To a crammed Preview Night crowd, the Ashland Independent Film Festival on Tuesday rolled out an engaging array of films — just over 100 culled from almost 1,000 submissions — that seem to fall into the categories of arts, activist films or classics.
The annual free gala offers 90 minutes of trailers and informed commentary by festival Artistic and Executive Director Richard Herskowitz. A helpful new tech convenience this year, he announced, will let film enthusiasts link from the AIFF page to trailers of many feature-length films by just clicking titles.
This year’s festival will run April 12-16 at locations in Ashland and, for the first time this year, in Medford. A video of the entire Preview Night can be watched on ashlandfilm.org.
While Hollywood is confronted with its dearth of women directors (of 2017’s top grossing films, only 8 percent were directed by women), AIFF got a resounding cheer when Herskowitz announced that this year, women direct 42 percent of the festival’s films.
One is Lynn Shelton, a winner of the prestigious Rogue Award and director of “Outside In.” She will be honored at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Historic Armory.
Her feature film shows Chris getting out of prison at 38 and confessing his romantic love for Carol, his high school teacher who worked hard to spring him. She’s married, but not that happy. And she has a daughter who takes a shine to Chris. What could go wrong? Plenty.
A Rogue Award also goes to Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper, narrator of the documentary feature “Intelligent Lives.” It explores how three young people with intellectual disabilities navigate high school, college and careers as they seek to break out of the isolation and segregation typically inflicted on the group. Cooper contextualizes the tale through his son, Jesse, who has cerebral palsy.
Chris Cooper will be honored at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at the Armory. He will lead a TalkBack panel, “Talking Acting,” at 10 a.m. Friday, April 13, at Ashland Springs Hotel.
Saturday’s panel, “Seeking Justice in Documentary,” will be moderated by Claire Aguilar, program director of the International Documentary Association. Sunday’s panel will be “Composing Scores for Classic and Contemporary Films,” with members of Milestone Films.
A local director, Laura VanZee Taylor, a graduate of South Medford High School, will present her first film, a feature-length documentary called “I Am Maris.” It traces the struggles of a young woman who has suffered from life-threatening anxiety and depression for years. “She fearlessly confronts her buried emotions through painting, writing, therapy, and yoga, traveling from despair to self-acceptance,” according to AIFF material.
Several films highlight the beauties of — and threats to — nature. Out of Portland comes “The Reluctant Radical,” about a man, armed with bolt-cutters, who has decided to break the rules in his battle to present the raw fact that “the world is ending and we’re pretending it’s not happening.”
According to the AIFF, “The film reveals the fulfillment he finds in his moral calling, even though it means breaking the law. But it comes at a great personal cost — close relationships and even his mental health are at risk. We are left to wonder: is he the one out of touch with reality? Or is the rest of society delusional for not acting when faced with the unsettling evidence that we are collectively destroying the world?”
Director Lindsey Grayzel notes that, in doing the film, she got charged with three felonies “designed to intimidate and disrupt my work, but the effect was the opposite. There is no turning back.” The charges were dropped.
With wily wit, and to much laughter, Herskowitz noted it’s a great year for activist films, “as the world is not exactly improving right now.”
Celebrating the majesty of art-in-nature, director Ann Flatte brings a short documentary, “A Symphony for Nature; the Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake.”
Herskowitz bemoaned the industry’s lack of reverence for older and classic films, noting that only one-fourth of 1 percent of Netflix’s inventory was made before 1960. However, AIFF is staging a tribute to Milestone Films, which “has concentrated on the restoration and worldwide distribution of films outside the Hollywood mainstream featuring lost films by and about African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ and women,” says AIFF material.
The Milestone tribute includes a live performance, “Silent Scores: The Dying Swan and Stacey Steers’ Trilogy” with music composed by Tessa Brinckman, Terry Longshore and Joby Talbot. It will begin at 8:15 p.m. April 14 at the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall.
Ashlander Suzanne Seiber will perform live tap dancing (and invite other tappers up on stage) after the 1979 movie “No Maps on My Taps.” It features director George Nierenberg and includes classic 1930s tap footage. It is part of the tribute to Milestone Films and honors early African-American contributions to film. It will begin at 9:30 a.m. April 15 at the Armory.
The panels are free, as are Community Conversations about the films with Marla Estes and Kay Sandberg, as well as ScienceWorks Family Day, a day of hands-on filmmaking activities for adults and kids over 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 14.
A media art exhibition, “The Animated Image,” will include work by four artists who explore both digital and stop-motion animation, with classic clips taken to new levels using modern technology.
Free shorts with Locals Only, called “On the River, On the Land,” “Ashland Roots,” and LAUNCH Student Films will be shown at Ashland Street Cinema.
For sheer fun and schmoozing with film-lovers and festival personalities, there’s the Opening Night Bash ($30) at Ashland Springs Hotel. The Awards Celebration ($75) is April 15 at the Armory.
Tickets go on sale March 26 for AIFF members and April 1 for the general public. You can buy online and check out events, ticket availability and trailers at ashlandfilm.org. Tickets are $14 general, $13 for seniors and $6 for students.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
(March 23: Story updated to correct Richard Herskowitz’ title.)