A Few Bright Spots in the Desert: A Report on the 62nd Ann Arbor Film Festival

by Joshua Peinado

As the oldest avant garde film festival in North America, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has proudly staked its claim as one of the foremost bastions for emerging experimental filmmakers. There is not only the distinction of playing a film in the festival that has had the likes of Kenneth Anger, Phil Solomon, and Nathaniel Dorsky but also a range of cash prizes and grants. Though its 2024 shorts program was not primarily composed of avant-gardists (these days it seems more focused on docs and animation) the festival still holds room for its tradition and calling card of experimentation. Of course, as in any festival, some experiments are bound to be duds. Whether it was the integration of AI or the thudding obviousness and formal sheepishness of many of its more ‘politically salient’ docs, the majority of Ann Arbor’s shorts in competition simply didn’t live up to the tradition of avant-garde cinema. However, there were still some bright spots.

Mark Street’s Clear Ice Fern (2023) takes to the streets of a nocturnal New York City—shooting the neon of the night on Super 8 through architectural glass. The imposed effect of the glass amounts to near-total obfuscation of the objects Street is shooting, but their auras remain in light tracing the patterns of the glass. It feels like Stan Brakhage’s Text of Light (1974) in its refractural nature, but the score of city sounds and haunting strings render the film much more eerie—as if the audience is watching the outbreak of some apocalyptic event from behind blurred glasses. The soundtrack unfortunately isn’t dynamic enough to shepherd in the range of emotions that can be experienced with the visuals, causing the film to feel all the more claustrophobic. Street could perhaps learn a thing from Brakhage and let the score go. 

Mark Durand’s Immortals (2023) is an experimental Super 8 documentary which explores the inner-life of artist Bettina Szabo, and offers up some of the most interesting frames of the festival. Szabo spends much of the five minute film near the sea, often on a rock adorned in sheer fabric. The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of Teo Hernández’s Maya (1979) and Chutes de Maya (1984), complete with the signature Super 8 crackle. Durand’s film is, however, a documentary whose foremost concern isn’t sensory but rather narrative. Narration eludes the film of its potential, as its images struggle to hold up the weight of the words surrounding them. The shots themselves are fantastical, particularly a section of the film which focuses on fire and mirrors, but grounding the film in reality disservices it. What might’ve been a moving, fantastic journey into myth is brought down to the mortal world. 


Vito A. Rowland’s Immaculate Generations No. 1 (2022) is made up of tens of thousands of X-rays of eyes. Projected in 16mm, each distinct orb appears like a galaxy, and the rapid pace at which they flicker produces the sensation of interstellar travel. Many of the eyes look similar—orange modes containing optic discs (that would be the bright spot) around which veins concentrate with often visible, darker maculars parallel to them. Rowland’s choice of score features a dissonant, bouncing string section which grows tired after some time, but nonetheless creates an effective droning atmosphere to lose oneself in. Throughout the film, there are some cuts that are more dramatic, and the space between the eyes opens up to the possibility of montage. Rowland never takes full advantage of this effect however, and the film falters for it. The images are beautiful, but their movements appear too choreographed to have any major effect on the viewer. 

Laura Kraning’s de-composition (2023) is one of the shorter films in any program, and stands out for its excellent sense-of-self. Where many films in the festivals were plagued by aspirations that far outstretched their grasp, Kraning’s intimate look at rust felt like a breath of fresh air. The film takes an up-close look at the corroded, stained, marred surfaces of Buffalo, NY, examining their textures and intricacies in rapid, almost stop-motion movement. It feels like a Rose Lowder film with its strobing pulses, but where Lowder’s interests occupy the natural world, Kraning’s occupy the natural overcoming the unnatural. Kraning’s eye captures a micro-world of degeneration and finds true beauty in the process. Often, the corrosion appears like a painting or some gorgeous mineral display. Some of the most exciting moments of the film see Kraning rapidly cut between two rusted surfaces, posing them as if in conversation with each other. With Kraning’s sense for dynamism, ordinary bolts perform a choreographed dance and grates come alive to the appropriately soundtracked trains chugging by on steel rails. 


Laurence Favre’s Zerzura (2023), shot on 16mm with a Bolex camera, opens with the words, “listening to the bowels, winds and wings whisper, in a timeless vivid polyphony.” The rest of the film is staged across roughly four dozen desert landscapes over eleven minutes. It often contrasts the micro with the macro—shifting rays of light scattered across grains of sand shown next to an inlet stretching across a vast swath of the desert. Most of the film only deals in dunes and grains, but retains a surprising drive despite this. Shifting sand gives way to wind-quivering branches and rich sunsets. The soundtrack of ambient desert sounds and occasional vocal interludes grounds the film in its environment, and allows for a range of emotions when faced with the natural world as Favre presents it—not the least of which is awe. The landscapes at their most grand appear like something out of classical Hollywood and at their most intimate seem like frames from a Dorsky film. What Favre accomplishes in balancing these approaches is no small feat and the film is a rather impressive testament to the power of landscapes, both micro and macro. 

