Ann Arbor Film Festival Stretches Out

Fundraiser at yoga school is part of community outreach
Participants in the Cinema  Yoga fundraiser for the 48th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival take part in a sample class at the Ann Arbor School of Yoga.

Participants in the Cinema & Yoga fundraiser for the 48th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival take part in a sample class at the Ann Arbor School of Yoga. (Photo by the writer.)

Laurie Blakeney inhales, and so do the group of people sitting on the floor in front of her. She exhales, humming, “Ommm….”

After her voice trails off, the group in front of her does the same in a synchronized echo: “Ommm…”

The sound fills the high-ceilinged space, imbuing the atmosphere with something relaxing, spiritual. Filmable, even.

Blakeney, an instructor and owner of the Ann Arbor School of Yoga, is leading a sample class as part of a fundraiser for the 48th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Chronicle dropped by for the Aug. 14 Cinema & Yoga event, which included a screening of films from last year’s festival after the yoga. It’s an example of something that the festival’s director, Donald Harrison, says they’re working hard to do: Finding creative, diverse ways to bring in money.

“This Is Your Root Structure”

Blakeney – a cheerful woman in a pink T-shirt and purple shorts (but no shoes – a standard state for students and visitors to the school, since bare feet are required in the classroom) – greeted the Cinema & Yoga participants as they arrived, clad mostly in T-shirts and shorts similar to hers.

They left their shoes on a wooden set of shelves near the door and entered the large, cool classroom. There, they laid down blue rectangular mats, along with folded blankets and wooden blocks slightly smaller than shoeboxes.

Tracy Briney, sitting cross-legged on her mat, explained that she’d come to the fundraising event because it combined so many things she loves. “I love film. I love yoga,” she said. “And they’re all here tonight.”

Briney also said that although she isn’t involved with the film festival otherwise, she supports “everything Laurie [Blakeney] does.” She said she’d been taking classes with Blakeney for eight years.

Susan Bellinson, another long-time student of Blakeney’s, said she was there for the film festival as well as the yoga. “I think it’s very important that the community support the arts, because the arts are important for quality of life.”

Susan’s husband Tom came along for the ride. “I’ve never done yoga before,” he admitted with a wry smile. “I’m just hoping not to have sore muscles.”

As she took her place on an elevated platform at the front of the room, Blakeney explained that the class wasn’t meant to be too strenuous. “The whole point of these sample classes is to have a taste, have a nice little stretch with each other,” she said.

Laurie Blakeney

Laurie Blakeney of the Ann Arbor School of Yoga (standing) instructs Ann Arbor Film Festival executive director Donald Harrison, Tom Bellinson and his wife Susan Bellinson during the Cinema & Yoga fundraiser for the film festival. (Photo by the writer.)

After the initial chanting at the beginning of the session, Blakeney guided her students through a variety of positions, using the blankets and blocks for support. They stretched, leaned, twisted, jumped, bent, balanced and breathed. Blakeney called out advice and encouragement:

“Try to drop your legs. Lift up through your chest.”

“Your foot can’t be like a little, tight bud. This is your root structure.”

Donald Harrison, the festival’s executive director, took part in the yoga. He told Blakeney about some tightness in his ankles, and she called out to him with tips on how to remedy the issue in different poses.

After an hour, they ended the class lying flat on their backs with their eyes closed and limbs spread. “Absolutely drop your brain to the back of your skull,” Blakeney instructed.

Food, Films, Fundraising

After the class ended, everyone headed to the basement to munch on a spread of crackers, hummus, carrots, cheese and more from Whole Foods – the store donated the food, according to Blakeney. “Donald [Harrison] and I like to go shopping together to buy the food for this,” she joked. “So, that’s why we do this.”

After the participants, still barefoot, finished their food, it was time for movies. Harrison gave a short introduction to the seven-film, one-hour program.

The festival has already received 600 submissions from 40 countries for next year. Last year, they received about 2,600 films for consideration, Harrison said. It’s also a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards.

