Revolutionizing Festivals – Notes on the First Virtual Ann Arbor Film Festival

by Ejla Kovačević

If somebody had told me that my first experience of the Ann Arbor Film Festival would happen during one of the worst pandemics in recent human history, while I was locked down in the Parisian periphery, I would have seriously reconsidered this person’s mental condition. Yet, life takes curious turns and all of a sudden you realize: those horrendous, trashy disaster movies you always laughed at have become your bitter reality.

The internet, a very good friend of mine for quite some time, suddenly became my significant other, my partner in crime, my everything; enabling me to stay connected to the outer world I so desperately craved after almost two weeks of total isolation.

Needless to stay, when the organizers of Ann Arbor – one of the oldest and the most renowned festivals of independent and experimental film – announced the transition of this year’s edition to the virtual sphere, I was in complete awe. Considering that putting up any festival demands a dedicated year’s worth of work, this last minute decision to literally disintegrate the physical aspect of such a large-scale festival and to transpose it to an online environment (in this case, Vimeo) most certainly required a healthy dose of insanity on the part of everyone involved.

While some festivals cancelled all of their programs (e.g. Diagonale) and others offered some portion of it online (e.g. Cinéma du Réel), Ann Arbor was the first to put its entire program online as a live streaming event – and what a program it was! Spanning for six days, the festival presented a staggering 14 short film competition slots, more than 10 feature films, special juror presentations (Osbert Parker, Lynne Sachs, Lisa Steele) and dozens of expanded cinema performances – not to mention the afterparty DJ sets.

For many in the film industry, this sure sounded like a risky enterprise. Not only from a financial and juridical standpoint, but also social one – how would audiences react to it? Would there be more or less attendees comparing to the physical venue? Could virtual interaction between the public and filmmakers possibly stand-in for physical ones?

Ann Arbor’s 58th (and 1st virtual) edition revealed itself thus not only as an exciting opportunity to watch some of the most innovative cinematic works from every corner of the planet, but also as a pioneering social experiment, boldly challenging ideas of what a film festival is, should or couldbe.

Cinema in the living room

Apart from live-streamed Q&As after each screening, audiences had the possibility to engage with films and their authors via a live group chat. This was one of the best and also bravest decisions, given that nobody could have possibly predicted how it would pan out. To my surprise, the chat was less saturated than I had expected. Even though an average of 300 people watched programs every night, only some 20 of them would actively participate in the chat, which in turn enabled smooth communication and sensical interactions between attendees. Spam from anonymous internet soldiers were basically non-existent, and the window was usually filled with very encouraging, cheering and overall positive comments. Piles of random and spontaneous chain reactions, associations and references during screenings were certainly one of the most amusing and insightful parts of the experience. Our interactions in cinema are usually limited to brief, quiet exchanges with people we know or are sitting next to us, whereas Ann Arbor chat allowed for unprecedented instant mass communication, with hundreds of voices shouting, cheering, laughing, or commenting at the same time, leading to an exalted atmosphere which at times more closely resembled Maurice Lemaître’s anarchic film performances than an ordinary festival screening.

For me, it was a completely new and liberating experience which came as an opportunity to share some of those more instinctive, unprocessed, often playful and humorous reflections –the kind rarely heard in formal discussions, either because most of us simply forget them as soon as they come up, or because we judge them too simple or naïve.

For those doing research in film reception, these interactions presented a true gold mine, a one-of-a-kind window into spectators’ collective subconscious, while I can only imagine the benefits of such an enthusiastic feedback for the festival crew and filmmakers who were equally participating in exchanges.

The Lake and The Lake

The beauty of eclecticism

As an Ann Arbor rookie, I had only a vague idea of what the program would look like. Given the festival’s high-profile, I was expecting a long line of household names and only a small portion of lucky novices, but a sort of nonchalant eclecticism and refreshingly inclusive spirit that governed selections quickly wiped out all of my preconceptions.     

