Donald Harrison wants “to get Ann Arbor where its reputation is” as a center of avant-garde culture. As director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, it’s Harrison’s job to figure out how to keep the flame burning in a new world where almost anyone can make a cool film. A decade ago, a small cadre of seasoned screeners could sit and watch every one of the 300 or so entries, projected from actual film onto an actual screen. Now the festival receives around 2,500 submissions each year, the vast majority of them digital.
Harrison, whose friendly smile and dark-rimmed glasses make him look slightly bookish, says the festival remains committed to showing work that’s marginalized or not easily understood. But he also wants to increase festival attendance. He guarantees that each screening this year will include at least one film that viewers will like–and at least one challenging film, like an award winner from last year’s festival that was simply a play of light and shadows. Completely abstract, it alternated between hypnotic and excruciating.
Judging this kind of art is subjective, but the festival nearly has it down to a science. When submissions start arriving in August and September, fifty prescreeners begin to watch them. Every submission gets three initial screenings, which means those fifty people watch, on average, 150 films each.
Myrna Jean Rugg has attended the festival for decades, spending one sleep-deprived week every March going to as many screenings as she can. Now retired after a thirty-year career with Pfizer, Rugg has been a festival prescreener since 2006.
She recalls some memorably bad entries, like one that was a classic cowboys versus Indians western…except all the combatants were zombies. In another, an old-West sheriff visits a whorehouse where the ladies of the night are all vampires. Rugg regards zombies and vampires as a fad–and if she has anything to say about it, they’re unlikely to show up on the big screen. On the other hand, last year she was blown away by Nora, a story told entirely in dance. She recommended it move up to the next round of screening, and it ended up winning the 2009 festival.
Rugg’s favorites for this year include Closer, a very short tragedy about the vast difference in living conditions of the residents of neighboring townhouses, and Out of the Blue, the story of a lonely old man who “finds a TV…and falls in love–but I can’t give away any more of the story,” she says. In February, she didn’t yet know if either film would make the final cut.