THE FESTIVAL AND ME
A Word from our Executive Director
It was the final week of art school when Amy Kravitz visited my film class to tell us how to submit our work to film festivals. She gave us a handout that included the Ann Arbor Film Festival, listed under my home state. I'd grown up just 40 miles away, but had never heard of it. Soon after, I found the Festival office in the back of Vicki's Wash and Wear Haircuts and met AAFF director Vicki Honeyman. When I asked how I could help, she handed me a stack of posters to put up.
That milestone year, the Festival celebrated its 30th with a four-day conference. AAFF luminaries who took part included George Manupelli, Pat Oleszko, George Kuchar, Barbara Hammer, Abigail Child, Sharon Couzin, Leighton Pierce and others. I attended Kenneth Anger's presentation of Into the Pleasure Dome at Lorch Hall, and a hand-processing film workshop led by Carl Brown. A marathon retrospective lasted until the wee hours of the morning, where legendary films lodged themselves in the recesses of my memory as I sat amongst the crowd in the Michigan Theater. Thanatopsis by Ed Emschwiller, Selective Service System by Warren Haack, United States of America by James Benning & Bette Gordon made enduring impressions.
Video installations by James Duesing, Paul Glabicki and Deanna Morse at the Matrix Gallery inspired me to show my slides to gallery director Tom Bartlett. He invited me to create new work to show there, and two years later I presented (Inside-Out) Mastication Zone, “a two-room installation of pancakes, film projections & video.” A grid of pancakes covered the walls. There was a kaleidoscopic super-8 film viewer built into a Bisquick box with a wide-angle, tightly-framed shot of a mouth eating pancakes. A TV screen peeked out of a mountain of pancakes and there were film projections and a wall-mounted hot-plate. Over the next several years, the Matrix Gallery hosted two more exhibitions of my work that coincided with Festival week.
One was a sprawling social sculpture project called Combustion Zone which was headquartered there in 1998. It had developed in relation to a 16mm optically printed experimental documentary I made, Rife w/ Fire, about pyrotechnic artist Steve Rife. The movie played at AAFF that year and won the Best Local Filmmaker Award. Many artist friends from St. Paul/Minneapolis took part in Combustion Zone, and we installed a display case in the Michigan Theater lobby detailing the project and its multiple locations, and hung around in lab coats “surveying” the Festival audience about combustion.
I didn't know it then, but the AAFF ethos had infused itself in my creative soul. Through the communal experience of watching experimental films in the context of the historic Michigan Theater, I came to understand art as a potential site of intimate and personal social exchange.
The Festival welcomed my participation on a fairly regular basis. I showed more films, and presented multimedia installations and live cinema performances as a solo artist and as part of the duo, Potter-Belmar Labs. During my time in academia, I involved my students with storefront window and other site-specific installation projects. I sat on panels and on the screening committee when it was still strictly 16mm, and even organized a couple of parades. I contributed to efforts that made way for video by putting together the Digital New School screening in 2003.
While teaching at University of Texas at San Antonio, I brought the Festival touring programs to the San Antonio community, and my cadre of new media students to the Festival. I served on the advisory board and made friends with AAFF Founding Director George Manupelli. We struck up a letter-writing correspondence (in very large type, as he was suffering from macular degeneration) and eventually my husband and I visited him at his home in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. George designed the cover art and wrote introductory remarks for one of Potter-Belmar Labs' self-published DVDs of live-cinema work.
Despite his ill health, George returned to Ann Arbor to celebrate the 50th anniversary AAFF. He partied too hard and ended up in the hospital, missing his appearance on the Rooted Not Retro panel. At the Friday morning educators summit, Gerry Fialka suggested that I fill in for him, and a few hours later I was sitting at the table, sharing stories and future visions with Pat Oleszko and Ruth Bradley, in George’s stead.
Not long after, I started the job as Executive Director of the Festival, then promptly made a pilgrimage to the Bentley Historic Library at the University of Michigan. The caretaker of our archive took me on a tour deep into the stacks where I opened a random box from the AAFF collection. There, thoroughly by chance, on the first page of an arbitrary folder pulled from that box, on a document of printed and handwritten notes, I found my name.
AAFF Executive Director
(The complete timeline of Leslie's history with the Festival can be found HERE!)