Between the Jewish Film Festivalof Grand Rapids and the return of the Grand Rapids Film Festival, West Michigan filmgoers might have more fun watching films in Grand Rapids than they've had all year.
Reb Roberts, owner of Sanctuary Folk Art on 140 S. Division, recounts what Avenue for the Arts looked like when it opened up shop 14 years ago. His interview will be part of the promotional series' first episode, themed "Site Owners and Avenue for the Arts' Past. PHOTO: MICHAEL MARTIN
Local filmmakers Michael Martin and Jeremy Nickerbocker are teaming up with the Avenue for the Arts along Grand Rapids' South Division Avenue to co-produce a series of three online promotional videos that aim to break down barriers not only stylistically, but in the local art community.
"There are a lot of people that have become active in the Grand Rapids art community but are unaware of where these things are happening and unsure of how to approach it," Martin said. "So we want to show people this unique world of Avenue for the Arts' thriving and trucked away community in a media format that's simple and engaging to the average person."
Martin and Nickerbocker wanted to make the short-film series into its own project, combining elements of stylistic experimentation, humor and darkness to tell the story "of this underground world," Martin said, with a point to "make what is underground accessible and seen in a way that it's approachable to an average person."
They'll release the videos in May, with episodes that feature interviews with local artists along the South Division strip on their own creative and general philosophies, and about the community at large – their understanding of how people function together and how people see their artistic selves as part of a larger whole.
"This is definitely a project in our own passion to create something – you know, take a medium that we're familiar with, like short-format TV, and to experiment with it in a way that helps benefit the community at large," Martin said.
The 15th Annual Jewish Film Festival of Grand Rapids brings a whole host of cultural-growth opportunities beginning May 5-9, screening six films for West Michiganders at Celebration! Cinema North – all designed to bring community members together in thoughtful discussion.
"(The festival's mission) is not only to show films inside the community, but to bring it to everybody," said Sari Cohen, programming director for the Jewish Film Festival of Grand Rapids.
The festival is part of the larger Year of Interfaith Understanding, an initiative hosted by a partnership between Grand Valley State University's Kaufman Interfaith Institute, the Grand Rapids Press, WGVU Public Media and the Grand Rapids Mayor's office to "cultivate community interest and engagement of all faith traditions in West Michigan."
Case in point, the German drama Kadish for a Friend, a coming-of-age story about a Muslim teen that explores the deep ethnic and religious divisions between Jews and Arabs that will screen on May 6, wherein Cohen said "the interfaith equation" is pretty clear.
It's Cohen's twelfth year as the festival's programming director – something that started as a volunteer position and blossomed into a long-term passion project.
"Getting the people there and getting the theater that we have is unbelievable, it's really rewarding," Cohen said. "...I have a list of people that request me to send information to them, people that we have never reached before."
Admission is $6 per film, but Cohen said Flex Pass tickets for eight admissions are available for $36 until May 1.
NEW AND IMPROVED
The Grand Rapids Film Festival also returns this month – bigger and badder after its year long hiatus as it absorbs the Michigan Film Festival to screen films throughout downtown Grand Rapids May 15-19.
"The (Michigan) film festival was really known for its community initiative, really involving locals," said Jennifer Shaneberger, director of GRFF. "The Grand Rapids Film Festival's focus has always been wonderful independent films, and that really comes to life with the university involvement."
Kendall College of Art and Design is one of three festival "hubs" that also includes $5 indie film screenings at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and Grand Valley State University's Loosemore Auditorium, which plays a fitting host for the festival's student submissions.
This year, the GRFF hosts a free educational production workshop, which gives festival goers the opportunity to see the production process from the ground up, at KCAD throughout the entire week.
"Basically, what we want to learn about is how to make film, how to make them better and how everyone else is doing it," Shaneberger said. "It's a comprehensive workshop that pulls together all different aspects of production."
From script writing, to story-boarding, to filming and editing, the workshop will produce what Shaneberger called three "tangible, three-minute shorts," and it's 100 percent free for the public to come and participate.
