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The History of Experimental Film Festivals

The year is 1932-- A gallon of gas costs 10 cents, Johnny Cash has just been born, and the throes of the Great Depression can be felt around the world. The world is changing and the people with it, including the ever-engaging world of Film. The medium has been making waves since 1891 when Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope. The invention took American and European audiences by storm and would pave the way for future inventions, like the Cinématographe and Vitascope. Now, 41 years later, the first Film Festival will open its doors--The Venice International Film Festival.

The Venice International Film Festival is the first established film festival in history. It was first organized in August of 1932 at the La Biennale di Venezia by the President of the Biennale, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the sculptor Antonio Maraini, and Luciano De Feo. The festival garnered so much positive response that it became an annual event from then on.

Once the Venice International Film Festival set the stage, many different festivals followed suit. The Venice International Film Festival is considered one of the “Big Three” film festivals out there, joined by the Cannes Festival, in 1946, and the Berlin International Film Festival in 1951. These three are said to be some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.

But what about America? Well, we’ve been doing this whole film festival thing for a while, too, just not as long! The Columbus International Film and Animation Festival, formerly known as The Chris Awards, is the oldest film festival in the United States, having been established in 1952. A hallmark for central Ohio, the festival has successfully promoted filmmakers for 68 years. While big-name industry professionals enter, the festival is about providing a platform for independent filmmakers as well.

But as we know, not every film is for every audience. Many individuals felt these festivals to be too broad for their work, not sure they should submit a film. Thus, independent and experimental festivals were born.

Based on our findings, we believe the Ann Arbor Film Festival to be the oldest experimental, avant-garde film festival in the world. Established in 1963, AAFF has been the premier venue for independent filmmakers to come together and experience film as an art-form. With a rich history and reputation as a platform for experimental makers, it is one of the more notable festivals for the niche.

With experimental film dating all the way back to the 1920s, it is also important to mention the existence of another organization. Doc Films of the University of Chicago was officially established in 1940, but there are records of the group going back to 1932. While the organization started as a playground for nonfiction film, they found that it was not sustainable and thus branched out to include fiction and experimental films. It is the longest continuously running student film society in America, according to the Museum of Modern Art. Were they to be doing film festival since the time of inception, it would be considered the oldest experimental film festival--it was in May 2019 that Doc Films held their first film festival. (Congratulations to them!)

As AAFF gears up for our 58th annual festival, we pause to look back upon our history, what brought us here, what keeps us here. It’s clear that there is a large love of film all over the world; from Venice to Columbus, from Chicago to Berlin. With over 3,000 active film festivals taking place each year, it’s hard not to miss such an impressive crowd of people. As we continue to grow and promote artists, we remember our roots fondly and hold nothing but the utmost respect for the decades-long tradition of film festivals.

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