It must be something in the zeitgeist: The thrust of the Ashland Independent Film Festival this year will be activism supporting the struggle and rights of immigrants, minorities and women, with live talks and panels including leading filmmakers in the field — and even the unsung woman who worked as an equal with Cesar Chavez in founding United Farm Workers.
At AIFF’s Preview Night Tuesday, clips from a trove of over 100 films were shown (including many not associated with politics) at Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall. The festival runs April 6 through 10 at the Varsity and Ashland Street theaters and the Historic Ashland Armory. The lineup of films were posted on ashlandfilm.org Wednesday and includes links to many trailers.
“The emphasis this year is on activism,” said AIFF Director Richard Herskowitz, “and we’re recognizing the role of independent film makers and paying tribute to honor companies that are sustaining the infrastructure of independent films, outside of Hollywood and representing the voices of women and minorities that are often neglected there.”
The new focus, he added to much applause, is a response to rejection of “outsiders” and is countering “fears and hostilities fostered by a radically conservative administration.”
The subject of activism will also be pursued in live TalkBack sessions for Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at Ashland Springs Hotel, featuring prime movers in the activist film movement, a genre, he said, that gets little play in mainstream movies.
The opening night film “Delores” tells the story of Dolores Huerta, who “was just as prevalent as Chavez” in starting the UFW movement and coining the expression "si se puede (yes we can)," later picked up by Barack Obama.
“History neglected her role, which was unusual for that period,” Herskowitz said in an interview. “Not that a woman was behind the scenes then.” AIFF is in the process of bringing Huerta, 86, to the festival — and director Peter Bratt has already moved to Ashland and will participate.
“There’s a lot of discussion of the urgency of making films,” Herskowitz said, “that address the current radical conservative administration in this country — and utilizing film’s capacity to increase understanding and empathy across borders. A demonization of outsiders is increasingly prevalent now and independent film has the capacity to help understand the perspectives of outsiders.”
The movie premiered in January at Sundance Film Festival and will soon go into theatrical release.
AIFF will show “500 Years,” directed by Pamela Yates, who will introduce it here. It details persecution of the Mayan population in Guatemala and forms a trilogy, all on the same general subject, with “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” and “When the Mountains Tremble.” Her footage was instrumental in the trial that put the dictator, Rios Montt behind bars for genocide.
The film “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” shows the trial of Gawker in a suit by pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan that cost $31 million and brought the e-magazine down in bankruptcy. The film also looks into another free speech issue, investigative reporting by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that turned up the fact that the paper itself was purchased by a Las Vegas billionaire with a political agenda.
“This could not be more topical because of what Trump is doing,” said Herskowitz.
The picture “What Lies Upstream,” by filmmaker-investigative journalist Cullen Hoback, is the result an “incredibly persistent” exploration of a chemical dump that contaminated drinking water in North Carolina leading into the Flint, Michigan, water scandal and “the dire state of regulation of water quality.” It’s sponsored by the Ashland Food Co-op.
Outside the activist genre, Alex Cox, a resident of the Colestin Valley and historian of the American West, brings his “Tombstone Rashomon,” with different perspectives on the gunfight at the OK Corral. He directed “Repo Man” in 1984.
“He dramatizes his research into various stories, says Herskowitz. The film will be shown with the Western classic “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” whose art director, Philip Thomas will also be present. The two will be in dialog after the screenings.
The entire program, including information about show times, live performances, art installations, filmmaker TalkBack panels, children’s programs, community conversations, and more is now online at ashlandfilm.org. Ticket ordering for AIFF Members begins on March 20 and for the general public on March 26.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.