Joseph Scott Anthony stars in psychological thriller Burst Theory, the debut feature film by writer/director Zac Page.'
With the eternally overcast, emotional rollercoaster of winter officially behind us, this month refreshes Vitamin D-deficient filmgoers with actual sunshine. Michigan-made films are alive and well, and there's nothing Governor Snyder can do about it.
IN YOUR BACK YARD
If there's one thing the people of Grand Rapids love, it's a festival that feeds the creative soul. This month, moviegoers can stop by Art.Downtown on April 12 along South Division's Avenue for the Arts, where they'll find film sprinkled throughout work from more than 300 local artists in more than 30 locations around the city.
Rochester Hills native and current Grand Valley State University student film artist N.J. Philips will screen a film called Cleanse. After losing two friends to suicide, Philips said she channeled her grief into the film, which follows three figures that practice self-inflicted harm.
"She describes her work in four key words: experimental, painful, lyrical and self-infliction," said Annie DeYoung, publicity intern for Art.Downtown.
Kendall College of Art and Design classes will also make an appearance at Art.Downtown, using projects to display film projects on the side of the buildings.
Grab a map for the Art.Downtown venues to find the locations sporting the film badge – a hip little video camera graphic – that will help filmgoers identify what venues are showcasing films and film-related artwork.
Keep up with last-minute announcements online at artdowntown.com
ON THE HORIZON
Back in December of 2011, a couple Wisconsin scientists generated the 10th strain of the H5NI bird flu virus (the human-to-human revision of the less harmful and bird-only virus phenomena prior). The details of the highly contagious virus were published in a science journal in spring of 2012, essentially providing mad scientists everywhere with an outline for recreating a strain of bird flu that could wipe out millions of people.
Michigan filmmaker Zac Page used the controversy to develop his upcoming psychological thriller, Burst Theory, which follows a group of researchers working on a vaccine for Bird Flu on a remote island – the kind where no one can hear you scream. The characters start to suspect their giant brains are being used by health profiteers to weaponzie the virus.
Page made the film with the intent to pull audiences into a relatable narrative –dealing with the most basic of ethical questions. With corruption and manipulation rampant on the island, researchers aren't sure whether they're letting paranoia get the best of them, or if by developing this life-saving vaccine, they'll end up killing millions more than they're trying to save.
"The big question is what do you do – do you stop it? What kind of moral choice do you make when you're not sure if you're actually pursing the truth?" said Page, who both wrote and directed the film, alongside producer Joe Anthony.
From the locations they used to the cast and crew behind it, Burst Theory is completely Michigan-made, and is currently in post-production with a tentative spring release date.
Find out more about the film online at bursttheory.com or look for the "Burst Theory" on Facebook.
After a yearlong hiatus, the Grand Rapids Film Festival is back, and packing more punch than ever as it absorbs the Michigan Film Festival to bring films and film events to area moviegoers throughout several locations in downtown Grand Rapids from May 15-19.
What's that you say, West Michigan? May isn't the same month as April? Though I do often forget what day it is, the name of the current president and where I left my car keys, just stay with me for a second.
Though the new-and-improved festival won't actually be in full swing until mid-May, it will spend April building the infrastructure and looking for quality volunteers to help make it happen.
From ticket sales to high-level volunteer coordination positions, Festival Director Jennifer Shaneberger said they need volunteers across the board.
"We're coming back strong with a bit of the best of both worlds," Shaneberger said. "The Michigan Film Festival was really known for its community initiative, really involving locals and focusing on local arts, Michigan-made films and having a strong educational component. The Grand Rapids Film Festival's focus has always been wonderful independent films."
This year, the GRFF will host a free educational production workshop at Kendall College of Art and Design throughout the entire week, as well as two different panel events housed in the same place. KCAD is one of three festival "hubs," Shaneberger said, also including $5 indie film screenings at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and Grand Valley State University's Loosemore Auditorium, which plays a fitting host for the festival's student submissions.