“There’s not a lot of festivals out there that have that status,” Harrison said.

The films included “Dahlia” by Michael Langan, which offered a sort of stop-motion montage of San Francisco (flowers, people, parking meters). Then there was Peter Rose’s transillumination study, which showed various spaces – like building entryways and caves – lit in segments. Other films were less abstract and more documentary-style: Nicole MacDonald’s “A City to Yourself,” for example, examined the decline of Detroit.

Blakeney, who’s been teaching yoga in Ann Arbor for 32 years, said she got started fundraising for the festival three years ago. “That was when the funding for the arts really got cut and the film festival was in trouble,” she said.

That was the time when some Michigan legislators, citing films they found objectionable, pushed to yank state funding for the festival and put restrictions on funds awarded through the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. Rather than agree to restrictions on content, the festival’s board decided not to apply for state funding. They later filed a lawsuit to overturn the restrictions, which the state repealed in late 2007.

Harrison recalled the funding crisis that originally led to the festival’s partnership with Blakeney. Community members and organizations like the yoga school rallied behind the festival and helped it pull through that rough spot, Harrison said.

Although there’s no “immediate crisis” in terms of finance now, Harrison acknowledged that it’s still a difficult time, with arts organizations facing funding cuts due to the economy.

“I think you have to be creative and find diverse ways of bringing in money,” Harrison said.

Putting on the festival costs approximately $400,000 to $500,000, Harrison said. In addition to individual community donors, local businesses also contribute to funding. (According to the AAFF website, Zingerman’s, Weber’s Inn and Michigan Radio were among the corporate sponsors for last year’s festival.) Other revenue sources include The Warhol Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, submission fees from filmmakers, ticket sales, membership dues, and income from the festival’s traveling tour. Other fundraising efforts include putting out DVD collections and licensing the films they showcase.

In an email follow-up after the Aug. 14 fundraiser, Harrison said this year’s Cinema & Yoga event raised $400 – less than half of the $1,000 it brought in a year ago. The decrease is perhaps reflective of a more challenging fundraising climate, he said, but the event was an important contribution as part of the festival’s outreach and education efforts.

The festival will continue to look for ways to deepen its ties to the local community, Harrison said. Though they recently made MovieMaker magazine’s list of top 25 coolest film festivals, AAFF doesn’t have the kind of broad support Harrison would like to see from their Ann Arbor base, and he hopes to change that. The festival is launching a membership drive in September, and they’ll be hosting more than a dozen screening salons this fall – including a free public screening at the Ann Arbor District Library on Oct. 22 – to engage more people in the process of screening festival submissions. In terms of manpower, the festival recently hired a new community development manager, Becca Keating, to focus on outreach and fundraising efforts.

“It’s a challenging time to be an arts nonprofit,” Harrison told the group at the Cinema & Yoga event. “It just means we have to work a lot harder. We’re continuing to reach out to the community.”

The 48th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival will take place from March 23-28, 2010. Submissions are currently being accepted.

About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. By Nydia Quiroga
    August 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm | permalink

    It is a wonderful article,thanks to Helen Nevius Ann Arbor will have a better understanding of the best yoga in town and the expertise of Laurie Blakeney,the great idea of combining a Fund raise for the Art Festival,and the Iyengar Yoga was an unique and fun experience,it could not get any better.

  2. August 21, 2009 at 10:40 am | permalink

    Great story! I just wish I attended the event – hopefully this will be the first of many!

  3. August 21, 2009 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Laurie is a gem. since Food Gatherers inception 20 years ago she and her students annually donate the value of a class to us. This is just another great example of her community spirit!

  4. August 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm | permalink

    Laurie’s studio is an excellent venue for screening films (along with yoga), and agreed, she is a gem. I had a great time and look forward to doing this again.

  5. By Marlen Mormile
    August 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    It was a great event; I really enjoyed the yoga class, eating good food, and watching the films.