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Creative Careers: Leslie Raymond, Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director (MFA ‘99)

Creative Careers: Leslie Raymond, Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director (MFA ‘99)

This year, the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival unfolds in the Michigan Theater March 15-20. Aside from being a proud festival partner, the Stamps School is also proud to call AAFF Executive Director Leslie Raymond an alum (MFA '99).

Recently, Leslie sat down with Chrisstina Hamilton, AAFF Executive Director from 2002 - 2005 and current Director of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series & Roman Witt Programs at Stamps, to discuss her career path, experimental film, and this year's festival highlights.

Chrisstina Hamilton: To start us off, you've been the Executive Director of AAFF since 2013, but your relationship with the festival predates that. How did you discover AAFF?

Leslie Raymond: I first found out about the AAFF when I was graduating from RISD in 1990 and learning how to submit to film festivals. A professor gave me a list of film festivals and it included the AAFF. I'd grown up in Michigan and never heard of it. So when I came back to Michigan, I secured an internship with the festival. My experience that year really had an impact on me; it changed my DNA. I'd travel to other places but I kept coming back to Ann Arbor to create installations with film projections and video monitors in the former Matrix Gallery with Tom Bartlett. We'd exhibit during film festival month in order to get some AAFF audience to come over. Eventually, I started entering my films in the festival. I think it was in '95 that Rife w/Fire won the award for best regional film.

Stills from Rife W/Fire (1994) - Leslie Raymond

And you went to Stamps for your MFA, correct?

I did and I realized that I needed the MFA experience specifically because up until '96 I'd truly believed that I did not have to touch a computer. I didn't feel myself to be a technical person. But when I graduated, Stamps invited me to teach a digital animation class. I hadn't really thought about teaching until this came my way. It was hard, but it was the beginning of my teaching career. I went on to teaching at University of Texas at San Antonio. I started a new media program in the Department of Art and Art History, and that was a really great opportunity. While at Stamps, I was the graduate student representative on the committee that hired [former dean] Bryan Rogers. Seeing firsthand what Bryan had built and having all these ideas was really helpful in going out and starting something at UTSA.

Unlike many film festivals, the AAFF has focused on experimental films. Can you talk about how the experience of viewing experimental films is different than traditional narrative films and any tips you have for newcomers to the genre?

We've all grown up watching movies and TV and it can be easy to base our expectations on the visual language of those specific mediums. Experimental films are grounded in fine arts practice. When you watch them, you can pretend that you are actually going to the museum to look at paintings and sculptures. You don't need any special language or any special initiations to enjoy the films - you can have your own interpretations of them. There's a previous director who used to say that if you don't like this film, wait till the next one! Because that one you might really like.

Some people don't realize that the AAFF is more than just a local festival. It's the longest running independent and experimental film festival in the country. As a presenter, what are some of the other challenges you face?

Being one part film one part fine arts, we live somewhere in the grey areas of contemporary art. There's a sense that contemporary art is for very a narrow elite. But really, art is for everybody. And the films we show are incredibly diverse. You don't need an intermediary to have a conversation with art. It's like Martin Luther's message: you don't need a priest to talk to God. You can look at a painting or a photograph on the wall and have a thought about it. Our films are the same.

Still from Sixty Six (2002-15), Lewis Klahr

The AAFF goes beyond screenings and connects with the community in a variety of ways. Can you talk about the way the festival is working with the Stamps school to achieve this?

The Stamps School has been a fantastic partner. We work closely with some of the faculty to identify ways that our filmmakers can contribute to what is happening at the school - and we work together to bring our filmmakers to Stamps for class visits. We've also collaborated with Stamps to coordinate the Penny Stamps Speaker Series event during festival week, which has been a tremendous opportunity for us. It affords us the ability to bring in somebody really remarkable, somebody that we probably couldn't afford otherwise - this year it's animator David OReilly. This year, we're also co-presenting an exhibition with Stamps at the Work Gallery: Ah humanity! This exhibition presents a collaborative installation created by Ernst Karel, Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Ernst, who is renowned for his audio work, will be visiting the 4D class at Stamps while he's in town.

Still from Ah humanity! (2015) - Ernst Karel, Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Also, a big way that we connect with the community is that we hire a lot of interns. Not only from Stamps but also from EMU and the U-M Department of Screen Arts and Cultures. The AAFF has something valuable to offer students in terms of hands-on experience and our interns do some major, major work for us.

What are you looking forward to most for the AAFF? What should people be making sure they do not miss?

Do not miss opening night! That's always a fun party. And the first screening that kicks off the whole thing after that party at 8 is one of the most fun, accessible programs that we put together every year. And after that we have five solid days of programming. On Saturday morning, we've got a great family-friendly program which includes a live shadow puppet show by local artist Tom Carey prior to the screening. We are also going to have a retrospective of the newly restored work of Curt McDowell. Curt was a major avant-garde gay filmmaker who passed away in 1987. In the 1950-60s there was a strong tradition of gay artists coming out and making work that embraced their sexuality.

Still from Loads (1980) - Curt McDowell

Should we talk about Jem Cohen, coming to AAFF as part of the Stamps School's Roman J. Witt Visiting Artists program?

That's right - we are super excited about that. Jem has a new feature-length film that is in competition called Counting that we'll be screening on Wednesday, March 16. He is a New York City filmmaker. We have shown his films before. He'll actually be presenting some of his shorts on Friday, March 18 and making a very rare, special appearance in Ann Arbor.

Trailer: Counting (2015) - Jem Cohen

The line-up this year sounds fantastic. Thanks, Leslie.

Visit aafilmfest.org for tickets and information about the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival, March 15-20, 2016.

Interview by Chrisstina Hamilton.