Early spring in the Rogue Valley is about more than blossoms and the promise of warmer days ahead. The 7th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival returns once again featuring a rich and varied panoply of films: 87 documentaries, features and shorts.

Beginning on Thursday and running through Sunday at the Varsity Theatre and the Historic Ashland Armory, movies of all genres will be screened with filmmakers present for question-and-answer sessions. Festival audiences will also have opportunities to meet filmmakers at after-hour events and at panel discussions about their craft.

Academy Award winner Helen Hunt will be honored with the AIFF's Rogue Award for her directorial debut in the film, "Then She Found Me." Hunt also stars in the drama adapted from the Elinor Lipman novel of the same title.

"It's a story of betrayal, and the surprising, funny and redemptive things that are born out of that," said Hunt, who has worked on the script on and off for more than seven years.

The film co-stars Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Colin Firth. Hunt will introduce the film and return after the screening to receive the award and for Q/A.

The festival's Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Albert Maysles, often referred to as "the dean of documentary filmmaking." Maysles and his late brother David were among the first to capture life as it unfolded before their camera, without scripts, sets or narration. The AIFF will feature two of his legendary films, "Gimme Shelter," "Grey Gardens," and his latest work, "The Gates." The festival will offer a special presentation of "Handheld from Heart: Albert Maysles Live," a rare, self-portrait of the filmmaker.

The director/producer team Gary

and Anne Lundgren will present an advance screening of their soon-to-be-released feature film "Calvin Marshall," to include a panel presentation, Filmmaking in Southern Oregon. The film stars Alex Frost ("Drillbit Taylor"), a Portland native; Steve Zahn ("Rescue Dawn"); and includes many Southern Oregon actors.

A "Locals Only" free program of works by Southern Oregon filmmakers will be featured. The Sunday morning screenings at the Armory will include several shorts by longtime filmmakers and the winners of The Launch, the festival's Southern Oregon student competition.

The 7th annual AIFF Opening Night Bash will be held Thursday at the Ashland Springs Hotel. The theme will be "Savor the Rogue." There will be an array of Rogue Valley homegrown gourmet delicacies. Hosted by the acclaimed Rogue Creamery, the party will showcase their award-winning cheeses, in addition to chocolates, savory meats and some of Southern Oregon's finest beers and wines.

The festival's Awards Celebration will take place Sunday at the Historic Ashland Armory and will include entrees and desserts from many of the Rogue Valley's finest restaurants with wine and cocktails available. Albert Maysles will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the event. Eleven juried and audience awards honoring the best of 2008 festival offerings will also be presented.

The AIFF continues to gain national attention and has been judged by the LA Weekly to be "well on its way to being one of the favorite American film festivals, period. It's the almost-perfect blend of programming, audience and location." Jim Teece, president of the AIFF Board of Directors commented that "People are surprised when they realize just how young the festival is. I'm incredibly proud of the impact the AIFF has on our community and for all the respect it garners from filmmakers across the country."

"For a small nonprofit organization to continue each year and make it to seven is pretty rare," said Tom Olbrich, executive director of the festival. "The grant we received last fall from The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is helping and will enhance the festival experience for the audience. The money is earmarked to enable more filmmakers, actors and documentary subjects to travel to Ashland and showcase their work. Now, when the lights go up in the theatres, more special guests will be there to talk about films and that is what makes a film festival such an incredibly memorable experience."

Tickets and the full 2008 festival schedule and film descriptions are available at ashlandfilm.org and at the festival's pre-sale box office in the kiosk on the Plaza in Ashland from — to 6 p.m. Sunday through Friday and 12 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays until the festival begins. During the festival tickets are sold at the Varsity Theatre box office. "Rush" tickets to most films will be sold just before show time. Free 88-page 2008 AIFF souvenir programs are available at the festival box office at the Varsity Theatre. Memberships to AIFF may still be purchased online.