Richard Herskowitz is excited.
The Artistic and Executive Director of the Ashland Independent Film Festival talks with energy and enthusiasm about the upcoming seventeenth season, his third in charge. Despite his busy schedule, he is on time for our meeting, generous with information (he emails me with a follow-up before I’ve even left the room) and unfailingly courteous—he checked the time only once, right toward the end of my appointment, before rushing off to his next meeting—and genuinely seemed interested to know who I was and why I was involved with this story.
Because, although AIFF is now recognised, internationally as well as nationally, as a key event in the independent film calendar, it remains very much a local event. The great majority of its audience is still drawn from Ashland and its surrounding area, and it therefore relies on local support.
Herskowitz believes that his experience of earlier seasons has given him a feel for the community and what it values in terms of film. Audiences particularly appreciate well-made documentaries on social and environmental issues, and this year’s festival will continue to have a broad mix of features and documentaries, with more than half the films in that latter category.
Richard identifies the appeal of documentaries as coming from the audience’s appreciation of the close relationship between director and subject in that genre. It is common for the director to spend several years developing a close personal relationship with and understanding of the subject during the process of filming and the resulting work is therefore often closer to life, more emotionally charged than non-documentary features. “The drama is real and relatable, not artificial.” says Herskowitz.
The Festival will distribute 20,000 tickets over its five days (April 12–16), which is astonishing, given that it is based in a city of 22,000. But that is the nature of Ashland. If there were to be an award for the City of Culture in the State of Jefferson, Ashland would be a front-runner. Not only does it have an extensive commitment to theatre (both professional and community theatre), but it offers high quality live music, art galleries and, not least, cinema.
A brief online search reveals the range of film festivals in the town, including AIFF’s own Varsity World Film Week, the SOU Student Film Festival and the SOU Foreign Language Film Festival. In addition, in the near future it may be that film and theatre will come together: London theatre productions from the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company will be screened at the Varsity Cinema, beginning with the RSC’s Twelfth Night on March 11 and 12.
There are many people in the area who have professional associations with the cinema (including, for example, Alex Cox, director of Repo Man, and the recipient of a 2017 Rogue Award) and dozens more making their own films, so this looks to be a most appropriate place for an Independent Film Festival. Indeed, a recent issue of MovieMaker Magazine puts Ashland at number 5 in its list of Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker. However, this may be somewhat misleading in two senses: firstly, the article as a whole conflates Ashland and the larger Rogue Valley; and, secondly, although professional film-makers may fare well in this region, this is not a cheap area in which to live, and thus younger independent film-makers are less likely to be moving here en masse.
Festival 2018 & Classic Film
The overarching theme of this year’s Festival is classic films, and the need to preserve and exhibit classic films, so that creativity may continue to be inspired in independent filmmaking. As Herskowitz says,
“The preservation and exhibition of classic films is vital to the health of independent filmmaking. Seeing films made in the past helps break the hold of contemporary filmmaking conventions over young filmmakers. They learn that film language is evolving and reinventable. Indie filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese and James Ivory draw inspiration from classic and foreign films to introduce innovations into contemporary filmmaking.”
This retrospective perspective is fitting not least because there was a time, in the early days of cinema, when all films were independent, and it was not until the establishment of the Edison Trust in 1908 that studios started to take over and attempt to assert a monopoly.
One indication of the shortsightedness of contemporary film exhibition, and its loss of cinematic diversity is the reach of the Netflix catalogue. According to a recent article in the LA Times:
“Netflix currently offers more than 4,700 film and TV titles for streaming. But only 19 were released prior to 1950 … Netflix does include a ‘classics’ genre among its inventory, but its definition is loose enough to encompass the 1970s features Jaws and Grease as well as the 1927 Fritz Lang silent masterpiece Metropolis.”
Mainstream films can often be formulaic and sequel-driven. In contrast, I was told by one of the screeners (the volunteers who watch the nine-hundred movies submitted for entry to the Festival) that a major part of his excitement in watching independent films is that they are raw and unfiltered, or, as Richard puts it, they are a laboratory for developing new styles, new voices, and new visions.
