Film festivals exist to allow independent movies to gain an audience and to showcase the artistic talent of lesser-known film artists.  The films shown are not action packed blockbusters, but usually milder character driven stories that large movie studios don’t invest it.  Other films follow an avant-garde approach, trying to discover something new in how film can be captured and edited and how stories can be told. 

And then there are the short films; small things that last no more than ten minutes that no one is going to pay eight dollars too see, but still tell such poignant stories in the few minute they flicker on the screen. There are also experiments in animation, films made with stop motion photography or experimenting with new graphics software.

The Ann Arbor Film Fest (AAFF) isn’t the most widely known or prestigious film fest in the world, but it’s still internationally recognized as a premiere forum for films.  It is the longest-running independent and experimental film festival in North America after all, founded in 1963 just three years after the Ann Arbor Art Fair.  This film festival is also one of the few Academy Award qualifying festivals in the United States.

Ann Arbor Film Festival LogoCredit:

The Film Fest is a six-day showcase of films at the Michigan Theater, with over 40 different types of programs and more than 160 films from over 20 countries.  Films are a variety of genres, including experiment, animation, documentary, narrative, hybrids of the any two, and performance based work.

Many famous filmmakers had their early works shown at AAFF, including George Lucas, Barabara Hammer, Yoko Ono, Any Warhol, and Kenneth Anger.  It’s not uncommon for talent behind or in front of the camera to be discovered in film fests, and AAFF’s link to the Academy Awards makes it an ideal place to be discovered.  As a result, the festival receives more than 2,500 submissions each year, most of which are turned away.

In addition to showing films in Ann Arbor, AAFF also travels to present short films in other locations around the world. The festival has also put together a DVD collection of award winning films from past events that can be purchased from the film fest’s site.  Also available to stream online are some films from the archives. 

AAFF MarqueCredit: festival was founded by George Manupelli, a filmmaker from the University of Michigan School of Art, to allow experimental and pioneering filmmakers to gain the exposure, feedback, and competition they desired.  While the original Film Fest was student centered, it eventually out grew those bounds as other filmmakers and film enthusiasts became involved.  In 1980, the festival became independent of the University of Michigan and moved to the Michigan Theater. Since 2003 digital and video formats have been welcomed.

Recently, in 2006, the AAFF ran into trouble with politically motivated censorship – in particular over  concerns of obscenity. In response, the state revoked funding to the festival and the AAFF launched it’s Endangered Campaign to raise money.  It raised $80,000 in four months, and since than has relied on grants.

There are plenty of awards given out each year, and winning one can also qualify the filmmakers for an Oscar nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Most are funded filmmakers who got their start at the Ann Arbor Film Fest.

  • Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival – given to the film that best represents the artistic standards of the excellence for the festival
  • Jury Awards – given to films as special recognition for films of distinction and artistic accomplishment
  • Stan Brakhage Film at Wit’s End Award – given to a filmmaker whose work exemplifies the ideals of the individual creating a revealing and thought-provoking visual expression of formal innovation and integrity
  • Gus Van Sant Award for Best Experimental Film – given to the film that most successfully showcases the use of experimental processes, forms, and topics
  • Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary Film – given to the best non-fiction film
  • Lawrence Kasdan Award for Best Narrative Film – given to the film with that makes the best use of the medium’s unique ability to convey striking and original stories
  • Chris Frayne Award for Best Animated Film – given to the animated picture that with the best style, creativity, and content
  • The Barabara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist – given to the most promising video artist just starting his/her film career
  • Prix DeVarti for Funniest Film – given to the film that creates the most laughs
  • Art & Science Award – given to the filmmaker who best uses the film medium to explore scientific concepts, research natural phenomena, or embrace real world experimentation
  • Peter Wilde Award for Most Technically Innovative Film – give to the film with the most cutting-edge technical innovations
  • autFILM Award for Best LGBT Film – given to the film that best addresses and give voice to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender) issues 
  • Award for Best Sound Design – given for excellence and originality in sound design
  • Kodak/Grace & Wild Imaging Award for Best Cinematography -  given to the film demonstrating the highest excellence and creativity in cinematography
  • Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker – given to an emerging filmmaker the Award Jury expects the most from in the future
  • George Manupelli Founder’s Spirit Award – given to the filmmaker who best captures Manupelli’s spirit
  • The Eileen Maitland Award – given to the film that best addresses women’s issues and gives voice to femlaes
  • The No Violence Award – given to the film that best exemplifies the themes and images of peace
  • Award for Best International Film – given to the best foreign film
  • Award for Best Music Video – given to music video with the best musician/filmmaker collaborative relationship
Watching a film at the Ann Arbor Film FestCredit:

Overall, more than $18,000 is given away in awards, and paid touring opportunities for some filmmakers are offered. Every year, from July to February, selections from the most recent AAFF visit galleries, art house theaters, universities, and cinematheques throughout the world. 

The six-day festival takes place every year in March.  It’s possible to buy a festival pass, but you can also purchase tickets solely for the events/films you wish to see. There are usually some free options as well, for those on a budget.