News Column

Film fest brings Traverse City's thriving cultural scene into focus

August 2, 2013


Aug. 02--TRAVERSE CITY -- Mandy Gibson knows the secret to Traverse City's appeal. "Well, look up, babe," she says, pointing to the crisp blue sky. "Then walk around the corner and look out."

Grand Traverse Bay, the body of water she's referring to, is indeed a blue slice of heaven. But Gibson, who's pleasantly answering questions from passersby in front of the State Theatre, is part of another source of beauty in this popular destination for visitors.

She's volunteering for the Traverse City Film Festival, a key component of the busy calendar that's making this bucolic home to about 15,000 people a hub for world-class arts and entertainment.

This year's TCFF, which runs through Sunday, features an eclectic mix of movies from around the world, plus an all-star roster of guests including Broadway legend and metro Detroiter Elaine Stritch, "The Heat" director and Mt. Clemens native Paul Feig, British director of the "7 Up" series Michael Apted and Robert Reich, former labor secretary during the Clinton administration. Also winning attention this week is the Bijou by the Bay theater, a newly restored gem near the waterfront that's serving as a festival venue.

The festival has succeeded because people love movies, according to Michael Moore, who previously spearheaded the restoration of the downtown State Theatre as part of the festival. "This is our great American art form," says the Oscar-winning documentary director who founded the event in 2005.

At the TCFF, the quality-of-life focus that's so vital to the Traverse City atmosphere extends to the movie screenings.

"I think a lot of people have stopped going to the movies because it's not a pleasant experience," Moore says. "It's uncomfortable in the theaters, too many people talking, too many people on their cell phones, rip-off prices at the concession bar. Myself, having been to so many festivals over the years with my own films, I always thought, 'Geez, if I did my own festival, I know exactly how I'd do this.' "

But for all its seriousness about presenting good movies, the festival has a relaxed attitude that's synonymous with the Traverse City arts experience. "There's no pretension and no preciousness," Moore says. "The filmmakers walk up and down the street eating fudge, and people actually get to talk to actors and directors."

Arts and entertainment have long been a staple of life in the Traverse City area, which encompasses more than 150,000 people, says Mike Norton, spokesman for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The film festival is helping to spread the word to the rest of the state -- and the world.

"Thanks to high-profile events like this, people are looking around and going: 'Oh, that's not an isolated event. There's a lot going on around here,' " Norton says.

In a state hit particularly hard by the economic recession, Traverse City has demonstrated sustainability and growth in the cultural realm for reasons that are multiple and symbiotic. For decades, the beauty of the area has drawn artists and artisans who could do what they do anywhere, yet want to put down roots in Traverse City or nearby.

Everyone seems to know everyone else, say local performers, and there's a strong willingness to give back to the community.

"If there's a benefit going on, you can call 800 people, and 100 of them will be able to come. That's a pretty deep pool," says Bill Dungjen, a musician and host of "The Roundup," an acoustic open-mic show on WNMC-FM community public radio and a monthly road show on Interlochen Public Radio.

Traverse City benefits from a nearby anchor, the Interlochen Center for the Arts, an internationally recognized education institution that brings in heavyweight musicians and writers. But the community is quick to embrace newer events like the Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival and the National Writers Series, started in 2009 by best-selling author and Traverse City native Doug Stanton. The 2013 season featured such authors as Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl"), sportswriter Buzz Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights") and Nathaniel Philbrick ("Bunker Hill").

"If you have a book tour event in New York City, 20 people come out for it, and they're all there for the free meatballs and shrimp," notes Paul LaPorte, a board member of Artcenter Traverse City, which provides education and exhibitions. "(At) City Opera House, a restored 19th-Century opera house right downtown, we jam 700 people in there to see the authors."

Foodie tourism, a natural in a region immersed in wineries, local cuisine, microbreweries and restaurants, is also a piece of the puzzle.

"You can't throw a stone in any direction and not find a nice place to have a good meal," LaPorte says. Food is treated as an art form and with an eco-awareness that's almost palpable. And the people who come for the fine dining are inclined to take in a concert or a lecture while they're in town.

Next month, another foodie event is debuting, Taste of Traverse City, a culinary gathering with a locally grown foods and cuisine theme. It will join a roster that also boasts the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival, which this year drew Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez of "Searching for Sugar Man" fame to the Grand Traverse Commons, the huge adaptive re-use project at the site of a former state hospital.

In Traverse City, art, food and life itself are intertwined with a thoughtfulness that continues to be discovered. This week, superstar chef Mario Batali, who summers in nearby Leelanau County, showed up for the opening of the Bijou by the Bay. But it's the locals who help successful models like TCFF thrive.

"There are many, many places who live off volunteers here," Gibson says. "And they always have enough."


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