As you may know, the seventh annual Ashland Independent Film Festival (AIFF) begins Thursday at the Varsity Theatre and the Historic Ashland Armory.

Of course, documentaries will be well represented. Unfortunately, films of this ilk struggle to find distributors and venues. While documentaries can, of course, entertain, their overriding mission is to inform or open windows which would otherwise remain closed.

As part of the AIFF documentary offerings, there will be films that critically examine issues that impact us all, from the war in Iraq to the looming crisis of potable water. These films, briefly reviewed below, are both enlightening and disconcerting and reinforce the opinion that documentaries should be available to a far wider audience. The discourse of democracy cannot take place if we are not informed. These films do exactly that.

"Taxi to the Dark Side" &

Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary, written, directed and narrated by Alex Gibney. This chilling film traces the disappearance of an Afghani taxi driver who has been swept up by American forces and taken to Bagram Air Force Base, where he is detained and then tortured to death. While his singular story is tragic, it is also a metaphor for America's own journey to the dark side, where our government's worldwide policy of interrogation and abrogation of human rights has become systemic.

The film details the Bush administration's disregard for the rule of law as brutal images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are shown, to include interviews with interrogators, prison guards, reporters and the families of tortured prisoners. The film contains adult content, language and violence.

"I.O.U.S.A." &

Directed by Patrick Creadon. Here, in stark terms, is THE stealth issue of this political season: our rapidly growing national debt. Sounds dry. It's not. It's downright scary. The film has been called a wake-up call to the electorate and Washington; however, if the attention given to this explosive reality is any indication, Americans have hit the snooze button.

But observe the recent U.S. Comptroller, David Walker, crisscrossing the country explaining in harrowing detail our unsustainable fiscal policies while appealing for change. Then ask yourself if having all of your assets under your mattress isn't the most prudent response to a coming crisis which has been likened to an asteroid hitting the U.S. This is documentary filmmaking at its best.

"Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections" &

Written and directed by David Earnhardt. Americans often watch the likes of Jimmy Carter travel to other nations to ensure that their elections are fair and verifiable. We are not predisposed to question the veracity of our own elections. However, as this controversial documentary alleges &

using eyewitness accounts and whistleblower testimony &

the elections of 2004 and 2006 were riven with voter fraud.

With the advent of electronic voting machines and the use of Jim Crow tactics, it has become all too easy to manipulate election outcomes and thereby threaten the very core of our democracy. The film proffers that the election of 2008 remains in jeopardy unless the electorate demands a flawed election system be corrected.

"Flow: For Love of Water" &

Directed by Irena Salina. This incisive film reminds us that we can live without most things; we can't live without water. To turn on the tap and have clean water flow on demand has been exception not the rule for most of the world. Now, worldwide, this precious resource, potable water, the essence of life, is in ever greater jeopardy, and greed may be the cause.

From Africa to California to India the film demonstrates the corporate profiteering which now drives the global water business, predicated on idea that privatization is the future. "Flow" is a blinking yellow light that focuses on the relationship between pollution, politics and human rights to this essential natural resource.

"Secrecy" &

Directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss. Nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this film examines the government's ability to use national security as the rationale for classifying endless numbers of documents which, it could be argued, are necessary if the public is to be informed.

The film explores the tensions that exist between our safety and our ability to function as an open, democratic society. While this subject may seem, on the surface, to be a challenge to present in an engaging manner, "Secrecy" &

using animated imagery, interviews with lawyers, analysts and former naval officers &

examines the topic in an informative and compelling manner.

"A Snow Mobile for George" &

Written, directed and narrated by Todd Darling. Though the first few minutes of this film seems like a family home movie, it's not. Not even close. This film is a far-reaching, clearly drawn examination of the environmental policy of the Bush administration.

From a visit to the Yurok Indians in Northern California, who are coping with governmental regulations which impact the salmon and their way of life; to Wyoming, where ranchers are locked in a range war with big oil and gas companies as their land is degraded and water drained from underground wells; to New York City and finally the White House, Darling exposes a chilling disregard on the part of this administration not only for the environment but for citizens. Deregulation, beginning with Darling's snow mobile, in the service of corporate interests, has been the mantra of this administration and the damage done has been considerable and surprisingly reflects a sophisticated political/corporate strategy.

"American Outrage" &

Written and directed by Beth Gage and George Gage. Carrie and Mary Dann are elderly Western Shoshone sisters who ranch in Nevada, where they graze their livestock on the open range, which is part of 60 million acres recognized as Western Shoshone land by U.S. treaty.

In 1974, the U.S. government sued the sisters for trespassing on land which they claimed was theirs. Their dispute took them to the Supreme Court and the United Nations. The film examines a government willing to spend millions prosecuting the sisters and confiscating their animals &

a few hundred horses and cows grazing on land that is, essentially desert. The feisty Dann sisters insist the government wants the resources hidden beneath.