Some years ago, a student of mine made what might be construed as a Freudian slip in a written exam, when she bemoaned the pernicious effects of a “dominant white male vulture.” That vulture is certainly still picking the flesh off the bones of mainstream cinema (should that read “manstream”?), and AIFF is doing its best to redress the gender balance, not only by screening work by women (in 2017, 53% of directors who had films at AIFF were women), but also through its Pride Award which is presented this year to transgender media artist Zackary Drucker, a co-producer of Transparent, the Amazon TV series.
Drucker will show her own work (including a Transparent episode), and also pay homage to the drag queen Flawless Sabrina, presenting a revival of the revolutionary ’60s documentary about a drag contest called The Queen, in which Flawless Sabrina starred. This film is rarely ever screened.
The 2018 Festival will include considerable interaction between media—its poster was created by Festival Artist, Stacey Steers, whose work will be on display at an installation in SOU’s Schneider Museum, and whose animations will be the subject of a new score by local musicians Terry Longshore and Tessa Brinckman which will be performed at the SOU Music Recital Hall on April 14. Stacey Steers’ work is relevant to the theme of the Festival because she collages cut-out images of actresses from classic silent film and animates them in surreal and magical settings.
Also on the programme for that concert will be a live performance of an original score for the silent film classic The Dying Swan, written by Ashland-based film composer Joby Talbot, who recently scored the film Sing!.
The overarching theme of this year's Festival is classic films, and the need to preserve and exhibit classic films, so that creativity may continue to be inspired in independent filmmaking.
This will be part of the Festival’s tribute to Milestone Films, a company acclaimed for their restorations of classic independent films. Their founders, Dennis Doros (who is president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists) and Amy Heller, will be at the Festival and will also present another of their new restorations, No Maps on My Taps: the pioneering 1978 independent documentary that helped bring back recognition of tap and appreciation of its African-American innovators. This will be another live event, as AIFF is planning to turn this into a live tap-in—led by a professional choreographer. Audience members with tap shoes are invited to bring them and get on stage! One of the dancers in the film, when talking about his craft, says “You learn by watching the moves of the other guy.”
The Festival will also be showing work by an important, neglected Oregon independent film director, James Blue, and announcing a new award to begin in 2019 called the James Blue Award. Blue’s classic film The March will be shown. Its subject is the 1963 March on Washington, and the film was honoured by being admitted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry; it will be accompanied by a new biographical film about James Blue, in which Richard Herskowitz himself makes an appearance: he is an authority on Blue, whose archive resides at the University of Oregon.
Even as I was talking to Richard, he was in the process of adding Mark Shapiro to the programme. Mark works for LAIKA Entertainment, a stop-motion animation studio in Portland, and he travels the world of animation film festivals, sharing the studio’s work and viewing work by other artists. He will be presenting a session on animated stop-motion classics, including, among other gems, Closed Mondays by Will Vinton.
As our meeting was coming to an end, Richard was preparing to contact James Ivory about the possibility of including Merchant Ivory’s 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah in the Festival. This movie, about a traveling family theatre troupe of English actors in India, which performs plays by Shakespeare in towns across India, just as demand for their work dwindles and the popularity of Bollywood starts to rise, is a very appropriate selection, focusing as it does on the tension between colonialist theatre and the rise of local cinema.
It features Felicity Kendal in her first screen role, and was loosely based on the Kendal family’s real-life experiences in post-colonial India; its score is by Satyajit Ray, himself a renowned director of independent films. There is a local connection here too—James Ivory (who received a 2017 Lifetime Award from AIFF) grew up in Klamath Falls. A week later, Richard contacted me to confirm that Ivory, who recently joined the Festival’s Honorary Board, had accepted the invitation to return and will be presenting Shakespeare Wallah.