In a lot of ways, Ann Arbor’s curatorial philosophy seemed to reflect some of the ideas present in DON’T KNOW WHAT (Thomas Redoldner), a delightful structural gem that launched the festival. What looked like an exercise in structural filmmaking, suddenly revealed itself to be nothing but a stunt. After eight nerve-wrecking minutes of jittery body movements and sounds reduced to dizzying single frame particles, the author finally confesses: I don’t know what I’m doing! In her introductory notes, Ann Arbor Director Leslie Raymond equally confesses that there is no specific theme to this year’s festival, however she does inform us that, among other things, there are at least two films about holes and another two about hair.

This jokester spirit was felt throughout the festival, each selection a wild rollercoaster ride, forcing you to leave your expectations and sanity outside of the livestream. Each selection offered a peculiar mixture of the known and unknown, classic and progressive, serious and utterly outrageous – culminating to a point where you cannot help but ask yourself what the hell am I watching?

This particular moment came while watching Jon Rafman’s feature Dream Journal 2016-2019, an obscene 3D techno purgatory with a busty heroine – Xanax Girl – who, in search of her abducted boyfriend, navigates you through a disturbing darkweb wasteland, filled with a plethora of heinous hybrid human-animal, headless, glitched creatures living in harmonious union.  

While Rafman’s aesthetics are closer to the second generation of The Sims, this one weird trick sees filmmaker Joanie Wind borrowing  imagery from the cacophonic landscape of memes and Instagram stories to offer a more personal reflection on millennial post-internet culture, one that is marked by an obsessive self-gaze and struggle to stage a desirable identity and gender performance. Wind turns her anxieties into a psychotic-like monologue crammed with myriad feminine tropes –  from Snow White to raw meat – hence revealing a stubborn consistency of female stereotypes and the damaging ramifications they have on young girls’ psyches. This urge to attain internalised images of desirable identity and lifestyle usually makes us avoid or remove any ugly content from our social media accounts, but this attitude can also be transposed to our daily lives and largely affect relationship we have with our environment, people and society at large.  

Such a tendency to turn a blind eye and beautify reality is masterfully exemplified in one of many thought-provoking scenes of The Lake and The Lake (Sidhu Thirumalaisamy), in which pollution and poverty – the less attractive features of India’s Sillicon Valley – are erased with a simple crop tool to achieve a perfect sunset photo.

Some artists turn to celluloid as a way of dealing with sensory overload brought on by modern consumerist and tech societies, as seen in Simon Liu’s E-ticket, where an artist tries to tame his scrambled memories of Far East voyages by physically placing them on thousands of meters of 35mm filmstrips.  The result is an otherworldly explosion of pulsating colours, textures, images and sounds that drive the spectator to a near-hallucinogenic state.

In the case of Austrian filmmaker Stefanie Weberhofer (Kopierwerk), working with celluloid becomes a political statement, an act of resistance to digital invasion and fatalistic discourses on the death of cinema, while Emma Piper-Burket offers a more nostalgic refuge to analogue with her charming miniature Lilac Game, reminding us that joy and pleasure can be found in a simple stroll down the street. What makes this film stand out from the ordinary is its unexpected performative moment in which the author invites the audience to join her childhood game and shout “Lilac” every time they see the flower on screen. Some (including me) were so excited by the game that the chat window at some point became flushed with people cheerfully typing “LILAC! LILAC!”.

This strikingly carefree manifestation of pure, childlike joy happens so rarely in movie theatres that it was hard not to be carried away by its wave. That being said, I wonder how many of us would have the guts to display such enthusiasm and spontaneously yell a random flower name if the screening were in a packed movie theatre instead our bedrooms. The screening of Lilac Game presented a textbook case of just how much our reception of a film may differ depending on the context in which we watch it. Lilac Game certainly wouldn’t leave such a heart-warming, powerful mark on me without the spontaneous collective engagement it provoked – it would have been an entirely different film. In this case, the virtual environment enabled the audience to experience the film precisely as its author intended, thus allowing Lilac Game to shine in all its poignant beauty, innocence and grace.

What keeps most of us constantly hunting for new images is pleasure – an insatiable lust for cinematic attractions and the pleasure we find in the sheer act of gazing. Siegried A. Fruhauf, Austrian master of the gaze,  knows this best and continues to play with our voyeuristic curiosity. Unlike his previous work that demanded more intellectual involvement in order for the spectator to derive some pleasure from it, Thorax, his newest contribution, is all about leaving brain cells at the door and letting oneself indulge in the pure sensation of light, sound and movement. Fruhauf makes of his light particles a powerful, pulsating eye-like wormhole: one that spins and sucks in everything that enters its penetrating gaze, only to throw it back out at you. It’s a crazy game of ping-pong, one of dynamic exchange of gazes, which gives rise to a sort of silent dialogue between spectator and filmmaker, making Thorax a highly intimate and almost metaphysical experience. Fruhauf’s abstract rhapsody also works as a wonderful time machine paying tribute to its avant-garde ancestors (notably Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema) and early cinematic inventions, hence reminding us of the eternal beauty of cinema, its seductive magic that compels us to continue watching and to be more than willing to lose ourselves entirely under its spell.

Experiment to the people!

Early avant-garde filmmakers – especially Dadaists – loved linguistic games, puns, practical jokes, outrageous stunts and basically anything that could irritate uptight bourgeois spirits and taste. It marked one of the beginnings of what we consider ‘experimental film’ today. As its name suggests, experimental filmmaking is all about continuous exploration, challenging and surpassing definitions of cinema. Following Dadaist footsteps, it is also about not taking yourself too seriously and enjoying the sheer process of making and sharing images. Ann Arbor successfully checked all of these boxes and made me understand why it’s one of the most eagerly awaited festivals of experimental moving image. As the first-ever film festival to take place in a virtual environment, Ann Arbor also opened doors to different ways of understanding and thinking about festivals, which, in light of the current pandemic and the uncertainties it brings to an ever-precarious cultural field, will certainly be a hot topic for everyone in the industry.

Of course, no virtual environment could ever replace the corporal experience – the joys of collective film-watching, lively after-screening discussions, exciting encounters with new like-minded individuals – which is one of the main reasons why film festivals are still so attractive to many and won’t disappear anytime soon.  Current crisis though sparked numerous archives, festivals, cinemas and distributors of independent and experimental cinema to unlock the doors of their vast libraries, which would previously be showcased only on special occasions in particular place and time for a few lucky attendees.

Even though the experimental film community strives on this exclusivity and hermeticism, aspects that, after all, allow it to exist and create its own set of rules and discourses independent of market demands, it doesn’t mean the availability of works should be exclusive as well. Opening (at least some part of) festival programs and film archives to wider audience (paid or not) via online platforms could be a step forward to creating a more inclusive, diverse community, as well as an opportunity to expand and enrich discourses on experimental moving image, nowadays limited to only a few specialized festival venues and journals.

If it wasn’t for this virtual adventure on the part of the Ann Arbor Festival, I’m not sure when I would get another chance to join such a thrilling cinematic journey. Life inside a disaster movie doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Ejla Kovačević is a Croatian film critic, currently residing in Paris where she’s interning at filmmakers’ cooperative Light Cone. She’s been a long-time collaborator of International Experimental Film and Video Festival – 25 FPS and an active member of film labs community  dedicated to the promotion and preservation of analog film practices. As a member of Zagreb-based filmlab Klubvizija she organized numerous workshops and projections, continuously sharing her passion for photochemical experiments that never cease to surprise her. 

2 thoughts on “Revolutionizing Festivals – Notes on the First Virtual Ann Arbor Film Festival

  1. Thank you for these generous reflections on the first ever live streamed AAFF. There is no doubt that the audience in the historic and beautiful Michigan Theater main auditorium would have been shouting LILAC! Fingers crossed (and toes and arms and legs) that there will be an in-person 59th AAFF, and I hope to meet you there!

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