has been making its presence felt everywhere in Ann Arbor. It's on posters and flyers in local coffee shops and on the lips of students dodging raindrops under the Michigan Theater marquee.

Stop by Cafe Zola near Main Street and you'll even find an exhibition of framed festival posters, including the inaugural one from 1963.

"Of course I'm going," says Zola diner Melissa Stanton of Plymouth, Mich.

"For some people, robins signal the start of spring. For me, it's the film festival."


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