As the Ann Arbor Film Festival marks its 54th year starting Tuesday, program director David Dinnell says people are more receptive than ever to the fest’s showcase of unconventional cinema.

“We’re just so immersed in moving images that are happening everywhere in our culture,” Dinnell says. “On computer or phone, it seems like it’s the dominant form. I think there’s an expectation a lot of young people bring when they walk into the theater that they’re going to be seeing something interesting and unexpected.”

The festival, which runs through March 20 at various Ann Arbor venues, is known for spotlighting experimental and independent film. But over the past decade, Dinnell says organizers have branched out more and more to include works that defy even the traditional idea of a movie.

“People are doing a lot of interesting things that are not just in a single screen with standard projection,” he says.

One particularly unconventional experience festivalgoers might partake in this year is filmmaker Grahame Weinbren’s “78 Letters,” which appears March 20 at the Michigan Theater. To create the live piece, Weinbren sequences a series of one-minute clips at his audience’s direction, resulting in a different montage each time “78 Letters” is screened.

Another unusual example is British filmmaker Lis Rhodes’ 1975 work “Light Music” that will be presented March 18 at the Ann Arbor Art Center. The piece consists of two 16-millimeter films projected onto opposing walls. The imagery in the films is the same as the sound waves printed on the 16-millimeter filmstrips’ sound tracks so that, in Dinnell’s words, “what you hear is what you’re actually seeing.”

Festival executive director Leslie Raymond says that’s a good metaphor for most works shown at the festival — including the many selections presented in the traditional format.

“The work that we show does challenge people to be more active in general,” Raymond says. “There’s space for the viewer to hear what they’re thinking and engage mentally with the work.”

Dinnell says this year’s festival sports a particularly notable crop of documentaries that reject the “PBS” model of “a talking head telling you information.” A retrospective honoring the late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman will feature her documentary “From the East” on March 18. Akerman shot the film shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as she journeyed from East Germany to Moscow.

For those interested in exploratory films with more easily digested subject matter, there’s a “family friendly” program on March 19 at the Michigan Theater, which Dinnell says will appeal to “people of all ages.”

“I try to encourage people to come with a sense of adventure,” Raymond says. “Know that you don’t need to have a special language or anything. You can just look at something and have your own experience.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

54th Ann Arbor Film Festival

Tues.-March 20

Tickets: $6-$12; festival passes: $54-$106

(734) 995-5356

Read or Share this story: