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Ashland Independent Film Fest Celebrates Double Decade With Double Feature

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Karen Ballard
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The Water Man, directed by David Oyelowo, is the opening film at this year's AIFF.

The Ashland Independent Film Festival has been a growing cultural force in our region, and increasingly around the country, over its 20 years in existence. Yes, 20 years.

To celebrate, AIFF is planning a two-part festival this year, a sort of double feature. The overarching theme is “Rising from the Ashes,” highlighting the festival’s and the community’s rise from metaphorical and literal fires last year. The first part of the festival runs April 15–29 and will be entirely virtual. The second part will be live and outdoors, June 24–28.

The live, outdoor part will take place at ScienceWorks in Ashland and the Walkabout Brewery in Medford, where there will be nighttime screenings. AIFF artistic director, Richard Herskowitz says the pandemic and going virtual last year has fundamentally changed the film festival. “We expect there will always be a virtual component to the festival,” he said. “We’ve also introduced a new monthly series called Best of the Fests on our new virtual channel. The entire festival is now much more of a year-round program.”

Despite dual disasters, the festival not only survived everything 2020 hurled its way, it blossomed in some unexpected ways.

AIFF is even planning some programming for the storefront window of its new office and film center on Ashland’s East Main Street. “A year ago, when we moved to Main Street, our intention was to make the film center the hub of the festival, and open it for presentations and screenings,” said Herskowitz. “We had to close it temporarily for the pandemic, though we’ve been showing films in the window and offering some amazing window displays,” he said. “It’s fun. We’re doing our part to liven up Main Street and we want to be a big part of the revival that we know is coming.”

2020 tested the film festival’s mettle more than any other time in its history. In addition to illness and death, the Covid-19 pandemic brought business closures and financial gut-punches, especially to cultural festivals.

“Last April, our film festival collapsed,” said Herskowitz. “We were all ready to go with the festival, then the pandemic closures began and we had to cancel everything. We had the catalog ready to go, the guests lined up, the travel and housing plans. It was a really tough time. ”

Then, in September, the Almeda fire swept through the Rogue Valley. And yet, despite dual disasters, the festival not only survived everything 2020 hurled its way, it blossomed in some unexpected ways.

With many of the elements already in place for the festival, Herskowitz and his small, but seemingly tireless team were able to produce a three-week virtual film festival in May 2020. “So many filmmakers were counting on us,” said Herskowitz. “We really had no choice, we turned things around and rebuilt. Ours was one of the first virtual film festivals in the world during the pandemic. So we were among the very first to pivot. That’s certainly a rise from the ashes,” he said.

Executive Director, Erica Thompson says one reason for their quick turnaround to a virtual festival was they had recently explored the idea. “The month before, I had met people who had an online platform. I remember thinking, “We don’t need that,” but then everything changed,” she said. “We were able to connect with them and work on getting all our content online.”

For AIFF, going virtual wasn’t just about getting the films and membership benefits online. They also had to get the audience there.People were just amazing. The community was incredibly resilient in making their own pivot to online. We have such a strong base of support—local businesses and folks who for the past 20 years have supported this festival,” said Thompson.

Herskowitz adds that community spirit is the heart and soul of the festival. “We were determined to make it as social as we possibly could. We re-invented our opening night bash and our awards bash as events that were happening online. We also wanted to make sure that every single film had a Q&A attached,” he said. “That was a huge undertaking, but we did it. It was a whirlwind for sure.”

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Richard Herskowitz, AIFF Artistic Director

The team’s hard work last year paid off in a number of ways. The virtual festival was well attended and they learned some things that will forever change how the festival is organized. “We were concerned that some people would struggle with the technology piece, but in fact a number of people reached out to tell us that they were able to reconnect with the festival online after mobility issues or other issues prevented them from attending,” said Thompson. “They actually found benefit from being able to watch from the comfort of their own home, and they were able to re-engage with our content in a way they haven’t been able to in a while. That was just beautiful.”

Another benefit they found to the online transition was the audience demographic shifted to a wider range age-wise, as well as geographically. “The highest percentage of viewers are 65 and older, but we did see that age range skew younger this year,” said Thompson. To continue reaching more young people, the festival is offering a lower price point for base-level membership. “It’s nice to have that wider reach and to be able to promote both the festival and the city,” said Thompson. “We even got some national recognition for being one of the first festivals to transition online.”

MovieMaker Magazine named AIFF as one of the best online film festivals last year. Over the years, it has also listed AIFF as one of the 50 film festivals worth the entry fee, and Ashland as one of the best places to live and work as a filmmaker. “It all speaks to the fact that Ashland gets an enormous amount of recognition and esteem for a town its size,” said Herskowitz.

The Water Man highlights the beauty of Oregon and the horror of wildfires

The Water Man is this year’s opening film, and its director, producer, and star, David Oyelowo, will be the recipient of this year’s AIFF Rogue Award. Oyelowo is probably best known for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King in the film Selma, his work in The Butler, and the PBS miniseries, Les Miserables.

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Karen Ballard
David Oyelowo makes his directorial debut in the feature-length film, The Water Man.

The Water Man is a family film that explores some serious issues, including the threat of an Oregon wildfire. This is his first directing effort and Oyelowo says he was inspired by some of his favorite childhood films. “Growing up, I was a big fan of 1980’s kid-fantasy adventure films such as E.T., The Goonies, and Gremlins,” he said. “I remember watching those films with all of my family and I set out to create something that draws the whole family together.”

Oyelowo and his wife Jessica have four children, and he says there are few films that strike the right balance for both adults and kids. “We look for films that have just enough adventure, just enough relatable stuff for the kids and the grown-ups, and just enough cinematic scope to keep everyone engaged.”

Like the films of his boyhood, The Water Man offers young adventure with a fine balance of danger, heartbreak, self-discovery and magic that all ages can lean into. It focuses on a family recently relocated to a small, Oregon town and coping with the mother’s serious illness. Oyelowo is a father who seems somewhat disconnected from his bookish and imaginative son. Rosario Dawson is the understanding, but gravely sick wife and mother, who possesses a deeper understanding of both of them. Young actor Lonnie Chavis, probably best known for the TV series, This is Us, is the couple’s 11-year old son, Gunner, who finds escape from his troubles in fictional stories, and finds hope in a local legend. When he hears tales of the Water Man, a kind of undead specter with mysterious healing powers, Gunner decides that if he can find the Water Man, he’ll be able to get him to help his mother and keep her from dying. He teams up with a slightly older girl who tells dramatic stories of the Water Man to neighborhood kids in exchange for their small change. The two set off on a quest into the Oregon forest as a wildfire approaches.

While the film embraces Gunner’s magical beliefs, it also doesn’t shy away from real issues of death and loss. “What we tried to do with the film is juxtapose how grown-ups and kids process not only loss, but how they process the idea of myths and challenges, and family in general,” Oyewolo said. “I think Emma Needell, our writer, did a beautiful job of balancing these things. Yes, kids see things differently than grown-ups, but the way they see things shouldn’t be dismissed, and each can learn something from the other,” he added. “Imagination can help us navigate some of the harder things in life and is a very healthy tool for kids. It’s something us grown-ups could use a little more of.” The whole film, both in story and structure, is about juxtaposition and the way children see the world vs the way adults do, says Oyelowo.

Oyelowo says his choice of placing a Black family in the very white space of a small Oregon town was absolutely deliberate.It’s another juxtaposition. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child is very different than through the eyes of an adult. The relationship between Gunner and his friend Jo doesn’t have any sort of racial tinge to it. They are just kids trying to figure it out,” he said. “But the parents in the film certainly feel like fish out of water. It’s not to hit heavily over the head, but when you have this black family in a very white environment, that’s just an element that you can’t deny.”

One of the beautiful things about this story, Oyelowo says, is that it is a story about a Black family but it is not rooted in Black struggle. “My hope is that no matter who you are, where you’re from, what the color of your skin is, you will see yourself reflected in that family because what they’re going through is universal,” he said.

Most striking in the film is the wildfire sweeping through the story. It’s especially poignant for audience members in Southern Oregon and nearby regions given the devastating fires in 2020. “We filmed it in the summer of 2019, and I remember seeing evidence of previous fires,” said Oyelowo. “But the fires last summer were such a weird coincidence. I can’t believe how evocative the film was of what happened the following year. We saw images of places where we had shot, places that had just been devastated. It was heartbreaking.”

Oyewolo says the backdrop of a wildfire was in Emma Needell’s story from the beginning, but where to set the film was up to him. “I knew wherever the film was set, I didn’t want to use visual effects to make the forest seem magical,” he said. “I wanted a forest that had that inherently, but where a child’s imagination could impose the rest, because it’s huge and sort of scary and inviting at the same time,” he said. “My production staff sent me photographs of forests all over America, and nowhere quite had the feel of Oregon. The moss-covered trees and rock formations﹘it was a no-brainer to me.”

Oyewolo had never been to Oregon before. “We just had an incredible time being there and shooting there,” he said. “And Portland had some of the best food I’ve ever had.”

The crew shot scenes in Baker County’s Baker City, Columbia County’s Vernonia, Clackamas County’s Eagle Creek and Astacada, Multnomah County’s Lewis & Clark Recreation site and Horsetail Falls. “It’s just an unbelievable environment,” he said. “There’s so much production value. I truly fell in love with Oregon.”

Local fire-focused films

The festival always supports local and regional independent filmmakers, and this year’s growing list will include some films by local women.

A Medford-based film, Anchor Point, looks at women firefighters. “It’s fascinating,” said Herskowitz. “It’s a feminist take on firefighting.”

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Anchor Point

There’s also work by two female Southern Oregon University graduates who have had long-time connections with the festival.

Laney d’Aquino has had films in 15 of the 20 festivals. AIFF will offer a retrospective of some of her best films over the past 20 years. She’s working on a new film about the wildfires, and plans to have it ready for the festival in April.

Nisha Burton grew up in Ashland. She’s had previous films in the festival, was even the first winner of the Launch (Student) Film Competition, and now she’s now part of the AIFF programming team.

Burton’s film is tentatively titled, Like a Hurricane with Fire, and explores the aftermath of the Almeda Fire and the housing inequities in the region that the fire highlighted. She says this film was especially personal. “I feel such a deep connection and heartbreak around what happened here. I wanted to be of service as a filmmaker, to take a deeper dive into the longer effects the fire will have on our community,” Burton said. “It was a heart-calling to make a piece that would focus on some specific stories from an insider perspective as well as have a general conversation around wildfires in the region.”

While Burton’s film discusses problems the fires created, it also invites solutions. “Latinx and low-income community members already suffered from a shortage of affordable housing, and the fire wiped out a huge swath of affordable housing,” she said. “I hope the film leads to conversations about how we make the Rogue Valley a place that is not only a space accessible for the well-off or wealthy. Our migrant farmworkers and Latinx people who live here are a huge part of the richness of the valley. How do we make sure to include them in the conversation and keep housing available to everyone?”

Launch Competition gives students a chance to shine

Aimed at K-12 and college kids, AIFF’s Launch film competition showcases work by young filmmakers. The categories include grades K-5, 6-8, 9-12, and college undergrads.

This year, recent SOU graduate Kevin Lakin is the winner of AIFF’s “Rising From the Ashes” Special Award for his short film Vairagya. It’s an atmospheric film rich with color, that Lakin says was very personal for him. “The title is Sanskrit for “detachment,” said Lakin. I tend to do that a lot in difficult times. I think we all detach and build walls of protection around ourselves,” he said. “I want the film to show that we can come out of darkness. That we can transcend anything.”

It’s the first film he’s done on his own and Lakin says he’s proud to have it in the festival and hopes it resonates with audiences. “I’d like people who see the film to remember that in times of difficulty we can rise up and be stronger. It’s how you take it and how you choose to live through it.”

Ash Williams, an Ashland High School Junior, won honorable mention in the competition. Ash’s film, Burning Up, pays tribute to the victims of the Almeda fire that hit the Rogue Valley last year. Ash and their family lost their home in the fire. “The fire affected a lot of people physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and I wanted to do something creative that showed my empathy for what everyone is going through,” Ash said.

Ash’s passion is dancing, and the film features a dance on a burned-out property. “My mother and I worked on the whole project together. I mostly improvised the dance,” said Ash. “I hope when the film is over, viewers will feel connected and know that I sympathize with all of these people. I am one of these people.”

Películas Cubanas

Every year, AIFF partners with SOU’s Schneider Museum to showcase a multimedia exhibit. This year’s show features an exhibition of Cuban art from the collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. The exhibit will include a two-screen media installation, and the festival will offer at least three feature films about Cuba. One is called Los Hermanos, and focuses on two musician brothers who reunite after one immigrated from Cuba to the United States. The Mali-Cuba Connection is a film about the origins of Afro-Cuban music. And lastly, Nadie, a history of the Cuban Revolution through the perspective of writer Rafael Alcides.

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Courtesy of AIFF
AIFF and the Schneider Museum of Art have joined forces in a collaboration that features Cuban art and film.

This year, for the first time, the AIFF officially expanded the scope of the festival competition to include not only films in the U.S., but films throughout the Americas, the entirety of North, South, and Central America.

