As a newcomer to art house cinema, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 53rd Ann Arbor Film Festival’s screening of 13 short films by independent filmmakers at Cinémathèque Québécois on Saturday night. It could have been the hushed atmosphere of a dimly lit room, or maybe the fact that everyone around me seemed to hold an uncanny resemblance to my parents, but I thought I was in for a relatively smooth cinematic experience. I was naively preparing for a cozy screening when the lights went down and the screen lit up with the ominous title A Symptom written backwards. This image was accompanied by music closely resembling a radiator heating up, prompting the settling ambiance to stumble out the back of the cinema in a nervous wreck.
A Symptom continued to intimidate the viewer into submission with the subtlety of Mike Tyson. Shot on 16mm old-school film, the movie exists in a grainy black-and-white quality. More backwards subtitles were thrown onto the screen, playing over the movement of a mystery mouth that refused to run in sync with the encrypted sentences below it. This was intercut with a scene of something resembling a Christmas tree decoration hanging in an empty white room covered in grid lines, while the camera violently shook from side to side. While there was an element of utter chaos that encapsulated the short, it wasn’t meaningless. It was evident that the director wanted the audience to strain and struggle to read the text, exhibiting the power of cinematography; however, not all of the shorts necessarily held this coherence.
Throughout the 13-short compilation, there were a number of films which truly made me question whether all of this was just going over my head. These mystifying films ranged from somewhat simplistic to positively absurd. I’m sure that if I had the ability to talk to the directors themselves I would have appreciated the pieces more, but without that, I felt lost. Whether it was a film comprised entirely of different black and white angle shots of a wind turbine played in black and white to the tune of shrieking violins, or old war clips fading in and out of Hindu imagery, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something. Was there some sort of satire to these pieces? Was I just not looking close enough? The phrase stranger than fiction came to mind, and at certain junctures, it really felt like I was in some sort of parody of what arthouse cinema is.
That being said, there were also a number of points when I was truly captivated by these shorts. The absurdity and barbarity of seeing a peacock defeathered and stuffed by a taxidermist was somehow horrific, beautiful, and fascinating film. Certain shorts shied away from novel themes completely to great effect. One director laid bare her personal life as she ran voice messages from her parents over clips of her trip to New York, capturing both the romance and the grit of the city.
The Ann Arbor Film Festival presented the works of only amateur filmmakers, giving these hopeful professionals an arena in which to showcase their art. Its website notes that the festival is “a premiere forum for independent filmmakers and artists” and has featured the likes of George Lucas in its past. For such a prestigious organization with an ability to stay relevant, it was only fitting that this year’s edition finished with a clip of a pineapple set alight. On occasion it was weird, but it also could be beautiful and rich, and it consistently refused to be boring. One has to appreciate it for simply that.