During the last Ann Arbor Film Festival, we hosted the special anniversary panel “AAFF v. State of Michigan: Ten Years Later,” which brought together former AAFF Executive Director Christen Lien (McArdle), ACLU lawyer Michael Steinberg, and Michigan Theater CEO Russ Collins. The topic? To recount how 10 years before, the Festival’s government funding had come under attack by conservative forces in Michigan looking to quash government funding of the arts. The situation was dire. But Christen’s leadership, with the support of the ACLU and the dedication of the AAFF staff and board, allowed the Ann Arbor Film Festival to settle the case and continue its tradition of pushing socio-political and artistic boundaries with the diverse selection of films that are submitted each year.
We have taken it upon ourselves at the AAFF to record and then transcribe the entirety of this inspiring panel for those who were not able to attend the panel themselves during the Festival. (A link to the full transcript can be found at the bottom of this article).
Russ Collins started the panel by giving a bit of background information on the state of arts funding politics in Michigan circa 2006 and 2007: “...[the] Festival had to overcome censorship requirements that were put on it by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) because of pressure that was being applied by the state legislators…[during that time] The NEA was under attack and consequently the state council was under attack. Conservative forces in Michigan were following what conservative forces in the United States had done. They had started to look at arts funding in Michigan and looked for things that were politically annoying to the right in particular, but just politically annoying, and things that might be considered obscene in some kind of way.”
“The NEA was under attack and consequently the state council was under attack. Conservative forces...had started to look at arts funding in Michigan and looked for things that were politically annoying to the right in particular...and things that might be considered obscene in some kind of way.”
Christen Lien, a relatively green Executive Director, was blindsided by this attack: “About four months after I took the job, I get a call from John Bracey...the head of the MCACA...who was saying, ‘We have a problem on our hands. I've never seen anything like this before and you’ve got a storm coming your way.’ A legislator had sent out a press release statewide saying that the state was funding pornography and they were not going to stand for it and they named 24 films from the previous five years that the Festival exhibited and that they were all pornographic.”
“We have a problem on our hands. I've never seen anything like this before and you’ve got a storm coming your way.”
Although it was a serious accusation, Christen soon came to the conclusion that the attack was baseless: “...I started looking at the list of films and watching the films to see exactly what’s being talked about. What I quickly saw was an ulterior agenda happening…[for example] “Boobie Girl”...was [a Student] Academy Award winning...short film made for teenagers...Another film that was called pornographic in this press release was “America’s Biggest Dick” and it was a satire of Dick Cheney. Definitely pornographic!...they clearly didn’t watch the films - there was no diligence!...I saw very quickly that it was not all about our censorship. It was about political agendas that had nothing to do with us...it was really an election ploy, that’s really what was happening, because there were two open Senate seats-- conservative seats - and two conservatives were fighting each other.”
At first, Christen and her compatriots felt overwhelmed: “I think it’s important for people to understand the forces that were raised against you. Not only did you have the state government, which is powerful in and of itself, but an exhausted Board, who had dealt with a lot of very difficult issues...And then some of the folks that you would expect to be rallying to you, like the arts advocacy group Artserve, were playing politics with the dynamic...I received after-hours intimidation from [Artserve], straight up, from legislators, from all kinds of people.”
“I received after-hours intimidation from [Artserve], straight up, from legislators, from all kinds of people.”
Mike Steinberg chimed in with his unique take on the case: “The legislature became aware of this issue mostly because of the work of the Mackinac Center, which is a libertarian group in Michigan dedicated to taking away state funding for the arts for almost everything. I think they saw the Ann Arbor Film Festival as a low hanging fruit...I love censorship cases because when we file a lawsuit about something that’s been censored, it draws attention to it, and we almost always win these cases and it brings more people. If a book is censored, everybody wants to read it; if a film festival is censored, everybody wants to come.”
Funding was revoked by lobbying by the Mackinac Center and was focused on the level of sexual content (or implied sex) that was in the films. This was part of a standard set by the state as to how their arts funding was allocated: “Basically, the legislation that was being relied on prohibited funding of the arts as an absolute bar on any arts project that did one of three things: that contained a display of sex acts; involved human waste on religious symbols; or was the depiction of flag desecration.” Specifically, the “sex acts” clause was the one that was contested by the Mackinac Center.
Luckily for Mike, Supreme Court case law was on his side, as past Supreme Court cases have protected acts such as flag burning under cases like Texas v Johnson, or in cases like NEA v Finley, protects arts funding to anything with artistic merit: “So I met up with [a] committee and I tried to talk with them about sex in the Ann Arbor Film Festival...And eventually they adopted the standard that had been upheld by the US Supreme Court. There was a little concern over whether there would be retaliation against the Festival, but there wasn’t. And the next year [the AAFF] got their state funding.
“There was a little concern over whether there would be retaliation against the Festival, but there wasn’t. And the next year [the AAFF] got their state funding.”
Meanwhile, however, Christen and her team had to deal with the financial and reputation backlash that they had received from the case. However, the Festival was unperturbed. As Russ Collins put it, “I think this a story of leadership and pluck, and a creative approach to problem solving...She didn’t name-call or stand on a soap box...She said ‘We’re in the right...and we’re going to have to engage the community, engage artists, and deal with the financial realities to get through this very difficult situation.’” This strong belief in the Festival and what it stands for led the Festival team to create a successful, tongue-in-cheek fundraising campaign that subverted expectations. Christen reflected, “Humor has a role that you can’t underestimate strategically. Honestly, the whole time we were fighting we were laughing, we really were, and it pissed them off that we were having so much fun. All of a sudden, they’re on the defensive reacting to our humor.
We had to raise a lot of money very quickly...We called it the Endangered Campaign, meaning that the Festival was suddenly an endangered species...It was one of the first online fundraising campaigns. This was way before the days of Kickstarter, and in the end we raised $80,000 in three months - much more than the money that was taken away.”
The team also participated in fundraising “Acts of Audacity,” where board members, staff, and interns would partake in fun, if slightly embarrassing activities such as glam-rock karaoke or badminton matches that pitted costumed interns against roller derby girls. Christen re-emphasized the importance of humor in her strategy, stating that “Once you stop reacting with fear and can act with humor, you’re not in their control anymore. Now they feel like they have a problem on their hands and they have to react.”
After successfully funding the Festival through community engagement and winning the case against the state legislature, the Festival secured its funding for years to come, as well as set a precedent for other art institutions to keep their funding. The implications of this victory that the Festival scored honestly cannot be underestimated. The protection of radical art, art that challenges political and social mores, and the protection of funding of this art, is paramount to America, not to mention inherent human, expression. And, in a day and age where our President aims to eliminate government arts funding completely, this victory presents a shred of hope in our current dour situation. Even more importantly, the victory is a triumph of cooperation, community engagement, and self-determination. As Christen noted, “I’ve said onstage at a big international film festival summit that we all need to learn from the Ann Arbor Film Festival because if everyone walked around and knew who they were the way this organization does, the world would be a better place, a more empathetic and compassionate place.”
“I’ve said onstage at a big international film festival summit that we all need to learn from the Ann Arbor Film Festival because if everyone walked around and knew who they were the way this organization does, the world would be a better place, a more empathetic and compassionate place.”
Check out the full transcript HERE