Indie Film Not So White: Ashland Independent Film Festival Highlights Diversity

Mar 2, 2020

In light of the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic, the Ashland Independent Film Festival, scheduled for April 16-20, will not be taking place as planned. For more details, visit Ashlandfilm.org

It’s a busy time at the Ashland Independent Film Festival’s new offices downtown. When I catch up with him, Richard Herskowitz is just back from Park City, Utah. Herskowitz is the Ashland Independent Film Festival’s artistic and executive director and he’s been at Sundance running from one event to the next, screening independent films, and courting talent to bring to Southern Oregon. 

Mohau Modisakeng, Passage, 2017, 3-channel projection, ed. 7/10; 17.34 minutes. The three-channel video work 'Passage' by South African artist Mohau Modisakeng represented his country in the 2017 Venice Biennale. From "Migrating Bodies: For(saking) Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness", a collaborative exhibition between Schneider Museum of Art and AIFF on view at the Schneider Museum of Art, April 2 – May 9.

That high-altitude rushing around leaves you breathless after just five minutes, he tells me. But today Herskowitz is out of breath because he’s talking fast: he has so much to tell me and so little time.

Even if you’re not a film buff, you’ve heard of Sundance, which was founded by actor Robert Redford in 1989 and is arguably the best known independent film festival in the United States and one of the best known in the world (perhaps with the exception of Cannes). Our much smaller but much-loved Ashland Independent Film Festival (AIFF) has decidedly less glamorous roots. 

It was founded in 2001 by an enterprising couple named Doreen and Steve Wood who no longer live in Ashland. But when Herskowitz goes to Sundance, which he does every year, it is to see what’s happening in independent filmmaking, identify new talent, and entice the more sought-after directors and filmmakers to bring their films to Ashland. Herskowitz has a tight window: he only has a few more days to finalize the program and get all the pieces into place.

Even if you’ve never attended the Festival, if you’ve been in Ashland during the second week of April chances are you’ve seen it happening: lanyarded cinephiles, rush lines outside the Varsity Theatre and the Ashland Street Cinema, multi-media art exhibits at the Schneider Art Museum on the campus of Southern Oregon University. Then there are the packed downtown restaurants filled with film buffs often talking in fast, East Coast inflected English (and other languages) about the features they just watched.

This year the 19th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival takes place April 16th to the 20th. Organizers sell 20,000 tickets and anticipate some 7,000 attendees. No wonder the AIFF phones are ringing off the hook.

Though time is not on Herskowitz’s side, other things are lining up nicely. AIFF’s spacious offices, formerly cramped and tucked away on A Street, are now right in downtown Ashland at 389 East Main Street. These well-placed new digs give the whole enterprise more visibility. There’s swag for sale up front, a conference room in the back, and a whole set of new staff members. Yes, the AIFF’s new “microcinema” screening room still needs the screen painted onto the wall. But that will happen soon.

And the main tracks for this year’s Festival have also been chosen: activism, environmentalism, and the arts are ongoing. I find this year’s special themes particularly intriguing: Asian Americans and Migrations.

America so white

Growing up in rural New York State, Ajana Miki rarely saw anyone who looked like her. “There were two of us in grade school and two of us in high school,” says Miki, 52, a naturopathic doctor who lives in Talent, Oregon and works at Ashland Natural Medicine in Ashland. The daughter of a Japanese father and a white mom, Miki has been in the Rogue Valley for sixteen years. 

The AIFF decision to highlight Asian Americans has come partly in response to the widespread criticism that the Hollywood film industry is racially insensitive and not inclusive.

While Miki accepted that there were not a lot of people who looked like she did in her hometown, she didn’t see herself represented on big screens either. One of her favorite programs to watch as a kid was Star Trek; she loved George Takei, the Japanese-American actor who played USS Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu.

“I think he reminded me of my father,” she says. Miki also watched a lot of Kung Fu movies growing up, even though she didn’t particularly like Kung Fu. Perhaps she was drawn to these movies, she muses, in an attempt to see people on the big screen who looked more like her.

But it wasn’t until two years ago when Miki went to see director Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians in Portland that Miki had the experience of being in a theater packed with Asian Americans watching a movie with a nearly all Asian cast. The film, based on a novel by Singaporean writer Kevin Kwan, earned over $35 million in the first five days. “It felt so good,” Miki says. “I feel tearful just talking about it.” Though she didn’t love the movie and couldn’t really relate to the over-the-top depiction of rich Singaporeans of Chinese descent, Miki was thrilled to be seeing Asians on the big screen.

“You don’t realize that you’re not seeing things until you’re seeing them,” Miki tells me. “We have to make an effort to be way more diverse and inclusive.”

The PBS series premieres May 2020 during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and is led by a team of Asian American filmmakers, including Academy Award-nominated producer Renee Tajima-Peña.
Credit PBS

The AIFF decision to highlight Asian Americans has come partly in response to the widespread criticism that the Hollywood film industry is racially insensitive and not inclusive. Look up the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. And the Festival’s timing couldn’t be better: in May PBS will be launching a 5-part documentary television series called Asian Americans. The series producer, Renee Tajima-Peña, will also be honored with an AIFF Rogue Award.

And let’s not forget what happened on February 9 at the Oscars, Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean film Parasite, with an all Asian cast, took home four trophies: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film. “Amid the palpable joy in the theater over Bong’s dark comedy being canonized in Oscars history,” wrote a journalist for BuzzFeed the next day, “was the shocking feeling that the Academy had done what it was supposed to do: reward a movie that was actually good.”

As a preview to the PBS series Asian Americans, Festival attendees will not only be able to watch Episode 5 on the big screen, but will also have a chance to meet Renee Tajima-Peña and hear her speak. 

Pictured here in front of the Statue of Liberty, Asian Americans producer Renee Tajima-Peña will be honored with an AIFF Rogue Award.
Credit Courtesy: Renee Tajima-Peña

Tajima-Peña’s movies, Who Killed Vincent Chin (1987) and My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha (1997) will also both be screened. You don’t want to miss them: Who Killed Vincent Chin tells the true story of the senseless and brutal murder that took place in the summer of 1982. Vincent Chin was a Chinese-American young man who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in a racially motivated killing. His white assailants, bitter that Japanese car manufacturing had outstripped America’s, believed he was Japanese. The two men who killed him, Ron Ebens, a foreman at the Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan, and his stepson, an autoworker named Michael Nitz, who had recently been laid off, never denied the crime. Out celebrating his upcoming marriage, Chin was beaten so badly that he suffered brain damage. He died in the hospital four days later on the day he was supposed to be married. 

Who Killed Vincent Chin (1987). Lily Chin, mother of Vincent Chin, speaks at a news conference in 1983 at historic Cameron House in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Rev. Jesse Jackson took time from his presidential bid to show support for the national campaign to seek Justice for Vincent Chin.

But that isn’t all: Chin’s murderers were only charged with manslaughter, ordered to pay $3000, and given no jail time. This travesty of justice set off ripples of outrage among Asian-Americans and civil rights activists in Michigan and around the world.

My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha, directed ten years later, won an award at Sundance. Irreverent, funny, and unexpected, the film explores a much more multi-cultural Asian-influenced America than Tajima-Peña remembered from her childhood. Road tripping with her family as a child, she saw only white faces. But America at the end of the 20th century is a very different place. The film is inspired by Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1957 novel, On the Road, which is based on his travels across the United States. It features the then 70-year-old fourth-generation Chinese-American actor Victor Wong, who emerges as a Buddha-like character. That name may be familiar to you: Victor Wong was not only an actor of some renown, he was also fictionalized in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur in 1962. Perhaps best known for playing a Chinese sorcerer in John Carpenter’s 1986 fantasy martial arts cult film Big Trouble in Little China, Wong was also in Year of the Dragon (1985), Dim Sum (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), and The Joy Luck Club (1993) and many other Hollywood movies.

Tajima-Peña, who grew up in Chicago and is a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA in Los Angeles, has also created a media installation with her teenage son. The goal of Building History 3.0 is to teach about the World War II Japanese internment camps by playing Minecraft. If you don’t have a teenage boy in your life, you may need a refresher: Minecraft, released to the public in 2009, is a block-based free play video game that uses the imagination to create worlds, explore new biomes, and mine deep into the earth. As part of what Herskowitz calls the “expanded cinema,” which is always a component of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, both moviegoers and locals will be able to play Building History 3.0 at ScienceWorks, located at 1500 East Main Street in Ashland.

