Richard Herskowitz adjusts his orange-rimmed glasses, opens his laptop, and turns the computer screen towards the small group seated around a conference table at the offices of the Ashland Independent Film Festival on A Street in Ashland. It’s a soggy day in mid-January and AIFF is gearing up: in just four months an estimated 8,000 people will flood the movie theaters in Ashland, Oregon to attend the 16th annual film festival, which takes place April 6th to April 10th. About 80 percent of the attendees come from within 50 miles of Ashland and 20 percent from out of town.
Whether you have only been to one or two films or you are a diehard member who plays hooky from work or school to soak up as much independent cinema as you can, you have experienced the excitement of this event: the well-dressed film buffs with their members’ badges stride along comparing notes about the film they have just seen; the standing-room only in the eateries on East Main Street; the long lines of hopefuls waiting for rush tickets outside the Varsity Theatre. But as someone who has rather haphazardly (albeit enthusiastically) attended past festivals, I had no idea until I met Richard Herskowitz, 63, who is in his second year as Director of Programming, that preparing for AIFF is such a colossal undertaking. Last year it involved 396 volunteers and 15 paid staffers to pull it off.
The first time I meet him, Herskowitz is about to leave for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, arguably the best known film festival in the United States. Herskowitz explains that he “almost has a lock” on the final schedule for AIFF, which will include about 90 independent films shown over five days. But there is still room for a few more. AIFF does not necessarily need additional films but at Sundance he will be scouting for selections—hoping the right films and filmmakers will cross his path.
Though certain AIFF secrets will be closely guarded until the festival opens, Herskowitz has some inside information he can share about this year’s event, including the picture he shows the group: a photograph of Buenos Aires-born Argentinian writer and director Matias Piñeiro. Piñeiro, Herskowitz explains, makes experimental, highly imaginative films inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, including a 40-minute featurette Rosalinda, based on As You Like It, and a highly-acclaimed film, Viola, based on Twelfth Night. Matias Piñeiro will be featured and in attendance this year.
From 858 Submissions To 90 Chosen Films
This year AIFF received 858 submissions of independent films, all made in 2016. Two thirds of the program is selected from that pool. One third of the program is “solicited and curated,” as Herskowitz puts it, talking faster than I can type. These films are sought out by AIFF for a variety of reasons. Often because they contain themes that he believes will be of special interest to regional audiences, or because they are made by a production company, distributors, or filmmakers the AIFF is showcasing.
Twenty-five screeners—all volunteers—participated in the process to select the films that will be shown this year. These volunteers each commit to watching 80 hours of the films submitted for consideration, which they then evaluate via an on-line form. Films that get high rankings from at least two screeners are then viewed by a committee of seven programmers, who give additional input. Though the selections are decided by this committee, the buck actually stops with Herskowitz. He organizes and finalizes the program, selecting films based on aesthetic quality, subject matter, genre, and what he thinks will most resonate with Ashland film festival audiences.
This year Skylight Pictures, a non-profit with a mission to advance social justice and human rights through media, technology, and other digital tools, according to its website, will be honored. In 1983 Skylight Pictures released When The Mountains Tremble, a documentary film about the war in Guatemala between the brutal military regime and indigenous Mayan villagers, in which an estimated 200,000 people died. In 2011 they did a follow-up film called Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. These two films, as well as 500 Years, a 2017 documentary all directed or co-directed by Pamela Yates, co-founder of Skylight Pictures, will be shown this year. Herskowitz is especially excited that AIFF will be the first U.S. festival to screen all three films, which Yates originally conceived of as a trilogy and is now calling the “Resistance Saga.”
A Teen’s Troubles Resonate
Last year Brooke DeBoer, a Central Point-based filmmaker and mother of three, took her teenage daughter to see the documentary Sonita, directed by Tehran-born Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. The film was showing to a sold-out crowd at the Historic Ashland Armory, which the DeBoer-Linerud family owns. (AIFF had 99 sell-out screenings last year.)
In this highly acclaimed and not uncontroversial film, Sonita and her family flee to Iran to escape the war in Afghanistan. Because she has no identity papers—she is not even sure of her own age—Sonita cannot attend school. Though the plucky Afghani refugee manages to learn some on her own, she soon faces more troubles. Desperately poor and wanting money to pay for Sonita’s brother’s wedding, her mother and brother are eager for the $9,000 bride price they think they can get for Sonita. But Sonita has too many dreams to agree to marry a man she does not love. She raps out her anguish at the idea of becoming a child bride, producing a video to protest forced marriage that unexpectedly goes viral.
The audience knew what the film was about but they had no idea the subject of the film, Sonita, was herself in the crowd last year. Herskowitz and his team carefully kept Sonita’s presence a secret. So when the spotlight shone on Sonita after the film, the audience collectively gasped and then burst into roaring applause.
“Right away my seventeen-year-old daughter turned to me and thanked me for bringing her to the film,” Brooke DeBoer remembers, her voice catching as she speaks. “I could tell she was fighting back tears.”
DeBoer, 42, who was part of the founding board of the AIFF and has herself attended the festival every single year since the first films were shown in 2001, says being with her daughter as they both learned about the troubles teen girls face in Afghanistan and Iran was “life-changing.”
“There’s nothing like seeing the film and getting to meet the actual person on stage,” she says. “We still have the photo. It was amazing.”