Maya Gurantz’s Poem of E.L. (2022), winner of the best sound design award, is one of the most masterfully edited films to show at the festival. The film is based on the true story of Elisa Lam, a UBC student who was found dead in a water tower in the motel she was staying at in California. Her death went ‘viral’ after the LAPD posted a video of her acting strangely in an elevator on the last day she was seen alive. Gurantz’s film attempts to reckon with the ways that Lam’s story was exploited, turning into fodder for TV shows, true crime documentaries, and even having Nicolas Winding Refn attached to direct a movie based on her death at one point. The film is separated into three sections. The first, Surveillance Cinema, juxtaposes security footage of Lam in the elevator with recreations of Gurantz mirroring her behavior. Lam, and so Gurantz, peers out of the elevator and flails her limbs before stepping back inside. The two walk around the side of the elevator, step out and stretch just out of the camera’s purview, and press every button on the elevator. Gurantz, in identifying with Lam, asks the audience to consider Lam as a person outside of the pixelated picture that was presented to them. Gurantz acts out across a variety of angles and screens not available to view Lam’s behavior, and so allows the audience access to a narrative that doesn’t interrogate the ‘why’ but rather permits events to play out in accordance with their pre-ordained momentum. 

The second part of the film, and the most entrancing, is titled Last Walk. Gurnatz presses an elevator button, and the camera cuts to the same hand ringing a doorbell before cutting back to the elevator where Gurantz now presses a different button that cuts to a television being turned on. Most of the second part operates in this mode of rapidly cutting between different times and places that have vague connections to each other—most often connected only by the actions of the protagonist and the sounds surrounding her. Guratnz plays a piano, and then is suddenly pressing her finger into mud as if playing a note; a long, empty hallway turns into a runway at a bar; the empty hallways returns and her hands outstretched suddenly appear before a faucet which she turns and continues to turn even when returned to the hallway, twisting her arms around air. The cumulative effect is jarring and distinctly uneasy. The audience is only privy to a few seconds at a time of any one reality ‘Lam’ lived in and the ways in which they interconnect suggests a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. 

Poems of E.L.

The third part, titled Fugue, is short—and oscillates between old television programs and Gurantz climbing up a ladder (presumably the ladder to the water tank) as the sound of water occupies the latter half of the section. The film’s montage is nothing short of breathtaking, both for its intentional impenetrability and for its flow between countless cuts which adds up to something like a hallucinogenic trance. Its horror isn’t found in anything concrete—there’s the occasional blood splatter—but rather in its unknowability. Faces come and go, many seem important, but the audience can’t know who they are or what they mean. In Poem of E.L., Gurantz poses the narratives constructed around Lam as an ever-shifting series of windows that never form a whole view, and in so doing finds the true horror at the center of Lam’s story to be the narratives that trapped her after her death. 

Ann Arbor, in its 62nd edition, posed several challenging questions, certainly not the least of which was, ‘is this the state of the avant garde in 2024?’ Ann Arbor, beyond its films in competition, did have an excellent program of Wenhua Shi shorts, new and old, and programs celebrating more canonical works, like Brakhage’s rarely screened My Mountain Song 27 (1968) and Peggy Ahwesh’s more popular She Puppet (2001). Outside of Michigan, other festivals have stepped up to fill the hole left by Ann Arbor’s mixed programming. Cinéma du Réel in its 46th edition presented formally compelling, thoughtfully challenging work from the likes of Ben Russell, Guillaume Cailleau, Zhou Tao, James Benning, Johan Grimonprez, and Kevin Jerome Everson among others; Wavelengths at TIFF laid claim to new films by Rose Lowder, Pedro Costa, and Jean-Luc Godard, among features by Angela Schanelec, Bas Devos, and Wang Bing; Light Matter Film Festival curated an excellent lineup that included Blanca García, Linnea Nugent, Blake Williams, and Joost Rekveld (the same Rekveld film played at Ann Arbor). While Ann Arbor hasn’t entirely lost its grip on its status as a haven for the avant garde, it is beginning to wane in relevance as other festivals expand their avant garde selections and new avant garde festivals emerge on the cutting edge of programming. 

Joshua Peinado is a filmmaker and critic based out of the Pacific Northwest, whose writing can be found most routinely in In Review Online and Screen Slate [Twitter]

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