A Preview of AIFF 2021 Selections

AIFF will unveil its full slate of films on March 24 at its annual Preview Night and on its website at ashlandfilm.org on March 25. As has been the practice for several years, the festival structures its programming around core themes. Arts and Activism, subjects that persistently attract independent filmmakers, are perennials, while Cuba and Rising From the Ashes respond to this year’s Schneider Museum exhibition and the region’s revival after the fires.

Virtual Festival April 15–29

Rising From The Ashes

Youth v Gov

YOUTH v GOV is the story of America’s youngest citizens taking on the world’s most powerful government. Twenty-one courageous youth lead a groundbreaking lawsuit, originating in Eugene, OR, against the U.S. government, asserting it has willfully acted over six decades to create our climate crisis.

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Youth V Gov

2040

Motivated by concerns about the planet his 4-year-old daughter would inherit, director Damon Garneau embarked on a global journey to meet innovators and changemakers in the areas of economics, technology, civil society, agriculture, education and sustainability. Drawing on their expertise, he sought to identify the best solutions, available to us now, that would help improve the health of our planet and the societies that operate within it.

Cuba Si!

Los Hermanos

Virtuoso Afro-Cuban-born brothers—violinist Ilmar and pianist Aldo—live on opposite sides of a geopolitical chasm a half-century wide. Tracking their parallel lives in New York and Havana, their poignant reunion, and their momentous first performances together, LOS HERMANOS/THE BROTHERS offers a nuanced, often startling view of estranged nations through the lens of music and family.

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Courtesy of AIFF
Los Hermanos

The Mali-Cuba Connection/Africa Mia

In the midst of the Cold War, ten young promising musicians from Mali are sent to Cuba to study music and strengthen cultural links between the two socialist countries. Combining Malian and Afro-Cuban influences, they develop a revolutionary new sound and become the iconic ensemble ‘Las Maravillas de Mali’. Richard Minier, a French music producer meets a former member of the band in Bamako and decides to bring the band back together.

Arts

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff

adapts Rabins’ critically acclaimed original one-woman chamber-rock opera about Portland-based composer Alicia Jo Rabins’ experience working in an artist residency on Wall Street during the 2008 financial collapse. For a year, Rabins wrote songs in a dilapidated office just blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, as she watched the economy come crashing down around her.

Lydia Lunch- The War is Never Over

LYDIA LUNCH – The War Is Never Over by Beth B is the first career-spanning documentary retrospective of Lydia Lunch’s confrontational, acerbic and always electric artistry. As New York City’s preeminent No Wave icon from the late 70’s, Lunch has forged a lifetime of music and spoken word performance devoted to the utter right of any woman to indulge, seek pleasure, and to say “f*** you!” as loud as any man.

Activism

American Gadfly

After decades of quiet living, 89 year-old former senator and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Gravel comes out of retirement when a group of teenagers convince him to run for president. Through Senator Gravel’s official Twitter account, the Gravel teens embark on an unlikely adventure to qualify him for the Democratic debates in order to advance an anti-war, anti-corruption, and direct democracy agenda in the 2020 presidential race.

Missing in Brooks County

Two families search for their loved ones who went missing in the vast ranch lands of Brooks County, Texas, the site of more migrant deaths than anywhere else in the country. On their journey, they meet vigilante ranchers, humanitarian activists, Border Patrol search and rescue teams, and others locked in a proxy version of the national immigration debate.

Live and Outdoors
June 24–28

Fanny: The Right to Rock

Originally booked for last year’s April festival, FANNY: The Right to Rock (which graced the Jefferson Journal’s March-April 2020 cover) is the untold story of three Filipina American teens who founded a garage band in the 1960s that morphed into Fanny, the first band comprised of women to release an LP with a major label. Despite releasing Top 40 hits and five critically acclaimed albums, counting David Bowie as one of their biggest fans and touring with bands like Chicago and Steely Dan, Fanny faded into the mists of time … until now. Director Bobbi Jo Hart, a graduate of Southern University, will present the film at ScienceWorks as the outdoor festival’s opening night atttaction.

Angela Decker joined JPR as a backup host for Morning Edition in 2016, and is now a regular host. She has a long history in journalism, but is a relatively recent convert to broadcasting. When she’s not at JPR, Angela is a freelance writer and part-time poet. She’s the mother of two hungry teens and too many pets. Angela is delighted to be back hosting Morning Edition and working as a producer for The Jefferson Exchange.