PREVIEW: The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF)

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America (from the Web Site).

The festival is full of indie and oddball films, characteristic of Ann Arbor culture. Over the course of the six day festival, viewers can choose from over 180 films from over 20 countries. Genres include documentary, fiction, animation, and experimental.

March 21 – March 26 (Full Film Schedule View)

Michigan Theater, North Quad, & The Ravens Club

Cost: $12 for adults, and $8 for Students/AAFF Members

There are also FREE Events

Facebook event page

The AAFF is popular enough to warrant an SNL sketch parodying the kind of festival it is.

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: Dragnet Girl

Ichiro Kataoka performing

This Monday Ann Arbor was treated to something special, a screening of the Japanese silent film Dragnet Girl narrated live by of a modern-day benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. Benshi are traditional “narrators” of silent movies in Japan, that bothwrite and perform scripts for silent movies of all types.  Benshi were extremely popular in Japan during the silent movie era. Now there are about 10 benshi still performing for audiences both within Japan, and across the globe. Ichiro Kataoka is one of the very best amongst this selective number, and he travels the most out of the 10, this night gracing our town of Ann Arbor.

Dragnet Girl is a 1933 Japanese silent film about a gangster, Joji,  who meets the innocent and kindhearted Kazuko.  Kazuko enlists his help in looking after her brother who is slowly getting swept up in the dangers of the udnerworld. Joji’s girlfriend, Tokiko, gets lost in  a haze of jealousy, but eventually falls for the Kazuko’s wholesome charm.  Influenced by the innocent Kazuko, Tokiko dreams of finding redemption herself.

Most surprisingly, I was was able to be completely immersed in the film despite not understanding a word of Japanese myself.  I credit most of this phenomenon to the sheer talent of the benshi, Ichiro Kataoka.  While the intertitles were subtitled in English, the rest of the dialogue was pure, untranslated Japanese.  Despite this setback I was able to understand immediately the gist of what was being said by a mix of context, visual cues, and the pure emotion in the benshi’s voice.

During one particularly emotional scene, instead of focusing on the screen I tried to focus on Ichiro Kataoka’s performance.  I was shocked to see his face contorted into the very picture of despair, his expression matching perfectly with the crying girl on the screen. As he continued his narration and performance, he wasn’t just emoting with his voice but with his entire body. You could see the shift in his face and body as he switched from one character to the next, being able to go from a young crying girl to a gruff aging man in an instant.

This screening of Dragnet Girl was a part of the film series, KURO: The Dark Edge of Japanese Filmmaking.  There are two films left in the series, Ichi the Killer and The World of Kanako.   For more information about the film series and other series held at the Michigan Theater please check out this page. 

Specifically interested in seeing a live benshi in action? Ichiro Kataoka will be coming back for a special screening of an experimental Japanese film during the upcoming Ann Arbor Film Festival, so keep your ears pricked for upcoming news.

REVIEW: Penny Stamps Speaker Series — Performance Animation

One of the many wonderful things about new technology is that it can lead to entirely new genres of art. Performance animation is one of those genres.

First, we were introduced to two blank screens. Then, a flash of light and color as animated landscapes splashed across the screens. A silhouette stepped into view, and we watched it interact with the buildings and plants and animals that appeared. At times the message was a clear narrative, while at others it was more of a series of dreams transposed on top of one another. If that makes the show sound trippy in any way, then good, because it absolutely was trippy.

Miwa Matreyek is a multi-talented artist currently on tour performing the two pieces that formed this week’s Penny Stamps event. “This World Made Itself” seemed to be more of a love story, although love was by no means the only theme. The juxtaposition of her gigantic form with a city skyline, and her interaction with a tiny animated figure, had strong allusions to King Kong.

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Her second piece, “Myth + Infrastructure,” dealt with the biggest themes possible: the birth and death of the world, modernization, death, life, and the interaction of mankind with the natural world.

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Time and again we watched Miwa swirl through bodies of water, capture and free flying insects, blend in and become one with the Earth.

Several times it was like a magic show. The audience and I reacted with awe when Miwa sprouted wings out of thin air and her arm melted away into a swarm of white petals. “How did she do that?!” the people next to me exclaimed as they recorded the performance for their Snapchat stories. I wondered the same thing as I too recorded a clip for my story.

Shows like this are rare opportunities, and I strongly encourage you to see the show in Ypsilanti on Friday, October 7 if you can.

You can get a small taste of the performance in this TED video here.

REVIEW: Phoenix

Before attending a showing of the German film Phoenix (2014) at the Michigan Theater, I was in a happy state of zero expectations. Brief summaries I read prior highlighted the strange pairing of events, often describing the film as, “A Jewish Holocaust survivor receives facial reconstructive surgery”. And with its title, I half expected a thriller, something fiery and fast paced. Instead, Phoenix proved to be a beautifully painful, and likewise, painfully beautiful, meditation on the female survivor’s experience after WWII, and the suffocating hold of patriarchal oppression which lingered long after “peace” was agreed upon.

