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Ann Arbor Film Fest offers eclectic mix of edgy films

Patrick Dunn
Special to the Detroit News
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The experimental films spotlighted at the Ann Arbor Film Festival tend to defy cinematic conventions, but festival program director David Dinnell says it’s not hard for the average moviegoer to enjoy them.

“It doesn’t take much more than just being a little open and maybe relaxing the expectations of a three-act structure or five-act structure,” Dinnell says. “I tend not to use ‘experimental’ as much. Sometimes I prefer (to say) they’re more personal films. They’re people who have a point of view.”

The points of view on display at the 53rd annual festival, running March 24-29, are a wildly eclectic mix. Two programs will spotlight the world’s earliest computer-generated movies, starting from 1952. The 1922 silent horror film “Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” will screen with live accompaniment by English duo Demdike Stare. The numerous contemporary features and short films on display also span a wide range of formats and subject matter — from “Maïdan,” a stately frontline documentary about the 2013 Ukrainian revolution, to “Buffalo Juggalos,” a hypnotic short portrait of the Juggalo subculture in Buffalo, N.Y.

“We’re looking for the best work that’s out there, the best work that’s the most innovative and that is not tied to commercial or mainstream,” says festival director Leslie Raymond. “I would say the number-one defining factor is the quality of the work.”

For many screenings, filmmakers will appear to speak and field questions about their work. This year’s guest of honor is English filmmaker and visual artist Tacita Dean, who will give a lecture and appear for two screenings of her short films on March 26. Dean is ranked alongside visual artist Damien Hirst as one of the loose group known as the “Young British Artists” that emerged in England in the late ’80s.

“It’s a very rare appearance and screening,” Raymond says. “She really is squarely in the world of contemporary art and the museum world … Her work is really mostly seen installed in museums and galleries as a 16mm loop. They can function in this other type of a context where we have a captive audience sitting and watching from beginning to end, but it definitely is a different type of experience.”

Raymond and Dinnell emphasize the social element of the festival, particularly discussing films with fellow festivalgoers. The festival will hold its annual “What the Hell Was That?” panel discussion on March 29, reserved for conversation about some of the fest’s most confounding films.

“What I find when I talk to people is that that can be a very pleasurable thing,” Dinnell says. “It’s like, ‘What the hell was that? I want to know. I want to know more. I want to see it again.’ ”

Raymond says that while many of the films may leave audiences with some questions, it’s important to remember that there’s “no right answer.” But if you’re looking for one, just strike up a conversation.

“We all come with our own history, memories, backgrounds, dreams, whatever,” she says. “It’s very possible that two people will have two very different experiences of the same thing, but then when you talk about it, it’s great because you have that process of discovery together.”

53rd Annual Ann Arbor Film Festival

March 24-29

Michigan Theater

603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor

Single tickets $8-$10; festival passes $50-$100

(734) 995-5356

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