Traverse City News and Events

'Missed Masterpieces' and Venue Changes: A Sneak Peek At The 2022 Traverse City Film Festival

By Craig Manning | June 15, 2022

The Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) goes to press on its 2022 preview guide today, which means the festival is just days away from sharing the lineup for its first event since 2019. Ahead of the official programming announcement, The Ticker sat down with Johanna Evans, TCFF's new director, to find out what attendees can expect when this year’s festival kicks off on July 26. From film teases to venue changes, here’s what we learned.

Ticker: Can you give us a sneak peek of this year’s festival?

Evans: We are going to be highlighting a lot of films made in Michigan, as well as films either made by Michigan filmmakers or prominently featuring Michiganders. We’re playing a documentary called Bad Axe, set in Bad Axe, Michigan. It's about a restaurant dealing with COVID and going from being an in-person restaurant to handling takeout, and then the restaurant is also a Cambodian restaurant, so they're dealing with some of the anti-Asian backlash that was happening early in the pandemic. It’s an interesting portrait of how that time period affected a particular family, and a really inspiring story of family coming together and dealing with challenges together.

We're also playing a documentary about Rosa Parks, called The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. One of the things I didn't know about Rosa before seeing the film is that, after her famous act of civil disobedience on the bus, she spent a good deal of time being very politically active in the Detroit area. This film celebrates that part of her life.

We have a number of films in the lineup that are looking at race in America, and that provide a unique lens on that subject. We’re playing a documentary, called Kaepernick & America, about Colin Kaepernick and how his action of kneeling during the national anthem was both a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement and also for some of the support that ended up going behind Donald Trump, who used his opposition against Colin Kaepernick as a rallying cry.

We do have a number of narrative films as well, one of which will be our ‘Food on Film’ movie for this year. We're reviving that program in collaboration with Trattoria Stella, and the film we're going to show is called First Cow. It's one of the missed masterpieces of 2020, in that it was set to release theatrically just before the pandemic hit and a lot of people didn't get a chance to see it on the big screen. It's a gorgeous bromance set in the 1820s Pacific Northwest, and it follows two fur trappers who figure out they can make more money making donuts and selling them to the other fur trappers than from going through all of labor themselves. It’s a very different portrait of masculinity, because these guys are creative and collaborative and sweet. But then there's also a caper component to it, because they're only able to make the donuts by stealing milk from the one cow in the town. So, we’ll show that, and then we’ll have a talk with Amanda from Stella afterwards, to talk about comfort food.

‘Missed masterpieces’ is actually a major programming initiative of [TCFF Founder] Michael [Moore]’s for this year’s festival. He believes very strongly that a number of films that came out during the pandemic era should be seen on the big screen, in the dark, with strangers. So we're reviving a number of titles that we think got overlooked by people during the pandemic – and more particularly, that we think are greatly enhanced by seeing with others.

One of those films is a thriller set in Norway called Breaking Surface. It’s about two sisters who go scuba diving under the ice, and one of them gets trapped in a cave underwater. The other sister has to figure out how to rescue her, but she can't go to the surface too many times because she'll get the bends. So there’s a ticking-clock thriller component to that movie, and we think people will be really excited to see that on the big screen.

Ticker: So, the themes of this year’s festival seem to be Michigan, missed masterpieces, big screen must-sees, and films that are politically relevant right now. What else went into designing this year’s film lineup?

Evans: We're in a very interesting moment for film festivals right now. A lot of the films TCFF has gotten in the past were the best hits out of festivals like Sundance, South by Southwest, and Tribeca. Tribeca has now moved to June, so some of the Tribeca titles that we're getting will actually not have played anywhere else before coming to us. So that's very exciting.

Otherwise, it was challenging trying to puzzle-piece together a film festival in this new landscape, especially since a lot of the Sundance hits have gone straight to Netflix or Amazon and have already gotten a lot of publicity. We’ve been very selective in choosing films that are available to see elsewhere, and have looked for films that we think really have to be seen on the big screen, or that we feel are speaking to particular issues relevant to our times – especially issues around race, gender, and class.