The audience meets Nelly Lenz with a bullet-wounded face, masked entirely by bandages and shadows. A survivor of the concentration camps, Nelly returns home to Berlin under the care of her friend Lene. Yet she finds no comfort upon her arrival; her entire family was murdered during the war. And if her identity weren’t already lost with the evaporation of her relatives, it is stripped completely when doctors are unable to reconstruct the exact nuances of her former face. During her healing process, Nelly discovers her long-lost husband, Johnny, who fails to recognize her as she calls his name. The movie follows a disconcerting journey of Johnny to make ‘Esther’, though truly Nelly under the guise of a new face, into a believable copy of his believed-deceased wife, all to collect her sizeable inheritance. Seemingly physically unable to enlighten her husband of her true identity, Johnny’s guided growth of this broken woman back into her former self is anything but restorative.

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Though only 98 minutes, it struck me how conscious I was of each passing second. And this palpability of time was not a product of boredom, but instead of extreme empathy the viewer unavoidably feels for Nelly’s intensely cruel and depressive situation. You can feel the suffering in every blank stare of Nelly’s (Nina Hoss) bottomless eyes. She screams her emotion in all that she does not, and cannot, say. More effective than any words or explanations are the prevalent silences and uncluttered shots of Nelly occupying space, even just as she walks frailly within the peeling white plaster apartment that Johnny restricts her to. It is painful to watch the inaction and to be but a helpless viewer. All I desired was to hug Nelly’s sunken soul and envelope her in open arms until she could remember who she was.

The framing of each shot, as people are placed within spaces, uniquely propels forward the depth of suffering of each character. You feel the darkness of the war-torn city when Nelly slinks into the shadows of a brick façade, listening helplessly to a rape around the corner. Later, you witness Nelly nearly glued to a wardrobe mirror in an ornate room full of emptiness. Her cheeks almost nuzzle her own reflection in attempt to understand who lay beneath her unfamiliar face. This is in stark contrast to the heavy handedness of Johnny, who owns the ground he walks on, and pushes and shoves the world, including Nelly, to make way. The film is an artful collection of the most vital nuances, so flawlessly natural and inherent to the bodies and minds of each character that the viewer can’t help but think they, too, are coping with immense loss of family and identity. Emotion is absorbed into every corner, every movement, and every silence.

This tale of self-discovery provides a necessary fresh take on the Holocaust survivor’s post-war experience. So few films address the life of concentration camp victims beyond liberation day. How do you return from years of torture, caked with death, back into a life where capturing a new normal seems unfathomable? Is a home still a home if everyone in it is gone? Phoenix is refreshing in that it, too, asks these questions, and does so without pretending to have clear answers. Instead, these themes are contemplated through complex interactions laden with deceit, violence, loss, and rediscovery.

Nelly and Lene

If anything, this film is a triumph for females, yet it took me until the last scene went black to fully realize. Not only does it completely acknowledge the persistent objectification of women in the shadows of a man’s war, but also the fierce independence and strength inherent in each female. This spirit never truly leaves, even when layers of oppression may smother it. The two friends, Nelly and Lene, are each multifaceted, guarded, and highly intelligent. Lene’s commitment to rejuvenating Nelly, while volunteering for red cross efforts, as well as fighting for the creation of a new, safe, Jewish Palestine is inspiring, even as as her plunging faith in society bottoms out. Nelly, so torn by her husband’s inability to recognize her, yet plagued by desires to be with him, often made me frustrated by what I thought was passivity. But the ending puts Nelly’s underlying courage, patience, and respect for herself bright into daylight. All previous doubts are dismissed, and she becomes the epitome of non-violent love and might — the opposite of a man’s war.

Beautiful, dark, and loud in its silences; Phoenix is an unforgettable study on the human art of resilience.

* * *

Eva Roos is a senior at the University of Michigan, receiving a Major in Art & Design with Minors in Environment and Music.

Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service

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Released in Japan in 1989, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ was written, produced and directed by Hayao Miyazaki as an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono. The film was brought to the US in 1997 by The Walt Disney Corporation.

The story follows Kiki, a young witch, who goes to town with her black cat, Jiji, to make a living on her mandatory year away from her family to train. Kiki makes friends with the villagers as she delivers packages around town. A young by named Tombo follows her around. He is an inventor of flying machines and admires her flying abilities.

Kiki has a crisis of identity as she momentarily loses an the ability to fly and has a harder time understanding her feline companion. Kiki regains self confidence after she saves Tombo and others from an airship accident. She remains in the town and resumes her delivery service in contentment.

 

The film is very much about coming of age, moving away from home and the familiar to grow from a child into a young adult.

There are noticeable differences in plot between the Japanese and American versions of this film. In the American version, Kiki reunites with Jiji which does not occur in the original Japanese. Cultural references are also changed to become more timeless and thus more relatable over time.

 

The next film in The State Theater Ghibli Series will show on Wednesday 5 November at 7pm, ‘Grave of the Fireflies.’