The Festival will continue to use its established venues in Ashland, as well as developing venues on the SOU campus, and bringing in new partnerships: there will be collaboration with ScienceWorks in Ashland (an all-day Family Day on April 14, featuring hands-on activities and special presentations ; and, for the first time, the Festival will have screenings in Medford, at the Collaborative Theatre Project in the Medford Centre (or Center, if you will)—just across from the multiplex Tinseltown cinema (insert your own irony here). The inclusion of a Medford venue will not signal a change of name for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, because the whole event is under the umbrella of the Southern Oregon Film Society; furthermore, there has been, as yet, no move to rename the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, even if the majority of its productions are not by the Bard.
There are downsides to trying to run an arts festival in a cultural hub like Ashland, and one of those comes quite simply from the competition of other arts organisations. Attendance at concerts, plays and other events in town is high, and that is certainly true of AIFF—witness the crowds waiting in line. But AIFF is an ambitious and expensive operation, and its budget cannot be balanced solely through income from membership and ticket sales. All arts organisations need the support of sponsors and donors and AIFF is no exception. Richard told me that his current target was to raise 20% of his revenue from donors, and that he still has some way to go.
Another drawback is that Ashland has an ageing population, and that is reflected in the demographic attending arts events of all kinds. It has to be a challenge to bring younger people to theatre, cinema and serious music, and, since many of the AIFF films are screened during the working day, and there is therefore little opportunity for those in school, those with young families or those in employment to join the audience, that challenge becomes all the greater. There are, however, weekend events, and those, together with the new initiatives at ScienceWorks, the inclusion of more interactive experiences and the presence of live music may go a long way to tempt a younger audience.
Get Ahead Of The Crowd
If you are trying to decide which of the delights of the 2018 Festival you most want to sample, you might check out the preview on March 20 at 7pm in the SOU Music Recital Hall. This event is free and open to the public, but there is limited seating. Doors open at 6:30pm.
Facts & Figures
17th Ashland Independent Film Festival
Dates: April 12–16
Total submissions: 948 (an increase of about 100 on 2017).
834 were general entries
59 came from Launch (a film competition for students within the Siskiyou region)
55 from a Locals Only category.
Films are viewed by 17 volunteer screeners, whose selections go to 6 programmers and then to Richard Herskowitz for his final decision.
Total number of films screened this year: 100.
Audience: 65% from Ashland, and a further 19% from within 50 miles.
A Conversation With Director Alex Cox: How The West Was Almost Lost
Although Alex comes from Liverpool, UK, he is very much a Westerns man. He has lived just outside Ashland for some time, but became involved with AIFF in only 2017 at the invitation of Richard Herskowitz. They had hoped to show Alex’s documentary Scene Missing, about The Last Movie (1971), a film by Dennis Hopper. Sadly this project foundered because it was not possible to obtain the rights to screen the Hopper film (who said it was easy to run a Film Festival?), and, instead, Alex presented his film Tombstone Rashomon. The epithet ‘rashomon’ (taken from a 1950 Kurosawa film) describes an event which is subject to different (and contradictory) interpretations by the individuals involved. In Cox’s case, the event was the Gunfight at the OK Corral, told, in semi-documentary style, through the perspectives of a series of participants and witnesses.
If you are wondering why such an intriguing subject never became a mainstream film, the answer is simple, and adds to the definition of what defines independent productions: the film had no major stars, no box-office draws.
Alex has an interesting take on the early history of film-making. He told me how a young Cecil B DeMille, a junior film man on the East Coast, was looking for an appropriate location for The Squaw Man (the first full-length, silent Western) and looking also, perhaps, to escape from the burgeoning Edison film monopoly. DeMille was travelling across the country to California, and chose to catch a train from Chicago to LA which took him via Flagstaff, where there was heavy snow. He might have opted for the train which went through Tucson, but, as it was, his experience in Flagstaff led him to believe that Arizona would never be a suitable film venue. On such accidents is history founded.
