55th Ann Arbor Film Festival offers cutting-edge fare

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The diversity of The Ann Arbor Film Festival can be staggering. And inspiring.

Still in hopes of helping festivalgoers find their way through the 11 feature films and 113 shorts culled out of 2,500 submissions from around the world that will be shown at this year’s 55th annual experimental film fest, programmers are offering a variety of “tracks” as guides. Umbrella topics such as “Globalization,” “All Ages,” “LGBTQ,” “Music” and more help point the way.

Or you can just wing it and be surprised. Among the many, many choices are:

■“Commodity City,” directed by Jessica Kingdon, a fascinating look at a 5-mile long mall in China where sellers sit in stalls surrounded by flowers, clocks, dolls, Christmas ornaments, you name it. At first the sheer capitalism of it is overwhelming, but then the humanity of people buying and selling, of their kids chowing down on American fast food and fighting with one another, is leveling. These people, thousands of miles away, are us.

■“Bliss,” directed by Sofia Caetano, is a colorful mish-mash of abstract phrases — “Who is self? Whoever self wants to be.” “Put paradise in a coma.” “Live pronto.” — and apparently otherwordly characters that’s equal parts bizarre and maddening. Prepare to be confused, and that’s likely the point.

■In Yuan Zheng’s “External Memory” a tourist is overwhelmed by the sheer size and difference of Chicago. Images of the city are frozen, distorted and colored as trippy electronic music supports a narrative about otherness, wonder and a shared sense of memory through representation.

■The lovely documentary “Luis & I” follows a secretary from Liverpool who runs off to dance in an Italian circus, where she falls in love with the Spaniard Luis, who makes his living as a human cannonball. Bolstered by warm and weathered home movie footage, the film makes circus life seem romantic and rewarding even as the now-aged Luis struggles with Parkinson’s.

■In Jennifer Levonian’s spirited piece of animation, “Xylophone,” a very pregnant woman and her mischievous daughter somehow end up liberating a billy goat and some bunnies from a petting zoo. It’s all bright colors and oddball incidents and a lot of vaguely surreal fun.

■Equal parts haunting and appalling, “Broken — The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck” by Volker Schlect has women who served time in a horrific East German prison describing the plentiful abuses they endured as sketches morph from scene to scene. The women were forced to sew goods that were then sold to stores in the west, with the profits going to the East German government. It’s chilling stuff.

■And then there’s the straight-up psychedelic fantasy of “Celia Johnson (Winterpills),” a music video by Luke Jaeger that weaves band members in and out of collages with fantastic creatures and odd architecture, ending in a lush floral neverland. What does it mean? What does it matter?

At age 55, the AAFF is arguably the longest-running experimental film festival in America, and over the years it has helped define and develop cinematic art with groundbreaking works from Andy Warhol, George Lucas, Gus Van Sant, Yoko Ono and many, many more. As always, many of the filmmakers will be in attendance, so this is a chance to see where film is going and mingle with those leading the way.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.


The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival

Tuesday-March 27

Tickets, schedule and location info: aafilmfest.org

Festival and weekend passes available