Traverse City Film Festival: Trailblazing in Traverse City

At the University of Michigan I had a roommate—Asuman Kiyak. Born in Turkey, she and her family had migrated to Midland, Michigan, where her father practiced psychiatry. Asuman and I became friends.

We loved “Adventures in Good Music,” pianist Karl Haas’ classical music program whose theme song, Beethoven’s “Pathétique”—performed live each broadcast by the preeminent musicologist—still haunts me.

I went to Turkish folk dances with my friend, the only African American in attendance. She visited my home in Detroit, the rare white person brave enough to venture into a black neighborhood after the 1967 riot. But Asuman was rare and brave and she courted adventure assiduously. She implored me to go on archaeological expeditions with her or ski Boyne Mountain or visit Traverse City, Michigan, a 4-hour drive from Detroit. Instead, my family starting taking the 14-hour drive to Martha’s Vineyard.

Years passed. I married, moved to Connecticut; Asuman, became a professor, settled in Seattle.  And one of my life’s many ironies is with Martha’s Vineyard only four hours away, I began trekking 17 hours to Traverse City when my nephew, Gil Scott Chapman, attended the internationally renowned nearby Interlochen Arts Camp.

On our trip in 2006 I attended my first Traverse City Film Festival.  This year, my fourth time there, is the ninth year of the festival. Co-founded by America’s muckraker, filmmaker Michael Moore, the Traverse City Film Festival has grown to an extravaganza with 1,500 volunteers, 188 screenings and 10 venues. “Just one big party,” said the street vendor who made me the best lemonade I’ve ever had in my life. Real lemons! Buses now shuttle moviegoers from film to film, enabling hardcore movie buffs to do a movie marathon from 9 a.m. to midnight.

The music is more diverse. Once I only heard bluegrass, more at home in the backwoods of “Deliverance” than in Michigan. This year, with bluegrass, classical, rock, jazz, folk and Motown, there was music for everyone. And the film festival souvenir, a beer glass handed out at the Opening Night Party, was a fabulous collectable for a glass lover such as myself.

It’s hard to believe, but three people close to Moore told me that he is painfully shy.  While he may not know how to party, he certainly knows how to throw one with just about the whole town turning out, and together with its environs and out-of-towners, swelling the population of this bucolic northern Michigan hamlet from 16,000 to 119,000.

The festival revolves around the State Theatre, built in 1918 and rescued from the wrecking ball by Moore and Traverse City citizens. The ceiling is a star-spangled sky, and the screen measures 50 feet. The State was recently voted the number one movie palace in the world for its “diversity … location, architecture” and (affordable) Gilded Age opulence.  (My son was able to buy a supersize popcorn, twizzlers, iced tea and raisinettes for a not-for-profit $11—easily a $25 tab in the real world.)

Among the screenings of independent and foreign documentaries, feature films, classics and shorts, was a noticeable increase in films about blacks. This trend may be mirroring a “Harlem Renaissance” in filmmaking as there is a bumper crop of black films being released this year—“The Butler,” “Black Nativity,” “Mother of George,” “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain,” and Spike Lee’s “Oldboy.”

“Fanie Fourie’s Lobola,” a delightful apartheid love story was shown along with more somber films like a great documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” Screenings also included the sobering Ken Burns collaboration “The Central Park Five,” the powerful story of five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted in New York for raping a white woman jogger. “A Band Called Death” tells the story of the black Detroit punk band trying to make it in the age of Motown, and “Fruitvale Station” recreates a transit cop’s brutal shooting of a handcuffed Oscar Grant III after he was dragged off a BART train in Oakland, Calif.

Arguably nowhere else in this country, except perhaps at Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival and the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, could blacks see the varieties of their experience in such a short span.  But where were the black visitors?  Although blacks are increasingly represented on film, they are not present in the flesh at the festival.

Festival organizers said a record number of industry guests were invited this year to discuss their films. Unlike festivals like Toronto’s whose lineup has read like an academy award ballot sheet,  Moore shows edgy, difficult to distribute movies, flanked by more commercial opening and closing films. “Just Great Movies” is his mantra. The only ballot sheet these movies appear on is the one where at the end of the screening the audience—not the academy—does the judging.