To fill out the volunteer submission form online, or keep up with GRFF latest news, visit grandrapidsfilmfestival.com.
Somewhere between winter and spring, in a perpetually thawing purgatory of strong winds and even stronger whiskey, there is the month of March. Cozy up to a film while you await spring.
Liz Merriman has played a lot of different roles in her tenure as a filmmaker – from production manager to photographer to makeup and wardrobe, she wears a lot of hats. So when Merriman decided to create a new production company, she combined her multifaceted work ethic with positive nature, and Happy Hat LLC was born.
Merriman is no stranger to the local film scene, her name attached to a whole host of other film-related endeavors in West Michigan. A graduate of Grand Rapids' Compass College of Cinematic Arts, she has not only been on an impressive number of rosters, but has also done work with the West Michigan Film and Video Alliance and she said the idea to create her own production company was, in part, born from those experiences.
"Getting to the core of it is, I love the film and media industry," she said. "I love learning new tools and tricks of the trade. I love making people's visions for things a reality and I always will."
Happy Hat specializes in producing, production management and photography – and though they haven't gotten a lot of work off of the ground yet, she said she'd ideally like to make films and documentaries that capture the human experience – people in pursuit of their passions, and the all-too-familiar struggles they face along the way.
She hopes Happy Hat can be a self-sustaining business one day; a company that produces feature films, short films and documentaries off of its own time, using its own facilities and hiring the kind of fresh-faced filmmakers that Merriman herself is right now.
"I want to lift people in their lives and careers, take my blessings and pay them forward, and ultimately help others bring their dreams to life," she said. "I think I can do that through Happy Hat."
Keep up with Happy Hat LLC on Facebook.
IN THE WORKS
PegMar Productions – another new kid in the local filmmaking scene – is teaming up with the fellow aforementioned newcomer Happy Hat LLC to bring you the story of Buster Mathis Sr. in their upcoming feature-length documentary, From Tokyo to Ali.
Ashley Mathis, the creator of PegMar Productions and co-producer of the film, wanted to tell a narrative of the boxer's journey not only through the lens of his achievements, but by helping audiences foster an understanding of his hardships. Buster Mathis Sr.'s career was one that blossomed in struggle as he faced scrutiny from his peers for learning disabilities, and ended in abrupt heartbreak when Mathis Sr. sustained an injury that kept him from competing in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Buster Mathis Sr. is the great uncle of Ashley Mathis, so the film (like their genetics) runs in her blood.
"This film is my dedication to Buster, who was so unfairly treated during his career," Ashley said. "I want to give him the recognition he deserves and celebrate the sweet demeanor within Buster that caused him to give so much back in so many ways."
Right now, the producers are just starting to film, but hope to premiere From Tokyo to Ali locally before hitting the festival circuit.
LE FESTIVAL DU FILM
This month, Western Michigan University's Little Theatre presents the four-day Francophone Film Festival. The festival was spearheaded in 2001 by WMU Associate Professor of Foreign Language Vincent Desroches, and runs from March 20-24.
In 2010, the festival forged a friendship with Alliance Française of Chicago, collaborating to bring in films and filmmakers from Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean, Quebec and Europe.
"[The films] are nearly never shown to the U.S. public," Desroches said. "They show a great vitality and diversity, and will challenge many assumptions and stereotypes."
Last year's Gold Kazoo feature film winner was Monsieur Lazhar by Phillipe Falardeau. It went on to be nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar. In this year's lineup, Desroches said audiences should keep an eye out for Mesnak – the first Native American film made in French, filmed in Quebec and presented by Yves Sioui-Durand and the premiere of a Burkina Faso film called The Weight of the Promise by Daniel Kollo Sanou, who Desroches said is coming in from West Africa to present his film.
"The Francophone Film Festival presents images and moving stories coming from countries about which the American public knows little," he said. "And so we can educate ourselves about other cultures and broaden our views."
Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for general admission, with festival passes – which will get you unlimited access to all screenings and events – are $18 for students, and $40 for the rest of 'em.
