Having started with the mission to bring independent films to mid-Michigan, The East Lansing Film Festival (ELFF) continues to foster filmmaking and showcasing creativity. The ELFF is the longest-running, non-experimental film festival in the state and is celebrating its silver anniversary (25 years) on the silver screen.
This year, the festival runs from Nov. 3-10 with all films being shown at Studio C! at Meridian Mall in Okemos.
Festival Founder and Director Susan W. Woods initially began looking to start up a local film festival after her experience with film festivals in San Francisco. At the same time, in 1997, the City of East Lansing was forming an exploratory committee with the same intention.
Woods said the two groups met and, with a grant from the city, the first ELFF took place in March 1998. The inaugural event featured special guests including Michael Moore, Sophie B. Hawkins and Bill Mechanic, the CEO of Twentieth Century Fox.
Woods spoke about the festival’s early days and how it has evolved over the past two-and-a-half decades.
“It started out as one person, lots of volunteers and as a four-day film festival,” she said. “Then it evolved to an eight-day film festival. We had it mostly on campus at Wells Hall, using four auditoriums that were next to each other.”
Back then, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that took place in order to make the collegiate setting look like a traditional festival. Bringing in signage, plants, hospitality rooms, ticket booths and red carpets was a very labor-intensive task, Woods recalled. In later years, the festival also occupied the theater at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center.
Woods also saw a film gap when The Odeon Theatre (formerly in Frandor) closed in the ‘90s. That’s when she started the East Lansing Film Society Film Series. This evolved into the Indie Film Series after ELFF moved over to Studio C! Meridian Mall in Okemos seven years ago.
Woods had intended to reach out to Studio C! to partner with ELFF, but she didn’t have to. “They asked me, and so we became partners,” she said. “The partnership has been incredible. They are the most wonderful, flexible, generous theater that I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with lots of them in San Diego, San Francisco and LA.”
The 2022 ELFF kicks off on Thursday, Nov. 3, with an opening-night showing of “Bad Axe,” a documentary about Bad Axe, Mich. Woods said the film has already won 17 awards, including the Audience Award at SXSW in Texas and at the Traverse City Film Festival.
“Audience awards are really the bellwether of a great film,” Woods said. “It isn’t by jaded reviewers or relatives, but it is by the everyday man and woman who see the film.”
There will also be a party with appetizers, popcorn and a birthday cake during the opening night festivities.
The closing night film, “Acting Like Nothing is Wrong,” has special East Lansing ties. The film is directed by Jane Rosemont, a former area resident. Rosemont’s husband, Dick, used to run Flat, Black & Circular, a downtown East Lansing record store.
The movie has another local tie as it stars Jim Hoffmaster, an actor from Showtime’s “Shameless” TV show, who used to work at Schuler Books & Music in Meridian Mall, Woods said.
While the two bookends are impressive, Woods said the ‘in-between’ is also the best selection of films they’ve ever had.
“What has happened with the film festival after 25 years is that better films are being submitted,” she said. “People are recognizing it as one to submit films to. We have a lot of submitted films that are amazing and have won awards everywhere else.”
One of those interesting mid-week offerings is “Eli, A Dog in Prison,” The film, being shown Wednesday, Nov. 9, focuses on a rambunctious Labrador retriever puppy, who is trained by three convicted felons in a Michigan prison.
“It is a view of how broken our American prison system is, and how it is predominantly Black and Brown people,” Woods said. “We’ll have the director there, one of the prisoners who’s been let free and we’re hoping to get Eli, the dog, there too.”
Woods is grateful to all the volunteers and supporters over the years, and proud of the legacy the ELFF has created and maintained.
“The art of cinema is just as important as the stage or museums and everything else,” she said. “It opens your eyes to so many different cultures in our world.”
Opening up theaters to show movies that aren’t typically in mainstream settings creates a unifying experience for the moviegoer.
“It’s so visceral and so personal, emotional and heartfelt, and informative,” Woods said. “All of those aspects are brought to you. People can go into a dark theater and feel like they’re a part of a community, as opposed to being with strangers when you go see a mainstream film. It’s that wonderful sense of compadres watching films with you.”