REVIEW: The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival — Films in Competition 5

Films in Competition 5 was my very first taste of the Ann Arbor Film Fest, and it was exactly what I expected. 

Even if you haven’t been to any of the films, you may know the AAFF as something along the lines of “the one with all the weird films.”

Indeed, the very first short film–Everything Turns…–was a roller-coaster of a film that quite literally stayed true to its name. Shot on what looked like either 8 or 16mm film, Everything Turns… jolted the audience from one sequence to another without breaking stride. Nothing was static. Film manipulation caused colossal stone blocks to open and close, a wooden barn to rotate, and other structures to recede into the distance. Although the work was clearly from a talented individual, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little too long.

Commodity City, presented the audience with a look inside the bowels of China’s New South China Mall, the largest shopping mall in the entire world. The director of the piece was clearly a photographer, as every shot of the film was static and composed like a photograph. While they were certainly all beautiful, I wish she had done more with the piece. Without crafting the hours of footage together into a coherent story, Commodity City is a collection of unrelated clips that is aesthetically pleasing, but lacking narrative thrust.

Railment was one of my favorites of the night. The filmmaker, hailing from Japan, animated a film taken from his commuting experience on Japanese railways. All tones were in blue and grey, and the protagonist stood lonely in the car, isolated despite being surrounded by thousands of other commuters. Beautifully crafted and haunting.

Snatched dealt with two French (?) girls running from a number of institutions–an orphanage, an abusive lover, and an oppressive workplace. Fighting against all of these forces draws them closer together by the end of the film. Snatched reminded me a bit of Moonlight, but with girls.

Etude 1a: Release(1)  was the perfect example of an eccentric and eclectic AAFF film. Slow motion, zoomed in shots of cowboys rounding up cattle. Screeching soundtrack. Black and white footage. No idea what the film was about.

Gardening at Night was the “biggest” film of the block in terms of production value and crew size. The film concerned a woman waiting for a phone call from the hospital regarding her friend’s battle with cancer. Autobiographical in nature, Gardening at Night also mixed in elements of horror. It reminded me a little of an M. Night Shyamalan film–one of his good films. My only wish is that the film had kept the lighting consistent throughout. I felt jarred a few times when the film went from a darkened living room at night to a bright swimming pool outside at noon.

Crossing was too long. Regardless of it’s merits, 17 minutes is too long for a film that uses a repetitive soundtrack as the only source of sound to complement blurry sequences of people crossing the street. I enjoyed the concept, but the film was too long. There’s nothing more to say about that.

Any given block of films at the Ann Arbor Film Fest will leave you with a different experience, but I would wager that the experience will be worth it. The nice thing about this fest is that the filmmakers get invited on the stage afterwards to answer questions from the audience. You don’t often get that opportunity.

REVIEW: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is an enchanting story that addresses family, loss, and closure through the lens of an animated fantasy drama. Directed by Tomm Moore, who is known for Academy Award nominee The Secret of Kells (2009), the magical tale of Song of the Sea follows the adventure of a 10-year-old Irish boy named Ben and his mute sister, Saoirse, a selkie — a mythological creature of Irish folklore that is human on land and a seal in water.

The story begins with a little background behind Ben and Saoirse’s family. Suffering the loss of their mother, Bronagh, their family struggles to be happy. Ben blames his sister for their mother’s passing, Saoirse longs for the love of her broken family, and their father, Conor, still struggles with the loss of his wife. When Ben and Saoirse discover her magical abilities, the two find themselves on a journey to save all the faeries in the land with the “Song of the Sea,” a song of healing that only the selkie can sing.

For those of you who have seen and marveled at the beauty of The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea proves itself to be even more beautiful. Although at times the story may be a little hard to follow, the breathtaking art and intricate details of the film captivates the audience and keeps them engaged.

The animation is entirely hand drawn and 2-dimensional, playing with the depth of the scenery by overlaying parts of the background with the characters on screen. Almost like a fairy tale book in the form of animated cinema, Song of the Sea is imaginative and beautifully crafted. The animation sequences are fluid and careful, drawn with precision and a kind of gentle softness that draws our eyes, and it becomes enchanting to watch.