But Andrew Gay, 36, Assistant Professor of Digital Cinema at Southern Oregon University and one of the seven programmers who gave input on the final film selections, says that it is sometimes difficult to get SOU students excited about seeing independent films.
“It’s a bit of a hard,” Gay tells me honestly when I interview him at his Spartan office in Britt Hall. “Students typically don’t see a film unless either they already know what it’s going to be about, like Star Wars, or they’re being forced to for a grade. I’ve been trying to get my students to see that part of the festival experience is suspending that approach to movie watching. It’s going and seeing a few films—not just one. You may love them, you may hate them. But it’s an opportunity to open yourself up to surprise.”
Which Films Should You See?
All this talk about film leads me to the inevitable question—one that my husband and I grapple with every year. With so many films to choose from and a finite amount of time, brain bandwidth, and wallet power, how in the heck do you decide what to see?
My husband and older teens always enjoy the animated shorts, included in the program every year, which are often offbeat and wildly creative films for adults. We take our younger kids to the family shorts, and they are always a hit. A couple documentaries for each adult, sometimes accompanied by one of our teenagers, and a feature film or two generally round out the weekend for us.
Kim Griswell, 61, a children’s book author and editor who has lived in Ashland for six years, recommends going to the films made in the State of Jefferson. “Big films coming out of big studios are almost always set in California or New York,” says Griswell, who managed a repertory cinema in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Oregon. “It’s really nice to see things that take place in your region.”
Brooke DeBoer suggests choosing films in the category that you love. For her that means seeing documentaries; for her in-laws it means watching more uplifting and lighthearted feature films.
“I love stories about women or girls doing something out of the box and against the odds,” DeBoer writes me in a follow-up email after we talk by phone. She also recommends choosing movies that have discussion panels or Q&As with the filmmakers afterwards. It’s watching the films together, talking about the films, meeting the actors and directors, and sharing the collective experience that are the biggest draws for DeBoer.
Andrew Gay agrees that the experience of being at the festival is as important as the movies you choose to watch. Still, there’s one film that Gay, who used to be the programming director of StarLite Film Festival in Winter Garden, Florida, is especially looking forward to this year: Buzz One Four, directed by Oregon filmmaker and Portland State University film professor Matt McCormick. McCormick will be coming to the festival and participating in Q&As directly following the screenings.
“The film has a deceptive home-movie quality to it that initially makes it feel like a pretty loosely structured remembrance of the filmmaker’s father,” Gays explains. “Then suddenly the world drops out from under you, and you’re watching an edge-of-your-seat, gut-wrenching drama full of riveting highs and lows. I expect it to be an enormous crowd-pleaser at the festival, and it was one of the first films I championed as a programmer.”
A Garden, Not A Jungle
I meet Richard Herskowitz for the second time the day after he comes back from Sundance. The office on A Street is so busy that we walk to Noble Coffee to talk. I learn that he grew up in Brooklyn and attended P.S. 236. He explains that he commutes to Ashland from Eugene—where his wife Jill Hartz is the director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art—and spends five days a week in town. He and his wife (who is the one who likes popcorn) often prescreen films together on their 55-inch monitor in their home in Eugene. He is wearing black-rimmed glasses this morning, which I find oddly disappointing. I cheer up when he tells me that he has had a highly successful trip to Sundance but he can’t reveal the details. Yet.
Herskowitz has an artsy, energetic, decidedly East Coast affect. But even as he is reviewing the fine points of post-modern experimental cinema, Herskowitz manages to be totally down-to-earth and charming. His enthusiasm for independent film is contagious. It takes just a few minutes of talking with him to see that he is passionate about every aspect of indie film, from how it promotes social justice to how the best filmmakers use cinematography and evocative visuals to tell a story in the most compelling way possible. He is also a man with a vision: to bring the world to Ashland.
After we order our drinks, I ask Herskowitz how moviegoers can figure out what to watch without being overwhelmed by all the choices. He laughs, clearly delighted by the question, and confesses that he considers helping people decide which films to see a crucial part of his job. First stop should be the website, he says, and then the printed catalogue once it comes out. He also recommends attending Preview Night, a free event open to the public that takes place on March 14 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 and seating is limited so plan to arrive early) at the SOU Recital Hall. Herskowitz and the associate programmers will be talking at Preview Night. Herskowitz plans to make a plug for the expanded cinema multi-media experience AIFF is putting on this year, in a community collaboration with SOU’s Schneider Museum of Art, featuring the work of Vanessa Renwick, a Portland-based artist.
“It’s a garden not a jungle,” Herskowitz insists, taking a sip of his chai latte. “I construct the program with very clear paths for people to follow through the woods.” I’m not sure I would describe two of the indie classics being shown this year, Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s 1972 chronicle of the Rolling Stones on tour and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a 1971 Robert Altman film about a prostitute and a gambler, as flowers, but I like the image. I am looking forward to walking on a path through the forest of the festival and stopping to pick the movies.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist, book author, and Fulbright grantee. A frequent contributor to Jefferson Public Radio, she has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. Her last cover story for the Jefferson Journal was about Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lang’s Oregon photography. She lives with her husband, four children, and forty-six houseplants in Ashland, Oregon. Jennifer can be reached at www.jennifermargulis.net.