Woody Allen’s elegiac “Blue Jasmine” opened this year’s festival and co-star  Michael (“Boardwalk Empire”) Stuhlbarg, told a sold-out State Theatre how resplendent leading actress Cate Blanchett is.  In 2007 I saw a resplendent Don Cheadle in a sold-out “Talk to Me,” the biopic of ex-con turned talk show host turned activist Ralph “Petey” Greene. But Cheadle did not attend the festival.

Though I missed a scheduled telephone interview with Moore, I kept running into him all over this cozy town and having brief exchanges with him. He was always gracious.  “I remember you,” he said on one encounter. And, “I had to fight to get Fruitvale Station,” he said on another.  Like me, he attended the midnight screening of “The Shining,” which ended after 2 in the morning, and like me he was up early the next morning for a panel discussion.

(Be forewarned:  Doing a proper festival is hard work. Get in shape before you go or you’ll find yourself like Traverse City residents and festival donors Lisa and Pete Erickson, driving around town giving away their tickets like Santa Claus giving away toys, too exhausted for yet another movie.)

With just four hours of sleep, Moore must have been exhausted: “I see you made it,” he said.   I stopped pressing for an interview. (A fellow reporter confided to me that the Traverse City festival does not do a great job with the press. However, this festival is progressive. Next year, its 10th anniversary, I expect even more changes, including better press accommodations.)

The film that brought me to tears, however, was not your normal tearjerker. It was about a cold, statistical fact: the one percenters have overtaken America. Unless we, the beleaguered middle class, do something, Democracy is lost.  Former Labor Secretary and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All” is an exhortation for all races to “energize, organize and mobilize.”

Do not defer, he cautioned. Be courageous like my friend Asuman who 40 years ago spoke out against Dow Chemical’s poisoning of rivers and streams near their headquarters in Midland, Mich. My son wants to follow Asuman’s example and get involved in the struggle against the kind of inequality Reich’s film describes.

I cried because I am afraid for him. I am afraid for my nephew. I am afraid for all mothers of black boys. I cried because 50 years after the march on Washington, we are still struggling. Black, educated, middle class and still struggling.  Reich’s magnificent eye-opening film was voted “Best American Documentary.”

Traverse City is 95 percent white, with blacks comprising less than 1 percent of the population. Not only are black filmmakers a rare sight, the city itself is a movie in which blacks have yet to be cast. We are there as servants in ritzy places such as The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa which, along with its casino, is owned and operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. (Native Americans, like blacks account for less than 1 percent of the population.)

We clerk at Meijer’s.  In all the years we’ve been coming to Traverse City, my family has seen blacks so seldom that we had begun to derisively refer to ourselves as “The Honorary Blacks of the Traverse City Film Festival.” This trip, however, proved our presence was less honorific and more trailblazing.

Black visitors to Traverse City suffer from decades of negative stereotypes from down state (Detroit) press reports. The only black people who came here for years were the migrant laborers who harvested fruit here in the country’s leading tart cherry producer. Some white people here have never seen a black in person. Their attitudes are much like the 93-year-old woman who had lived all her life on a farm outside Traverse City and was appalled that her friend was voting for President Obama. “But he’s black,” she complained.

And when I told an audience of 850 after the “Bowling For Columbine” screening that my family was here to enjoy the festival, that we live in a comfortable suburb and don’t own guns and are not here to rob them, about a half dozen people thanked me afterwards.  It’s as if they had been holding their breath all these years, and my words enabled them to exhale.

One lady earnestly asked me, “What should I say? What should I do when I see a black person on the street?” I told her just as earnestly to say, “Hello. Welcome to Traverse City. Glad you’re here.”

Racial prejudice is still here, especially in the rural areas.  Like the woman on the Magical Tour who asked derisively if the financial backing for a new hotel was coming from “an Arab.” Or the man at the “Bowling For Columbine” screening who insisted I had attended the Muhammad Ali talk back, growing more and more irate as I told him he was mistaken: “You were there,” he hissed.  I was not there. My son’s girl friend was. She is a little more than 5 feet. I am almost 6.  She has long, flowing hair. My do was up that day. She is in her twenties. I am old enough to be her grandmother.

