Review: The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival (Competition 1)

It’s the oldest independent and experimental film festival in the entire country, and it’s happening right now just a block away from University of Michigan's campus. The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival will run from Tuesday, March 15th to Sunday, March 20th, and exhibit more than 200 unique films across genres (experimental, narrative, documentary, animation). Feature-length films shown throughout the week will all compete for the grand prize, the title of Best Feature Film. The Festival also includes short film competitions, groups of anywhere between 5-14 short films that compete for prizes within each group.

Last night, I kicked off the festival by going to see all the short films in competition 1. There were ten in total, with each film ranging anywhere from three to fourteen minutes. The short film competitions are dynamic, with motifs ranging from completely abstract animations to heart-wrenching depictions of reality.

It’s hard to put into words what I got out of these films, and I would imagine that most of the audience members felt the same way. Take Scott Stark’s Traces/Legacy, for example. He describes his film as “discarded Christmas trees, colorfully arranged flea market finds, a museum of animal kills, microscopic views of kitchenware, and other overlooked cultural artifacts,” which are “interwoven with flickering journeys through mysterious, shadowy realms.” The series of digital still images that appear on the screen were printed by Stark onto 35mm film using a film recorder. They were then overlapped with rhythmic sounds that coordinated with the flashing repetition of each image, producing an experience that exudes more of feeling than message.

Or, for a film with social gravitas, turn to Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience. Found footage of American actress Ruby Dee reciting a slave narrative in a 1960s TV broadcast is the backdrop for a series of animated designs that are simultaneously being created on screen. The film then begins to cut in-between footage of African-Americans in a church during the 1950s and the riots that have been occurring all over the nation as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a six minute exploration into the connection between slavery, church, resistance and restoration, but which theme dominates is dependent on your judgment and preference. As I noticed with Traces/Legacy and An Ecstatic Experience, as well as with almost all the films in competition 1, you get what you want out of them. Talk with the audience members sitting next to you and you’ll probably find that the thoughts and meditations you had about the film you just saw are completely different than theirs.

I had three competing favorites of the ten films in competition:

The first, Peter Burr’s The Mess (14min), takes you on a journey through a utopian, computer-animated world that largely resembles a video game. The film follows a female figure through “the mess” that the world has become, until she finally reaches a labyrinth of mirrors and pathways where the architects of this utopian world hide away. The actual plot and progression of it were perhaps the most clear out of all ten films, but that still doesn’t mean I walked away from this film with a solid conception of what Burr was communicating through both the graphics and the storyline. Was he trying to get across the inevitable doom that our world will face? Or the power of the individual to challenge authority? Perhaps the death of the female at the end was suggestive of the individual's incapability to succeed in fighting back. I'll probably never know, but maybe it's best kept that way. Some films aim to pose more questions than they answer, and this was certainly one of them. 

The Mess

The Mess

The second of my favorite trio was Vague Images at the Beginning and End of the Day (8min) by Carl Elsaesser. It was easily the most humorous within the contenders; when the film opens with a distant voice yelling “F*ck You, Mother F*cker!” you can’t help but laugh. But as I dug beneath the humor, I saw a vivid documentary on the surrounding environment of Elsaesser’s recently deceased grandfather. For the film, Elsaesser travelled to Loomis, South Dakota to “find the abandoned farm where my grandfather grew up.” Elsaesser also claims the film is “a hug/punch eulogy for all things impossible now.” At one point, the film turns into a first person viewpoint of two hands reaching out at the sky, as if calling out for the grandfather; yet, as gracious as that moment might be described here, it was overlapped with the character's screeching attempt to sing a chant at the sky that completely contrasts the character's sentimental gesture. The film is sorrowful, humble, but also comical, a potent blend of feelings that are meant to be explored rather than deciphered.

The last of my favorites was Lauren Cook’s KCBT - Khoan Cắt Bê Tông Concrete Cutting and Drilling (5min). The film is a collection of short clips of specific landmarks and the urban landscape around Hanoi, Vietnam that are all marked with the stenciled acronym KCBT to signify advertisements for the demolition of the structures. Cook captures the message of the demolition ads perfectly, saying they “visibly mark the entire city and internally mark its residents.” The acronym is illegally tattooed on almost every concrete wall around Hanoi. Due to the city's rapid economic growth, it has adopted a system of destruction and reconstruction, thus leaving many homes and buildings subject to tear-down. The pressure on the city to grow its economy and public infrastructure has made the process often an attack on Hanoi's culture, knocking down cultural landmarks to make way for new, often utilitarian structures. Cook communicates her message to the audience more directly than any of the other films, perhaps because the grim reality of each clip presented evokes undisputed despondency about some of the consequences that come with a rapid economic growth in the developing world. 



Competition 1 embodied precisely what the Ann Arbor film festival is all about: ingenuity, invention, experimental work with sometimes clear, sometimes unclear, messages. But that’s part of the experience. It makes for some fascinating discussions as you’re walking out of the theater, talking with the people around you about the different ways they saw certain aspects of each film. What’s exciting about experimental films is their potential to influence the industry in the near or distant future. Remember, what is cool today was not always cool before: when your eyes are glued to one of the screens inside the Michigan Theater, you might not only be watching how a story unfolds, but also the origin of a certain technique that just may eventually become the new normal.

Want to get in on this uniquely Ann Arbor experience? You're in luck - the 54th Annual Arbor Festival has only just begun! As of press time, there are still dozens of films and competitions ready for the weekend ahead. Tickets are $10 per showing ($7 for students). Check out my personal recommendations below - you won't regret it:


The Illinois Parables (Friday, March 18, 7:00PM)

Animated Films in Competition (Friday, March 18, 9:30PM)

Films in Competition 7 (Saturday, March 19, 3:15PM)

Dead Slow Ahead (Saturday, March 19, 5:00PM)

Fragment 53. (Saturday, March 19, 5:15PM)

Films in Competition 8 (Saturday, March 19, 7:15PM)

time/OUT OF JOINT (Saturday, March 19, 9:15PM)

Films in Competition 10 (Sunday, March 20, 11:15AM)

Sixty Six: Lewis Klahr (Sunday, March 20, 1:15PM)


Read in detail about these and more of the amazing events of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival at