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Q&A with Out Night Programmer: Sean Donovan

We chatted with Sean Donovan (virtually, of course) about his process programming Out Night, the 19th celebration of LGBTQ experimental films at the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Sean is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan in the Film, Television, & Media department. His research analyzes LGBTQ media cultures. He is currently teaching a class on horror media as well as working on a dissertation project related to nostalgia in different queer media forms. Sean's published work has examined gender and sexuality in horror narratives, with articles about the television series Hannibal and the film Raw. Check out our Q&A with Sean below.

How did you get involved with the Ann Arbor Film Festival and experimental film in particular?

I’ve long been a devotee of experimental film. I love dreaming about what cinema can do as a medium and how to stretch it to the furthest extremes of narrative and style; it’s a terrain of imagination you don’t often get to see. I became conscious of the AAFF when I moved here for grad school. I was really energized by the community around the festival and that there was so much passion for experimental film, I really wanted to be a part of it!

Have you programmed films for other festivals?

I worked with Reel Affirmations, a LGBTQ film festival in Washington D.C., for two years prior to moving to Michigan. The first year I was more of a volunteer, helping out with organization the day-of the festival and more administrative tasks, the following year they took me on as a sort of junior programmer. It’s a wonderful festival run by a great group of people, and I absolutely loved having access to so many films and seeing what’s en vogue in LGBTQ cinema.

Still from When Night Falls by Alexandre Lechasseur-Dubé

How would you describe Out Night to someone who has never seen the program?

I would say it’s like a blossoming flower with surprising thorns and dazzling colors. It’s queer representation but it’s also queered representation, interrogating what it means to be seen on screen. It’s a celebration of queer emotions, ranging from sadness and strife to ecstasy and joy. It’s a trip! But you’ll be glad you took it.

Still from Two Steps on the Water by Angelo Madsen Minax

What was it like watching Out Night online this year instead of in The Michigan Theater?

I really appreciated the decision to have such an accessible livestream of the festival. I got some people to watch who live far from Ann Arbor that wouldn’t have seen the program otherwise. We were going to have a live cinema performance from Angelo Madsen Minax, Two Steps on the Water, and he thankfully had a recorded version that we could play on the livestream. We weathered the crisis well but I did miss the in-person intimacy of a theatrical environment.

Still from Shannon Amen by Chris Dainty

Can you tell me a little bit about what the film selection process for Out Night is like?

I’m particularly moved by art that forwards a perspective about being queer in the world that melds that to a unique or surprising use of cinematic form. I try to include a range of voices and identities that represent the diversity of the queer experience. This includes the different letters of the LGBTQ acronym but also paying attention to intersectional categories like race, nationality, economic class, ability, and body type. This true diversity of expression exists in the experimental film world, we just need to work to showcase it! I also try to pay attention to echoes and thematic links where they exist- for example, the Out Night feature Why Can’t I Be Me? Around You and two of the short films Lesbian Farmer and Shannon Amen all reflect on LGBTQ life in rural areas. A dominant cliché in American culture at least is the lack of queer life in rural areas, that queer people migrate to major cities leaving discriminatory families behind. In the past year a few experimental filmmakers sought to revise that and celebrate rural queers, often left out of the mainstream LGBTQ image, and it’s pure coincidence but an interesting sign of what the cultural moment desires. I thought it important to celebrate that unconscious coalition. A few films really rewire my brain and make me think differently about how cinema works and those films I feel compelled to share with the world too. Maria Bang Espersen and Emilý Æyer’s A messy story about oak and was that film for me this year.

Still from A messy story about oak and by Maria Bang Espersen and Emilý Æyer

Why is it important to amplify LGBTQ voices through experimental film?

The first experimental filmmaker I really came to love was Kenneth Anger, who made incredible queer and occult art mainly from the 1940s to the 1960s. His work predates our usual ideas of when a viable LGBTQ cinematic culture emerged in the United States, and as such it’s ragged, emotional, imaginative and radically different from what mainstream LGBTQ representation became. I like honoring that spirit of resistance. I think of experimental queer voices as an important kind of rebuttal to the often sanitized mainstream-friendly images we receive of queer life in media. Shedding conventional style and narrative tropes lets the queer really run wild in a beautiful way.


What does AAFF mean to you?

I think AAFF performs a beautiful function of bring experimental cinema art to the world in an accessible and thought-provoking way. It represents a legacy of quality experimental film that is also attentive to the ways the form keeps evolving and changing and I love it for that.

Do you have any favorite LGBTQ films? Are there any LGBTQ films available online now you would recommend we watch?

I have many favorite LGBTQ films! I have a poster of Carol in my apartment, the gorgeously filmed 1950s romance between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Queer television is also an option-Netflix has been thoroughly advertising Hannibal recently for some reason, which although it appears to be a horror/detective series, it’s secretly quite an epic (and bizarre) gay romance. Teaching my horror class right now has sent me into a deep re-watch of that, one I’m fully happy to be caught up in.


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