Largely due to the indefatigable efforts of Michael Moore, Traverse City is becoming more accepting. The black man as bogeyman stereotype is slowly eroding as he exposes white people to blacks in film after provocative film. There hasn’t been a democratic congressman elected in Traverse City in ages. Still, Traverse City and some outlying rural counties voted for President Obama. Or perhaps against Romney. And this year the enlightened citizens of Traverse City voted seminal “Fruitvale Station”  “Best American Film of the Festival.”  Fruitvale Station’s writer and director, Ryan Coogler, was backed by the 35-year-old Sundance Film Festival. Perhaps as the Traverse City Film festival grows, one of its burgeoning film schools will produce future Cooglers.

Every time I go to Traverse City I think of my friend, Asuman. She died two years ago of breast cancer.  I realized that she went out fighting. Robert Reich, Michael Moore, Karl and Jeff Haas would have been glad to have known her. She was their soul mate.

Traverse City is more than its festival and much more than the sum of its prejudices. For every person nervously asking if we had moved in the neighborhood, someone else was trying to sell us real estate. For every rude customer at the casino like the man who told my niece he would be glad when she left his favorite slot machine, another would-be suitor was trying to date her. For every homeowner who cancelled our reservation to rent their house, there was Julie at Visit up North or Lori at the Grand Traverse Resort rolling out the red carpet. For everyone staring at us as if we had horns, 10 others greeted us with heavenly smiles. For every rude festival volunteer I encountered, like the woman in the State Theatre ticket booth, who despite my press pass, told me I could not go across the street to the festival office, I met dozens more who greeted me as if they were dispatched from Disney, ready to put some magic in my trip.

During our first five days in Traverse City we stayed in the beautiful Village At Grand Traverse Commons, the former Northern Michigan Asylum now redeveloped as condos, shops, offices and restaurants. Listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the asylum was designed by prominent architect Gordon W. Lloyd in 1885 with a mandate to heal through beauty and design. With 12-foot ceilings and terrazzo tiling, scarlet spires and yellow bricks, it was an Italianate palace and the only state hospital in Michigan where meals prepared by gourmet chefs were served on crisp, white linen. Rare, tropical trees from around the world were a breathtaking buffer against the outside world. I wondered if Asuman’s father, Dr. Kiyak had ever sent patients here.

Beauty comes up repeatedly when Traverse City is described and that beauty is one of the reasons a 2012 U.S. News & World Report survey ranks this town among the 10 best places to retire in the U.S. With more boat licenses than anywhere else in the country, Traverse City is a boat lovers dream. And at one point Lake Michigan and the surreal Torch Lake are only yards apart.

“You know how when you were a kid and you drew water the way you imagined it—that aqua blue—that’s Torch Lake,” my son Jonathan says. “It’s that beautiful. It’s that clear.  You can see straight down to the bottom.”  My son is not alone in waxing poetic about this area’s beauty. In 2011 Good Morning America voted nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes with its giant sand dunes pitched to Lake Michigan “The Most Beautiful Place In America.” Arcadia Bluffs is considered one of the best and most beautiful golf courses in this country. And together with The Bear, The Wolverine and scores of others, there are so many golf courses within an hour’s drive, a person could play every day for fifty days and not play the same course twice.

Great chefs imagine great food in this foodie paradise. From everyone’s favorite Amicale, a French bistro, to the Asian fusion at Red Ginger to the American fare at the Boat House to Mary’s Kitchen Port, a gourmet deli, food in Traverse City is epicurean fare at an affordable price.  At The Cove in Leland, we had award winning cherry pie served  with equally award-winning hospitality. The New Orleans cuisine at Pearl’s in Elk Rapids is wonderful.

Traverse City is going to Meijer’s at midnight, desperately seeking oil sheen, and despite the miniscule black population, being shocked at finding a full complement of black hair care products. I challenge any store in Martha’s Vineyard’s Oak Bluffs to best that. At Meijer’s, beside the Paul Mitchell and Pantene, sat Sulphur 8, relaxer kits and do rags.

