Ann Arbor Film Festival

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Filmmaker Ken Burns is hands-down one of the world's leading creators of documentaries.

He has helped modern-day audiences understand and appreciate The Civil War, World War II, the jazz age, prohibition, baseball, the Shakers, America's national parks and many more aspects of American life.

Now, he is returning to Ann Arbor, the town of his boyhood.

He'll be here to talk about race and inequality as part of the Penny W. Stamps lecture series but more importantly to present his film, "The Central Park Five" at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Photo courtesy of Abby Rose Photo

The Ann Arbor Film Festival wrapped up less than a month ago…they’ve barely packed up their film reels.  And already the Michigan Theater is prepping for yet another festival to open next month called Cinetopia.

This new, international festival will feature more traditional narrative film and documentaries, rather than the experimental films that dominate the Ann Arbor Film Fest.

Photo courtesy of Abby Rose Photo

Happy 50th, Ann Arbor Film Festival!

On today's Artpod, we hear from the festival's director, Donald Harrison. We also catch up with two longtime fans of the festival - one: an audience member, the other: a filmmaker - to hear some of their favorite film fest memories.

Festival-goer: "Every year I find at least two or three films that are just amazing."

John Johnson has been going to the Ann Arbor Film Festival since the late 1960s, and considers himself a big fan of the event.

He's such a big fan that when a film he likes doesn't win an award at the festival, he sends the filmmaker a "a few dollars myself and tell them what a great film it was."  He says he's probably done that about four times, three of which have resulted in a letter back from the filmmaker and a DVD copy of the film.

One of his favorite memories was when he saw Claude LeLouch's "Rendezvous" at the 1976 film festival. He says the film "totally blew my mind," left him with goose bumps.

Johnson says every year he finds "at least two or three films that are just amazing, from my point of view." He says it's worth sitting in the theatre for hours to get to the films "that are just amazing that you would have nowhere else to see."

Screenshots from Ann Arbor Film Festival website.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The range of films and videos are diverse. They can be bizarre, funny, or beautiful. It's "art for art's sake," says Donald Harrison, the festival's executive director.

"We're most interested in ideas, and techniques and concepts, and engaging audiences in something that might be outside of their normal viewing experience," he says.

Harrison says the festival will highlight some of the best independent films from years past as well as new films.

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The experimental Ann Arbor Film Festival kicks off its 50th season Tuesday, March 27.

More than 5,000 films have been screened at the festival over the past five decades. The festival has gone through its ups and downs during that time, too, including cuts to state funding and a high-profile censorship controversy several years ago.

Donald Harrison, the festival’s executive director, says more than 230 films will be shown this time around, many by obscure filmmakers.

"We really encourage people just to have that open mind, that sense of discovery," says Harrison. "We guarantee that people will see things that really affect them in a rewarding way, and of course they’ll see things that maybe they don’t care as much about, but that’s probably someone else’s favorite film in the festival."

We caught up with two longtime fans of the festival - an audience member, and a filmmaker – to hear some of their favorite film fest memories.

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The experimental and sometimes controversial Ann Arbor Film Festival turns 50 next year, but festival organizers aren’t waiting until then to celebrate.

They’ve put together a five-part retrospective series, the first of which screens tonight. The retrospective series will lead up to the actual festival, which runs March 27 - April 1, 2012.

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The 49th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival kicks off Tuesday, March 22 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

It's the longest running independent and experimental film festival in the country.  

So while you won’t see a George Clooney flick at the festival, you could catch a documentary about industrial music, or a two minute short about London street life filmed using an iPhone.