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Something of the 50th (for the 60th)

Published March 21, 2022

The 50th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival was definitely something, not any one thing, but many pieces of a whole lot of AAFF history: beautiful and strange, sad and surreal. Here are a couple of semi-precious gems I've mined to share for the 60th:

A) George

Iconoclastic AAFF founder in attendance. In his 80's and not in the best of health, but he was determined to give his opening night speech. And have some drinks…maybe one too many. Our mixologists had crafted "the Manupelli" in his honor, so it's hard to fault the guy. By the time I turned the mic over to him on the Michigan Theater stage—shaped like the wooden bow of a beautiful ship—George was unsteady and lost at sea. His note cards were all out of order. The jokes weren't where they were supposed to be. But George had a captain’s presence, and the audience couldn't tell that his flustered delivery was unintentional. They were with him every line. Soon he seemed to realize he wasn't going to figure it out. So he improvised, embraced a new route and sailed off stage to raucous cheers. To be honest, maybe it was exactly the way George meant it to be. All dada and definitely AAFF.

The next day, however, George wasn't doing well. He was so determined to be at the festival, be the life of the party, turn back the clock, keep telling jokes and drink more drinks. But the situation got serious with his health. There were tears. Our staff was already stretched thin, sailing full speed ahead into a packed schedule of programs and parties. We didn’t know what to do. All I knew is that I couldn't let the AAFF founder throw himself overboard at the 50th. So I called my doctor with an unusual and urgent favor: a house call to the Bell Tower Hotel. For our good fortune, Dr. Jay (disclosure: he's now an AAFF board member) dropped what he was doing to pay us a visit. George was impatient, dismissive and eager to get back to the action. But within minutes Dr. Jay was winning him over with dirty jokes and diagnosing his condition. His left foot was a red alert. Dr. Jay let him know that he might lose it if we didn't get him medical care right away. It seemed that George, who lived alone on the east coast, had been downplaying his symptoms for a while, determined to make it to the 50th AAFF come hell or high water.

The rest of the story was a lot of waiting rooms and tests at the U-M hospital with gracious nurses and doctors. While the AAFF staff—David, Becca and Maria, and many volunteers—held down the fort admirably at the festival, another volunteer, Chanel, and I, stayed with George. While we awaited a prognosis and next steps, he was still able to hold court, not in the theater, but in his hospital room, where he told us stories of the "good ole days" of the avant-garde.

B) Barbara Hammer

Provocateur, performer, pioneering filmmaker and so much more. Another legend we've had to say goodbye to since the 50th. She was in attendance for a special “Out Night” program featuring her work.

When I got back to the Michigan Theater to do the introduction for Barbara's program, I walked in just as a team of EMTs was carrying someone out on a stretcher. “What on earth?!” Apparently, during the last film by Craig Baldwin (a hero of my early filmmaking days in San Francisco), an audience member had a seizure. As I got closer, I realized it was someone I knew. They’d been in rehab and likely weren’t ready to be out in public, but the draw of the AAFF had been so strong, that just like George, they didn’t want to miss out. In the end, they would be okay, but needless to say, I was stepping up on stage a bit shaken.

I got through the introductions in a fugue-like state, then collapsed into my seat for the program. Damn, Barbara’s films were so visceral—such a strong vision, voice, and intent with her work. Cinema can do so much: expand our minds and consciousness; ground us and bring us into the moment; help us imagine or escape or explore new places. By the time the program finished and I landed back on stage, I was in another world—a surreal one. The Q&A with Barbara began.

We’d met before, a couple times: in New York, in Toronto. She always seemed to have a good, mischievous gleam in her eye when we connected. And, however it happened, in response to some audience question, she began to sing. “Ommmgasm. Ommmgasm,” she chanted. Barbara looked my way with that gleam, inviting me to chime in. I’m not much of a singer, but we started to harmonize. And to my surprise it actually sounded good! I was just trying not to lose the note and looking right at Barbara, looking right at me. That was it. The festival in a moment: a collective experience where anything could happen.

C) See you at the 60th for more adventures in avant-garde cinema!

- Donald Harrison, Filmmaker and Lead Producer of 7 Cylinders Studio (AAFF Executive Director 2008 - 2012)


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