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Started in 1963 as a showcase for 16 mm films at the University of Michigan's Lorch Hall, the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) is now in its 53rd year -- the longest running experimental film festival in North America.

It attracts thousands of entries from filmmakers all over the world, and distributes over $20,000 in cash awards, including the juried Ken Burns Best of Festival Award ($3000), Lawrence Kasden Award for Best Narrative ($1000) and awards named for filmmakers Michael Moore, Gus Van Sant, George Manupelli and others.

Manupelli, who died in 2014, is the founder of the AAFF. The award named for him is appropriately called the Founder's Spirit Award.

In 1980, the festival was moved to the Michigan Theater, where it remains today. Other events, presentations and parties are scattered around downtown Ann Arbor beginning opening night, Tuesday March 24, and closing Sunday March 29.

Sitting in the kitchen at the offices of the AAFF on a recent sunny afternoon, executive director Leslie Raymond says this year's festival will hold a tribute for Manupelli on March 29.

"George was a professor in the UM art department, a collagist and painter who was one of the core members of the ONCE group," Raymond says. "The film festival was started during this time, as a way to bring cultural energy happening in New York and the Bay Area to Michigan."

Ann Arbor became fertile ground for artistic experimentation in the 1960s, with works shown (and often visits) by Kenneth Anger, Agnes Varda, Andy Warhol (along with the Velvet Underground), Yoko Ono, Devo, Barbara Hammer, George Lucas, Kasdan and Van Sant over the next few decades.

The festival has come quite a long way since it only screened 16 mm work (it now includes all variety of visual media, adding digital formats in 2003), though Raymond says "the values born in the moment of the ONCE Group (a collection of musicians, visual artists and filmmakers in Ann Arbor in the late 1950s and early 1960's) remain intact."   

For six days, the festival screens experimental, narrative, animation, documentary and other works on video and film. This year, the AAFF presents the U.S. premiere of Manchester, England electronic duo Demdike Stare's original live score to Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, a legendary 1922 silent film directed by Benjamin Christensen.

Not to be missed by all adventurous music people, the performance is 9:15 p.m., Wednesday, March 25 at the Michigan Theater's Main Auditorium. An after party featuring DJs going dark and deep into the night follows at the Ravens Club (207 S. Main St.), 11-2 a.m.  

Also likely to make music fans happy is an appearance by Le Révélateur, made up of Montreal video artist Sabrina Ratté and musician Roger Tellier-Craig of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Le Révélateur presents a live audio/visual performance also featuring Karl Lemieux, filmmaker and projectionist for Godspeed, using five 16mm projectors with live music by Tellier-Craig. That's on Saturday, March 28, 3 p.m. in the main auditorium at the Michigan Theater.

Another highlight looks to be the first North American film retrospective of Polish contemporary artist Wojciech Bąkowski. The program will include animated films from his spoken film series, his lo-fi collage video Making New Worlds Instead of Forgetting About It as well as his most recent video Sound of My Soul. It's Friday March 27, 7 p.m. at the Michigan Theater's Screening Room.

Two programs made up of 16 mm and 35 mm films by Berlin-based British filmmaker Tacida Dean are also worth seeing.

On Wednesday, March 25 in the Screening Room, a three-film program features The Green Room, Kodak and JG, inspired by Dean's correspondences with writer J.G. Ballard, who died in 2009. It begins at 9:15 p.m.

The next day, March 26, five more of Dean's films will screen: D​isappearance at Sea, Bubble House, Teignmouth Electron, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (I), a​nd​ E​dwin Parker, a portrait of the artist Cy Twombly. The program is also in the Screening Room and begins at 9:15 p.m.

Earlier on Thursday, Dean will give a talk for the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. The talk is called "Process and the Non-Deliberate Act" and it begins at 5:10 p.m. Dean will also be present at each film program.

The best advice for fans is to block off a week to see as many as the films and special presentations as possible. Many of the programs are one of a kind, not likely to be repeated any time soon. Festival passes are $100 ($85 for students), not a bad deal for the inspired film obsessives among us.

The details

Get a complete AAFF schedule for all films, performances, related events, parties and ticket information, including festival passes, here.

By Walter Wasacz