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Inside the Ashland Independent Film Festival

Darren Campbell
Documentary filmmaker Steven Bognar moderated the Filmmaker Talkback Panel "Activist Film Collectives: Kartemquin & New Day Films" with Gordon Quinn (executive producer, Hoop Dreams) and Julia Reichert (Union Maids) at AIFF 2016.

The Ashland Independent Film Festival is gearing up for its 16th season, which takes place for five days in early April. JPR reporter Jennifer Margulis has been busy getting a behind-the-scenes look at how it all happens. JPR’s Liam Moriarty invited Jennifer into the studio to tell us about it. 

Liam: So, for those who have never been to it before, what is the Ashland Independent Film Festival?

Jennifer: Thanks for asking, Liam. The Festival was the brainchild of a visionary couple named Steve and “DW” Woods, who were based in Ashland at the time. They both loved film. They thought Ashland needed more culture, and that our small town would be the perfect place to host a festival. It started as a modest event with just a handful of films and filmmakers, and even though Steve and “DW” have since moved to Portland, it’s grown to be a very popular festival that welcomes about 8,000 attendees a year.

Liam: The festival shows independent films only. This may seem like a dumb question, but what is independent film?

Jennifer: These are films that are completely outside the mainstream. They’re directed and produced independently. So we’re not talking about films made by Warner Brothers or Disney or Pixar. They’re typically underfunded, made with a fraction of the budget spent on Hollywood movies. When I asked Kim Griswell, a children’s author and editor who actually owned and ran an independent movie house in Atlanta but is now based in Ashland, about this, she pointed out that you often see places beyond California and New York City in these movies, actors you don’t recognize, and subject matter and even cinematography you won’t see elsewhere.

Liam: So no intergalactic space wars in an independent feature, but maybe a transgender main character or a movie about home birth?

Jennifer: Exactly.

Liam:  Do we have any independent filmmakers here in the Rogue Valley?

Jennifer: We do! I spoke to one—Andrew Gay, who’s written and directed several films of his own. He’s also a professor of film studies in the Communications Department here at SOU. In fact, Andrew says there’s a thriving film culture in Southern Oregon. He also told me something I found very interesting; that the majority of his students have never been exposed to independent films. Unless you go to film festivals or seek these movies out on-line, you’re not usually going to have the opportunity to see them.

Liam: And Andrew also gave you some insider information about how films are chosen?

Jennifer: He did. And I had no idea it was such elaborate process. I’ve been to the festival—we always take our kids to the family shorts and I have a soft spot for documentary film—but I’ve never understood how much goes into choosing the films, putting together the program, and making it all happen. It takes nearly four hundred volunteers all together and 15 paid staff members. Twenty-five volunteer screeners commit to watching 80 hours of movies each. So every film that is submitted for consideration is screened by at least two people and films get up to five sets of eyeballs on them. Let’s let Andrew explain … :

Andrew Gay: "At least two pre-screeners watch every film from beginning to end. And then those films that are rated highly by the pre-screeners get viewed by at least two programmers, of which I am one. And then any film that receives positive reviews gets to Richard’s desk. And he will watch them at this point."

Liam: Interesting … Now, who’s Richard?

Jennifer: Richard Herskowitz is the director of programming and he’s in his second year at the festival. He’s actually quite a colorful character – he grew up in Brooklyn, went to P.S. 236. His wife is the director of the Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene and Richard commutes back and forth to Ashland from Eugene. He’s the person who puts the final program together and makes the final decisions.

Liam: And folks will have a chance to hear him speak?

Jennifer: That’s right. There’s a free festival preview night where Richard Herskowitz and the other programmers will be talking about their favorite films and giving the audience a sneak peek at the program. March 14 at seven p.m. at the Recital Hall at Southern Oregon University here in Ashland.

Liam: You planning to be there?

Jennifer: I am. I’ve never been to a preview night before—I don’t think I really knew what it was—but I’ve been told by everyone I’ve interviewed that it is a great way to find out what films to see, which, with 90 films shown over 5 days, is always a challenge.

Liam: Well, maybe I’ll see you there. Thanks for coming in, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal and also produces radio features for JPR. She's a former senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.
Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.