Traverse City extends beyond its borders. In thirty minutes you’re in quaint communities like Fishtown. Northport. Suttons Bay. Vineyards extend as far as the eye can see with Chateau Chantal being one of the more famous wineries.

On Thursday nights, Chateau Chantal hosts “Jazz At Sunset.” Real Jazz—and real sunsets.  Jazz hot and cool. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are played here. The exponent of the Traverse City jazz scene is none other than Jeff Haas, heir to his father, Karl’s classical legacy. Like his father, who felt music could heal, when he is not riffing at the piano Jeff is traveling around Michigan trying to end this country’s bullying epidemic with his Building Bridges With Music program.

My son Jonathan has a childhood friend, Christian.  When Jonathan was about 5 years old, I asked him what he and Christian talked about.  “We don’t talk,” was his response. “We play.” That description captures a fundamental difference between Martha’s Vineyard and Traverse City. The Vineyard has a culture of conversation. People go from house to house. Visiting. Networking.  Talking. And blacks go to be around other black people as so often we find ourselves in predominantly white neighborhoods.

People come to Traverse City to play—to enjoy a seemingly endless range of activities-summer, fall, winter and spring—in one of the most beautiful places in America.  It can never take the place of Martha’s Vineyard, whose long, storied African American history is sacred to blacks. And the Vineyard is also stunning. Still there are many reasons to visit what many Traverse City residents consider “paradise.”  I would not advise doing it the way we do it, trekking 17 hours across country. Of course Detroit is still only four hours away by car, but there are daily flights from most major U.S. airports.

If you plan your trip to coincide with the 10th Traverse City Film Festival next year, held the last Tuesday in July to the first Sunday in August, you may see us—we’re the Traverse City Trailblazers.  We went to Traverse City to see “just great movies.”  We went to escape, but in confronting reality, had one of the greatest vacations in our lives.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    What a beautiful, informative article. You have captured the spirit of Traverse City. We are eternally grateful for Michael Moore; he has brought a bit of glitz and glamour to our little city. He also has a winter comedy festival, badly needed in the frozen heart of our long winter.

    I am glad you were treated nicely by 90% of residents, volunteers, hotel and miscellaneous store workers. I apologize from the bottom of heart for the few that challenged you. I live in a very ‘white’ and prejudicial area. Most are ignorant of black culture, have never had black friends, only know of blacks as singers and actors and an occasional politician.

    I was lucky, as a democrat, to work on Barack Obama’s ’08 campaign and the county where I live, Benzie, went democratic for the first time in history. And, yes, the general area went for Obama, and I am grateful. His first campaign was a lot of work, educating people, going door to door; I thank out good Lord for the Republican opposition (not worth mentioning); I feel it sealed the vote for Barack Obama, and we quietly giggled about the new democratic followers, Obamicans…..

    In President Obama’s ’12 campaign, there were so many volunteers, which made me happy. I was not able to physically campaign, but elated that he won again. And, he has proven to be an amazing President. I admire his grace under the endless pressure of needless prejudice.

    I am originally from Detroit and understand the ‘white flight’ and all the racial problems in that area. I have friends that still live in Detroit, refusing to give up on their city.

    I look forward to seeing you next summer; I will approach you and thank you in person. I will look for a beautiful black woman, 6 feet in stature. I am sure the aura around you will draw me and others in….

    Again, thanks for the great write-up. We are growing and we are maturing. I pray your experiences next summer will be without any difficulties.

    A 68-year-old white democratic lady

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the great read. It’s interesting to perceive our town from another perspective. Just to put things in perspective for you, though… please don’t automatically think that the few rude people you encountered were reacting to your skin color. I’m white, I’m local, I’m polite, and I have experienced it, too. It seems to happen here at the height of summer, when everyone gets a little weary of the fudgies, the traffic, and the invasion on “our” space. I am often reminded, however, that the kind people still far outnumber the jerks around here. Hope you’ll come back again.