Ticker: As far as festival format goes, which traditions are coming back this year and which things will look different?

Evans: We've tried to maintain the traditions that really bring the community together. So, we’re definitely going to have movies at the Open Space each night during the festival, and we are going to have the typical opening night party on Front Street.

In terms of venues, that’s been a real puzzle this year. With the slightly shortened timeline to put this festival together – combined with skyrocketing gas prices, supply chain issues, and labor shortages – all those things just made it made it more difficult this year to use some of some of our favorite venues.

For instance, building out the Kubrick – our theater at Central Grade School – requires so many moving parts, among them installing air conditioning. To do that, we would also have had to deal with the HVAC system and make it work in the current pandemic conditions. So, while we started our early planning thinking, ‘We're going to be in the Opera House, we're going to be in the Kubrick, we're going to be at Milliken Auditorium,’ it ended up being either too expensive or too difficult to source the equipment to use those venues.

We decided that this would be a good year for us to try something new. So, we're partnering with the AMC Cherry Blossom, and we're going to rent four screens from them to house some of our program. Our plan is that almost all the films will be available to see either at the AMC or at the theaters in town. We're still going to be at the State and the Bijou, of course, and the idea will be that people can park in one location – either in town or at the AMC – and they can catch the BATA shuttle to take them between those locations.

Ticker: In the past, there was been something of an adversarial relationship between the State and Bijou and the bigger chains, and Michael has worked for a long time to keep the independent grassroots spirit of the festival alive. How will you retain that spirit at AMC?

Evans: Pre-pandemic, the movies they were showing at the multiplex were very different from what we were showing. Plus, when the movie business was at a higher point, movies were getting double the amount of business that most movies are getting now. It would have been really difficult for us to get a decent rate renting at the AMC when there were more blockbusters coming out and they were filling every screen with the latest Marvel movie or the latest Disney movie. The summer blockbusters were difficult to fit our festival around.

But some things have really changed at the AMC, just over the course of the pandemic. They're playing a lot more arthouse titles and documentaries, for one, and the demand for movies generally is not what it was. So, with 14 screens, they do have a few to spare for us.

AMC is going to give us great support. They've got state-of-the-art equipment. They’ve got concessions. They’ve got everything that people want, already in place. So, in terms of helping us focus our volunteers and our limited staff on running the best festival, the fact that AMC is taking care of a lot of those logistics frees us up to focus on the things we really care about, which is running engaging conversations and communicating to everybody the films that we're excited about.

Ticker: On the subject of staffing and volunteers, Michael faced some criticism last year for not communicating with pre-pandemic staff about what was happening with the theaters and for not offering those individuals their jobs back. The Ticker has heard from several venue managers from past festivals who said they weren’t interested in returning this year, given the way festival and theater staff have been treated in the past. Any comment?

Evans: I am not in a position to comment on the previous staff, because I am a total newcomer to Traverse City. I don't have anything I can say about the folks I haven't met. But what I will say about the volunteers I have been working with is that everybody has been really encouraging and supportive. They have thought of things before I've had to think about them, and they’ve brought great ideas. Lots of folks are taking new initiative and new leadership roles they hadn't held previously. It feels like it's a team sport, and that's the way I want to run a festival. I'm there as the coach, but this is this is a festival that belongs to the whole community.

Ticker: What’s the update on COVID protocols? 

Evans: We are going to make a final decision on that soon. I know that everyone on the board has a slightly different opinion on it. But I will say that we are definitely considering the fact that the AMC has different protocols than the State and the Bijou [which require proof of vaccination, temperature checks, and masks] and that the rest of their staff and patrons are not going to be required to be vaccinated. So, we’re probably going to adjust our protocols accordingly.

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