George Manupelli (1931-2014)

Dr. Chicago (1968)
Cry Dr. Chicago (1971)

George Manupelli, the former U-M art professor who founded the Ann Arbor Film Festival, died on Sunday, September 14, just 2 weeks shy of his 83rd birthday.

Born in Boston’s North End on September 29, 1931, Manupelli earned an MA and PhD in fine art and fine art education from Columbia University before embarking on a 38 year teaching career. In addition to being a longtime faculty member at U-M, Manupelli also taught at York University in Toronto and the San Francisco Art Institute.

What locals will likely remember most about Manupelli, though, is his founding of the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1963, which he oversaw as director for 17 years. AAFF, the longest-running independent and experimental film festival in North America, began life as the First American Film Festival at U-M's old Architecture and Design Auditorium.

Still in its infancy, AAFF drew iconic film critic Pauline Kael as a judge in the event’s second year (1964); was accused of showing “pornographic films” in 1965; enticed Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and Nico to appear in 1966; and showed work by Yoko Ono, George Lucas, Gus Van Sant, and a music video by Devo.

“Indie film is really about a single person with a vision, making shorts or features that are groundbreaking or polarizing,” said former AAFF director Donald Harrison. “(Manupelli) saw the need for a platform for work that was being marginalized. There wasn’t a place to share this kind of work, or see it, if you weren’t living in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. So he recognized the need for it, created a platform to celebrate it, and it worked.”

But how did Manupelli make a modest indie festival – at a time when there were very few festivals - into a landmark event, seemingly overnight?

“I think George knew the time was ripe (for AAFF),” said current AAFF chair Leslie Raymond. “Things were things happening on East Coast and and the West Coast, and I think he saw an opportunity to do something in the Midwest. And he was connected to people. They came to Ann Arbor by knowing George, and … (AAFF) was emerging from this time of cultural and social upheaval. … That kind of spirit has endured, to a degree.”

Manupelli had also been a member of the Once Group, an Ann Arbor-based collective of “artists and architects and musicians and dancers who were making work together in the early ‘60s and late ‘50s,” said Raymond. “George’s involvement with them led to a projected moving image component of the group, and out of that was born the Film Fest.”