Apart from the art, the characters in this film are also very representative of the different ways people deal with loss. The magical characters draw parallels with human counterparts, expressing a variety of ways that people mourn and reasoning with the harmful consequences that they might bring. Macha, the owl witch, promises to take away the pain and suffering by petrifying those who are hurt, even petrifying her own son to save him from the pain. However, Song of the Sea proves that bottling up your emotions and removing yourself from your feelings is not as helpful as we hope it to be.

Song of the Sea inspires its audience to find closure during times of loss and mourning through love and acceptance. The very end of the film brings about the closure the family desperately needed. After Ben and Saoirse’s journey brings them home to their father’s lighthouse, they realize their cooperation and love for each other saves them and their family, as well as all of the endangered faeries and mythological creatures.

Here’s the official summary for the film: “In this enchanting new story from the Academy Award-nominated director of The Secret of Kells, Ben and his little sister Saoirse—the last Seal-child—must embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea. The film takes inspiration from the mythological Selkies of Irish folklore, who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land.”

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Film Fest Award Screening

Ann Arbor Film Fest Award Screening

On Sunday night, the Ann Arbor Film Fest holds a closing screening of the year’s award winning short films. I sat in for part one of the two part award show and saw a variety of films that took home impressive titles for this year. The evening opened with a short film made by – no artist in competition- but by audience members themselves. Over the course of the Festival, a dry erase board in the lobby captured the doodles and scribbles of patrons of the films. The final collection of drawings was compiled into a stop motion film and was presented as a prelude to the award winners. It was so gratifying to see audience work transform into something experimental and avante-garde over one week of time.

The sequence of winning pieces  included about 10 films from a variety of genres. Stills from my favorites of the collection are featured above. “Split Ends, I feel Wonderful” was a montage of vintage footage of women and men in hair salons getting cornrows. The shots  was overlain with the bourgeois accent of a man commenting on the coif and the culture that so often sports it. The short film carried obvious, but gentle, socio-political commentary.  The second film, which was my favorite of the whole competition, was called “Dad’s Stick.” The British filmmaker made a portrait of his late father, using a slide show of colored panels and a few of his personal belongings beneath short text that described the relationship between each item. It was a very touching film- surprisingly so- given how simple it was; I felt I knew the father so well after seeing only a few of his things. The final film of my top three favorites was one I had already seen at the animated short film screening. It was called “Bite of the Tail.” It told the story of a troubled marriage that was strained by the wife’s mysterious health problems and her husband’s obsession with hunting for snakes in an empty city lot. The narrative was very unusual and the animation was so human that it was captivating to watch.

While these three films were intriguing to me, most fell flat in my opinion. They were too experimental to be accessible; too epileptic and flashy to be pleasant to watch. I noticed a thread of commentary about film- the actual medium- by simulating VCR videos with digital recording devices. I adore the film fest so I was happy to see what this year brought, but I didn’t walk away feeling particularly fond of the selections. Perhaps I just don’t know enough about experimental film. maybe I need to study up before I go back for more screenings next year.

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Film Fest Animated Shorts

Ann Arbor Film Fest Animated Shorts

On Friday night, I attended my favorite film event of the festival: the Animated shorts. The screening 14 mini films ranging from 1 to 1o minutes. The style of each was highly varied, though the recurring theme remained the same throughout: darkness and sadness. While some films used traditional cartoon animation, others used collage, paintings, fibers, and other mediums of animation. Some used dialogue and human voice, dialogue, and narration,  while others used electronic music, abstract soundscapes,  and silence. With film makers from all over the world using influences from literature, personal biography, and political polemic, the series was a very strong curation of artwork.

However, the sadness factor was all-pervading. The films touched dark moments in the psyches, representing disturbed and distorted images that were transportive albeit harrowing. After the show, I ran into a woman I work with at the UMMA and she shared her opinion: “It’s this kind of a thing that makes everyone else think that all artists and depressed!’ It is true that it was depressing, but finely produced and worth seeing- had I had the caveat in advance.

On Sunday, the competition screens the cream of the crop, the winners from each category. I imagine that  one or more of these films will take him recognition at the end. They creative, unusual, and interesting to witness. To read about the animated film makers and watch clips from the animated shorts, click here. I hope you enjoyed the film fest and, if you didn’t make it this year, be sure to check it out in the future!