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Ashland Independent Film Festival Celebrates Apocalypse Now

Photo by Michael Bragg
2019 Festival Artist Matthew Picton during the filming of "The Burning of Hiroshima, 1930". This film will be screening as part of the Schneider Museum of Art/AIFF Exhibition Apocalypse during the 2019 Ashland Independent Film Festival.

It’s the 40th anniversary of Apocalypse Now, that gritty disturbing film that became a cult classic in 1979. In its honor, this year’s Ashland Independent Film Festival has chosen APOCALYPSE as its theme.

It’s hard to imagine a more claustrophobic film scene than the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic about the Vietnam War. Martin Sheen plays Benjamin Willard, an angry, drunk army captain who hates himself. He’s ruminating and hallucinating in a stiflingly hotel room in Saigon.

Willard finally gets a new assignment. His task is to seek out Colonel Walter E. Kurtz—who’s played by Marlon Brando—and kill him.

It’s a senseless, brutal mission in the midst of a senseless, brutal war. But as Willard studies Kurtz’s file on his way up river, he starts to feel an unexpected admiration for the rogue Colonel. The viewer’s world is turned upside down. The film is punctuated by literary references (most famously to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and dark, even grotesque humor.

Apocalypse Now made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival to great anticipation. It disturbed and delighted viewers so much that it tied for first place for the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest prize.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Apocalypse Now. Richard Herskowitz is the director of the Ashland Independent Film Festival. Given the devastating wildfires that have been sweeping the Pacific Northwest, Herskowitz feels like we’re living in apocalyptic times:

"Waking up in the morning and wondering if you were going to be able to breathe during the day. Is this the future?" he asks.  "All of a sudden there was a sense that something dramatic has changed and the environment we take for granted is under siege."

Herskowitz says global climate disruption, a divisive political atmosphere, and widespread concerns about the future make the themes of Apocalypse Now eerily resonant.

Seven other films with apocalyptic themes will be shown at the Festival. This includes Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Eleanor Coppola, a documentary about making Apocalypse Now. The 82-year-old, who’s married to Francis Ford Coppola, will be participating in a Q & A after the film screening.

Jessica Oreck is an American filmmaker who lives in South Korea. Her new film, One Man Dies a Million Times, like Apocalypse Now, is based on a gruesome time in human history. It takes place in World War II during the Siege of Leningrad.

"There was 900 days where there was no food into the city one in every four people starved to death" she says.

The film centers around scientists at a seed bank who were in an impossible situation: saving the seeds to insure biodiversity for future generations meant making the decision to starve to death.

This highly disturbing and provocative film is based on the past but takes place in the near future. Oreck argues that it reflects our modern reality:

"I think one of the reasons I wanted to make this film is because I think we are on the brink of apocalypse," she says. "I really do believe that we are at a dire crossroads right now in terms of how we react to the planet and each other."

Apocalypse Now ends with murder. One Man Dies a Million Times ends with starvation.

But out of these miserable endings come something else: brave and unusual films that push the boundaries of creativity.


The Ashland Independent Film Festival opens April 11 at the Varsity Theater, the Schneider Museum of Art, and other venues around Ashland, Oregon. Listeners can find more in the March/April issue of the Jefferson Journal and online at ijpr.org.

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.