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A Word from our Executive Director

What makes the Ann Arbor Film Festival unlike other film festivals? Going on 56 years, we are the third oldest in the States. Showing experimental and avant garde art films distinguishes us from the vast majority of other film festivals. Setting the stage for our longevity and content, however, is our location. Ann Arbor and its historically progressive spirit is a huge part of our essence and staying power.

It’s hard to know how deep Ann Arbor’s forward-leaning roots extend. In the late forties, barber shops that refused to serve African-Americans were picketed by university students. During the sixties, when the AAFF was founded, counter-culture activity was at a high. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was established, John Lennon appeared at the Free John Sinclair rally, and the internationally renowned ONCE Group innovated in cross-disciplinary art. The annual Hash Bash continues to this day. The student-run college radio station, WCBN, is adored for its longstanding freeform programming. And the Ann Arbor Film Festival upholds the city’s forward-thinking embrace of peace, freedom, and equality.

The AAFF embodies a living history of the town’s radical past where varied perspectives and life experiences are not only tolerated, but respected and embraced. We champion and showcase a wide variety of individual stories told in unique ways. Unconventional and ahead of the times, the films we show also break new ground aesthetically and technically, often leading the way to developments in mainstream movies, commercials, music videos, and opening sequences to tv shows.

The progressive core of Ann Arbor is reflected in many current ventures such as the Waterhill neighborhood Snow Buddy program. Neighborhood residents collectively purchased two Bobcats which are operated by volunteers in the winter months to clear the snow from everyone’s sidewalks in the 30-block area.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns who “saw his first boobs on the screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival,” also exudes the Ann Arbor soul. A 1971 Pioneer High graduate, his epic 18-hour series about the Vietnam War is airing on PBS this fall.

Zingerman’s delicatessen is another present-day Ann Arbor fundamental. Internationally renowned for gastronomically smart and scrumptious food, the company also provides business opportunities within the Ann Arbor community, has led the way in open book finance management, and explored alternative methods of employee ownership.

Ann Arbor is characterized by a broad-minded zeal to evolve, a progressive quality that goes hand-in-hand with its recent identification as the most educated city in America. While our town takes pride in leading innovations in society, economic segregation in Washtenaw County is large and growing. Increasing poverty levels and rising inequalities fall along lines of race, ethnicity, income and geography, reflecting the national trend.

Let us apply our smarts to bridging the class divide. Let us focus our efforts on stopping the devolution of the current socio-economic reality. Race, which is clearly tied to economic disparity, is deliberately being leveraged in order to incite the passions of the president’s racist supporters. As Michael Moore points out during an interview on CNN with Don Lemon after the president’s August 15th press conference on Charlottesville: “He’s not as stupid as people want to believe he is. He knows exactly what he’s doing, he knows the words to use...”

Racial hostility roused by the sophisticated propaganda arm of those in power serves to divide us. Stereotyping dehumanizes individuals, and as Anna March writes, “Racism hurts... by keeping us separate from our best selves and separate from one another — it fosters fear and silence in our communities, rather than love and support.”

May the 99% rise above, join forces to oppose the ruling class as it consolidates power, resources and money. Let us acknowledge the sad truth that “Capitalism intentionally organizes society through economic inequality and racial divisions, working hand-in-hand with white supremacy to oppress the many while empowering the few.” (Rafael Diaz)

An informative primer at is a timely and inspiring resource that outlines the history and envisions a future of positive social change.

And what of art? It helps us grow and see new things. As a doctor espousing the benefits of teaching visual art to medical students says, “it gently takes us out of our comfort zone…. It gives us a great opportunity to have these stop and think moments.”

AAFF is here to share the vast array of human experience in all of its nuanced, complex, and glorious messiness, as depicted in the most popular medium of today. We champion films that rise above conventions and mainstream cliches. Wide-ranging content, alongside innovative techniques and aesthetics, takes center stage on the main screen of the Michigan Theater during Festival week. It is an occasion to assemble and witness many examples of our rich and multifaceted reality.

Our audience does travel from all over the world, but local citizens make our attendance numbers hard to match by other festivals of our kind. Ann Arbor is a town with a progressive spirit and love of the alternative, where lots of ordinary folks appreciate and come out for experimental film. Over half a century ago, Ann Arbor fostered the soul of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. And we continue to this day, in our way, imagining and building towards the best possible future for all.

Leslie Raymond

AAFF Executive Director

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