Collaboration Across The Media & Across Towns
It is a little over a year since the Collaborative Theatre Project (CTP) moved into its home in the Medford Center. In that short time it has established itself as a high-quality theater company, drawing on a wide range of local actors and directors. However, it is not just the plays on offer that are attractive, the building itself is a star: it is an intimate space, seating an audience of 90, with an ambiance conducive to sharing the experience of the theater. Already, some of the productions have featured talks before or after the performance to explore the impact of the plays; there are samples of artwork by local artists hanging in the lobby; and, from time to time, musicians play works that complement the performance that follows.
The Project is living up to its name, but soon CTP will move its collaboration in a new direction. Candace Turtle, CTP’s former Director of Development, previously worked with the Ashland Independent Film Festival, and had thought for some time that the audience for AIFF might extend its reach and draw more patrons from the Medford area. She felt that the CTP was an ideal space to show film, and was impressed with just how far this former basketball court had come in a few months. CTP put its toe in the waters of independent cinema in the spring of 2017, when Ashland film director, Kathy Roselli, generously allowed the theater to screen her locally produced documentary Old?! as part of its fund-raising efforts. Fellow CTP members Susan Aversa-Orrego and Mike Kunkel were enthusiastic about this initiative, and, having acquired the screen and other necessary equipment, were keen to make us of it.
Turtle invited Richard Herskowitz, Artistic and Executive Director of AIFF to visit, and he took in the play Seven Dreams of Falling, staged at CTP in September, and he was impressed both with the production, which included beautiful screen projections created by Kunkel, and the space – so much so that he began to explore with CTP the possibility of including their theater as a venue for the 2018 Ashland Independent Film Festival. And so, this spring Herskowitz will curate a small program for CTP, with films running Saturday, April 14 from roughly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Monday, April 16 from about 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The two organizations kick off their collaboration March 21 when Herskowitz will present at CTP an abbreviated version of the film festival’s hugely popular Preview Night (presented at full length on March 20 at SOU’s Musical Recital Hall), followed by a benefit screening of the feature film Bastards y Diablos. It stars local actor Dillon Porter, who grew up in Medford, and won both Best Feature and the Audience Award for Best Narrative at AIFF 2016. (It also was awarded an Audience and Special Jury commendation at the Durango Film Festival). Bastards, a road-trip adventure of two estranged brothers, was a huge crowd-pleaser and sold out multiple screenings in Ashland. Herskowitz and Porter will hold a post-film discussion, and all proceeds will benefit these two non-profit organizations. It seems a perfect way for Medford and Ashland to share their love of the theatrical arts to bring this award-winning local film back home as a way to kick off a new chapter at CTP. This exciting new development is very much in accord with the mission of CTP as a community facility, and is an indicator of just what a jewel it is in Medford’s crown. Let’s try to ensure that it is not simply a hidden gem!
Tickets for AIFF’s screenings at CTP or for the benefit screening of Bastards y Diablos are available at ashlandfilm.org and CTPoregon.org.
The Magic Of Lantern Slides & Silent Film
I expect that one of the highlights of the Festival will be Saving Brinton, a film about a 70-year old retired teacher and film archivist from Iowa who uncovers a trove of rare silent films and magic lantern slides. I was privileged to see this film in advance, and can attest to its power and its importance.
Its subject, charismatic teacher, Michael Zahs, will be at the Festival and he will demonstrate the Magic Lantern and show some of the magic lantern slides to children and families at ScienceWorks and to the public at the Ashland Armory.
Mike’s enthusiasm was clear when he wrote this to me:
“Exposing people to magic lantern slides and early film adds so much to the understanding and appreciation of the entire film experience. Moving pictures were thought to be a passing fad. We can learn so much about today’s films by knowing how they began and developed. Over 90% of the earliest films are gone forever. It is important to learn from the few that remain. Maybe people are not quite as wowed now by early moving pictures and slides as those first audiences were 120 years ago, but it is still special, and a joy to share them.”
Geoff Ridden is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal. In the past decade, he has performed with a number of music and theatre groups in the Rogue Valley.