  • terep

    Powerful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to second the person above’s sentiment. I am beige-ish and painfully polite – it is how I was brought up. I’ve lived here for about 10 years, and at first I was shocked to discover the change that the festivals often bring in some people concerning attitude. I assume you have the experience as a darker hued person to know the difference between someone being racist and someone who’s just a jerk, or even someone who’s just experiencing festival fatigue, but as much as I love TCFF, it’s a taxing season. Don’t always assume that because someone’s a dipstick, that they hate black people. Sometimes they’re just busy fighting the throngs of other visitors, or still tired from Cherry Festival’s onslaught, or just jerks. As for me, I don’t smile pretty much ever, so you’re probably not going to get that from me, but that doesn’t mean I have the least care in the world what color you’re skin is. (Unless I’m painting a picture of you – Burnt Umber, Transparent Oxide-Red Lake, maybe some Cobalt blue, some Alizaron Crimson, a little yellow ochre!)

  • Anonymous

    Also, I should mention it’s a two-way street. If you go into it assuming it’s a racist town and everyone who doesn’t smile at you is racist , then everyone’s going to seem racist. But it might just be them reacting to you as a person, not your skin color. (Not saying you’re not delightful since I don’t know you, but there’s always room for thought, right?)

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I’m happy you came to Traverse City. I really am. Thank you for gracing us with your black presence. However, as a suggestion for next year, maybe don’t go around looking for racism. In fact, maybe next year, just go back to Martha’s Vineyard.

  • Anonymous

    This obviously intelligent, well educated person has written a beautiful, well thought out and balanced essay in praise of our city. Read the essay again. Doesn’t she say our city is more than its festival and MUCH more than its prejudices? Anyone who thinks this article is about racism quite misses the point. Think about this too: her BEST friend was not black. She talks about our city being a near paradise. Yes she had some negative experiences but 95% of them were great. Great enough for her to say this was the greatest or one of the greatest vacations she has ever had. Anyone who reads racism into this lovely poem about our city totally misses the point. Here is the point: Visit Traverse City. It’s pure Michigan.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the above writer. Praise for Michael Moore. Praise for Meijer’s. praise for the realtors, Visit Up North and Grand Traverse Resort. Praise for the volunteers “dispatched from Disney, ready to put some magic in her trip.” We need to praise this writer for her beautifully written essay.

  • Anonymous

    What a lovely article that truly captures the essence of Traverse City. This article is proof that our country has come a long way from its culturally turbulent history, and this writer deserves much praise for her efforts. I commend her for spreading such positivity while simultaneously contributing to the diversity of Traverse City.

    Step outside of your shell for a moment and view this article objectively. Also keep in mind that while you are posting under an anonymous pseudonym, your comments can be traced back to you and your computer should they become borderline offensive. I am a computer tech specialist, and we love to expose those who desire to fill our virtual domain with hatred and ignorance.

    Welcome to Traverse City, trailblazers!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I second the comment above. Well done! Traverse City is an amazing place, and we welcome all! I am a frequent Internet blogger. It takes too much time to create an account, otherwise I would post under my real name, Michael Douglas.

    Be careful what you post on the Internet folks! There is no such thing as privacy anymore with the advent of new Internet tracking technologies!

    Congratulations on such a fine article!

  • Anonymous

    As a 40 something year old white man who grew up on the Old Mission Peninsula, now living in LA, I find your article the most spot on descriptive narrative of Traverse City I have ever read. I am now passing this article along to my LA friends, all of whom have heard me try and describe our “paradise”, but with less success as you have achieved in this piece. Thank you for this. I want to meet you next year at the 10th TCFF.

    Thomas E. Finch II

  • Anonymous

    A beautifully written article. Thank you for noticing how special our town is. And thank you for enjoying it enough to continue to visit us.

    I moved here from the Detroit area in 1988 and not one day goes by that I don’t appreciate what this area has to offer. Including the well mannered and kind hearted individuals who live here year ’round.

    I would like to invite you to come visit the Traverse City area when no festival is being held. That is when you will see us at our best!
    Nancy Griesinger