It's not just a spring thing anymore.

"Varsity World Film Week is evolving into a vibrant full-fledged film festival, the second major festival that AIFF is presenting annually in Ashland,” says Ashland Independent Film Festival Artistic and Executive Director Richard Herskowitz.

Featuring movies this fall starting with drag dancers and closing with the controversial Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation, AIFF now stretches its offerings not just to an April event, but something that goes on all year.

AIFF’s spring array for years has been all about American indy filmmakers — and, until now, the fall presentation has been a week of “world films,” with few festivities. Now, it’s gone to the next level, with gala events and world movies highlighting pressing issues of our day.

The fuzzy, shifting world of gender will be explored in “Rebels on Pointe,” a cinema verite (the real world in real time sans narration or script) showcasing Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male drag ballet mounted after New York’s notorious 1969 Stonewall riots against gay oppression.

Filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart, a 1989 International Studies graduate of Southern Oregon University, now of Montreal, says, “It’s a message embracing our shared humanity, regardless of the different ways we see someone else, how they look, their way of life. We all have these universal human threads that connect us, our dreams, love, family, happiness, sadness.”

Hart saw the company live in Montreal and thought, “These guys just happen to be gay and dream of dancing on point in drag. Someone on the outside may say, how freaky and make judgments, as they’re different from the norm, but film is the antithesis of judgment. It embraces the differences we have as human beings and celebrates those …

"It’s an extension of what I learned at SOU. I am a huge believer in the liberal arts … learning how to be curious, to have a balanced point of view, to learn things from various sides and how to compromise. In my own tiny way, I can try to make the world a better place where people can feel for each other, especially in this current political climate.”

Hart will do a Q&A after the film screens on Friday, Oct. 6, then, carrying the message from screen to street, attend a KickOff Dance Party, featuring drag performances with local dancers, at Ashland Springs Hotel. This will also help launch Rogue Valley Pride 2017. The audience is encouraged to get in drag (or not) as much as they please, says Emily McPeck, AIFF Communications Manager.

“The company (in the movies) has performed in over 500 cities and 33 countries, and has a cult following around the world,” notes McPeck. “The film juxtaposes exclusive, behind-the-scenes access and intimate, character-driven stories of its dancers, highlighted by amazing performances. It celebrates our shared humanity through universal themes of identity, dreams, family, love, loss, determination and resilience ... proving that a ballerina is not merely a woman dancing, but an act of revolution in a tutu.”

The fest, running Oct. 6 through 13, will present international independent films for the 28th annual Varsity World Film Week at the Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland. The 13 films represent 23 countries, including Canada, Colombia, Lebanon, France, Thailand, Russia, Nepal and the United States.

AIFF’s new direction has an open and closing party (like the original festival) and a “community conversation,” with two expert facilitators leading “depth discussions” of provocative issues raised by the films. Marla Estes and Kay Sandberg will explore “Bending the Ark,” a film about how to provide health care for everyone in the world, at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at Ashland Elks Lodge. It’s free and open to the public.

The festival’s closing film, “No Man’s Land,” tackles the yeasty subject of armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 — a protest against federal management of public range lands. Director David Byars of California had unique access for this cinema verite by being embedded with protestors during and in the years leading up to the illegal occupation.

It screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13. Byars will do a Q&A after the film, then a town party at Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant following.

“I like to open and close this festival with Oregon-related titles,” says Herskowitz. “This issue is very close to Ashland. Like any good independent film, he lived with them a long time. It was no hit and run doc … You get to meet the protestors and the people in law enforcement. You see it develop, because of the intimacy with the people. They’re not just being interviewed by an outsider. Some people may not like that and would want the film to be more judgmental and using experts, but here you get an immersion in the environment.”

Synopses of the films, along with trailers, and a downloadable brochure and film schedule, are online at ashlandfilm.org/vwfw.

Varsity World Film Week sponsors and community partners include Coming Attractions Theatres, Ashland Home Net, The Earth and Humanity Foundation, Black Sheep Pub and Restaurant, Ashland Springs Hotel, and Lotus Rising.

The $40 Varsity World Film Week Passport is good for six films. AIFF members, seniors, students, active military and children can purchase a Passport for only $35. The price for a single film ticket without a passport is $9. AIFF members, seniors, students, active military and children may purchase tickets for $7. Passport discount cards can be used for regularly priced films and may only be purchased in person at the Varsity box office.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.