Congratulations! You have not only survived the apocalypse and outwitted the Mayans, but you've also stumbled upon a treasure trove of films with culture, fresh starts and yes, even puppies. Allow me to explain, West Michigan.
ON THE SCREEN
The legendary Metropolitan Opera House comes alive with Celebration! Cinema's MET Opera: Live in HD. As an entity, this Emmy Award-winning series features 12 performances and screens at select Celebration! Cinema locations.
On Jan. 5, check out Hector Berlioz's five-act French Opera Les Troyens (The Trojans) in the Met's 2003 performance, conducted by Fabio Luisi and starring Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Marcello Giordani and Dwayne Croft. For a real tearjerker, MET Opera: Live in HD brings the tragic second installation of Gaetano Donizetti's Tudor trilogy, Maria Stuarda to audiences on Jan. 19.
Jeremy Kress, director of marketing and promotions at Celebration! Cinema, said The Met: Live in HD was developed as a way to reach not only existing audiences, but also introduce new audiences to the often inaccessible-feeling world of Opera through new technology.
"We have found that non-Opera fans have also really enjoyed this experience," Kress said. "The productions are chosen by The Met to represent a variety of styles and the full range of the Met repertoire and artists. They all feature great storytelling, great singing and extraordinary production values."
Kress said the theater sold around 3,500 tickets for the 2011-2012 series season, and expects to sell close to 4,000 this time around.
"Many people tell us that it is a perfect, low-risk way to introduce a reluctant Opera-goer to the art form," he said.
For more information, tickets and show times, visit celebrationcinema.com/met.
West Michigan native Ken Johnson is not new to the Grand Rapids film scene, but is gaining momentum with his production company, Deadmen Ink.
Johnson attended Compass College of Cinematic Arts, and said he has had aspirations of leading a film company for a while now.
"Once I was finished with Compass, it just seemed natural to get working on it," he said. "Now that I'm thrown into the real world, I'm doing everything I can do to not only survive, but bring other survivors to my side."
Though Deadmen Ink is not currently financially self-sufficient, it's on its way, and recently wrapped up a short film called The Twilite Zone, a self-described "maiden voyage" for the company that is being entered into film festivals around the country.
The Deadmen team is still in the process of recruiting new members. Right now, local filmmaker Liz Merriman is working as the company's unit production manager and Johnson is in talks about collaboration with Rotomation Pictures' Daniel Falicki on an upcoming series.
"We just want to compose our group full of people who will bleed for their art," he said. "In a world like this, sometimes when it comes to keeping the creative side alive, it comes down to an aspect of survival. So in a way, we relate our company to the fact that we are building a survival team for the cinematic apocalypse."
Though membership may be few, Deadmen Ink is certainly rooted in strength, borrowing its mission statement from the show "Deadmen Wonderland" – both the logic behind the company's name and, Johnson said, a large influence on some of his work.
"It stands for how in an industry that is as cutthroat and archaic as it is, we are a group that wants to unite our talents to survive," he said.
Johnson said that ultimately, his dream is for Deadmen Ink to be for West Michigan what Roger Corman was for Los Angeles.
"Whether or not you find his films to be good, Corman gave filmmakers [jobs] who normally wouldn't get opportunities in film, but still had the skills to be on projects that challenged their abilities and allowed them to meet others and share from their talents," he said.
Drop your kids off at the Humane Society of West Michigan's Furry Friday Films for a critter-themed flick, popcorn and real-life adorable little animals.
The event is for kids, grades K-5, so don't get too excited when I quote HSWM's Humane Education Coordinator Jennifer Self-Aulgur on this one.
"We spend time with shelter animals like bunnies, guinea pigs, cats and dogs," Self-Aulgur said. "We spend about 45 minutes with the animals. Sometimes the animals join us for part of the movie and snuggle with the kids."
That is what I'm talking about, West Michigan.
Parents who want to live vicariously through their kids can do so by sending an RSVP to Self-Aulgur until up to 4 p.m. on event day. It's $25 for the first child and $15 for every additional one.