“That’s an interesting concept that could drive young students to understand and learn more about history,” says a 16-year-old Ashland High School sophomore, who has been playing Minecraft for five years, when I ask him what he thinks about the concept. “Minecraft lets you create whatever your imagination sparks. It’s one of my favorite games.”

Queens of Rock & Roll

When we think of early rock and roll, we usually think of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But another fascinating film that highlights the achievements of Asian Americans that will be showing at the Festival is a documentary about a rock band you probably have never heard of: Fanny. 

Fanny: The Right to Rock (2020). Rehearsal Room at Fanny Hill 1969.
Credit Linda Wolf c 2020 lindawolf.net

Fanny was a rock band initially started as a garage band by three Filipina American teenagers. In 1971 they were introduced as the “Queens of Rock & Roll. They played at Carnegie Hall, were written up in dozens of newspapers (including the New York Times) and made an astonishing number of albums: five records in five years.

Fanny’s sound influenced other musicians, both women and men, who ultimately went on to garner more name recognition than they did. The band went through different permutations but at its center were sisters Jean and June Millington, as well as founding member Brie Darling. Alice de Buhr, Nickey Barclay, and Patti Quatro also played in the band.

In the film, Fanny: The Right to Rock, Kathy Valentine, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the Go-Go’s (the first all-female band to get a #1 album) says that seeing Fanny perform was the first time she ever saw a woman rocking out on a keyboard. Kate Pierson from the B-52s, a band that played their first gig in 1977 and went on to become one of rock music’s most enduring party bands (of “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack” fame) says Fanny was the first band where she saw a woman commanding the electric guitar. The film also features Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt, who credits Fanny with influencing and inspiring her, throughout.

When the Millington sisters, self-taught musicians, started the band they felt they were doing something that was “impossible and almost illegal,” as June says in the film. 

Fanny: The Right to Rock (2020). June (left) and Jean (right) Millington have been dubbed "The Godmothers of Chick Rock."
Credit Linda Wolf c 2020 lindawolf.net

Those words could also describe some of their song lyrics. Before the women’s liberation movement really gathered steam in the United States, Fanny was rocking to lyrics like “She knows she’s cool ‘cause she’s on the pill.”

It’s hard to watch this movie without feeling incredulous. Their music is exciting, their presence on stage electrifying, their dedication to their craft inspiring. As someone who loved the music of the Go-Gos, the B-52s, and Bonnie Raitt as a teen, I found myself wondering, why wasn’t I also listening to Fanny?

The answer probably lies in a confluence of factors, including the racism, sexism, male chauvinism, and homophobia in the record-making business. Fanny (which is slang for female genitalia in England) was more popular, better known, and better treated when they toured in the United Kingdom than in the States. Though they worked nonstop, practiced all the time, logged thousands of hours on the road, and sold tens of thousands of records, unfair contract agreements made it nearly impossible for them to make a living. As glam as they were on stage, their lives off-stage were fraught with insecurities and inequities.

Putting voices that have been marginalized back into the center of history is part of the director Bobbi Jo Hart’s mission. When I speak with her via FaceTime from her home in Montreal, Canada, the American-born Hart tells me that all of her films are ultimately about our shared humanity. Fanny, for her, is a story of dreams, determination, resilience, and identity.

Based in Montreal, Canada, Hart was the first person in her family to go to college. Determined to better herself, she originally thought she would major in business, ultimately graduating cum laude with a degree in International Relations from Southern Oregon University (back when it was called SOC) in 1989.

Hart herself found out about Fanny in a roundabout way, she tells me. Her then 11-year-old daughter was studying music and needed a new guitar. At the website of the guitar her daughter’s teacher recommended was a biography of June Millington.

“What the f**k,” Hart remembers exclaiming as she read about the achievements of this gorgeous woman with flaming gray hair. “How the hell do I not know about this band?” It was an aha moment. With several highly acclaimed films already under her belt, Hart, 54, knew she needed to do a documentary about Fanny. But she didn’t want to just tell their back story. She wanted a forward momentum narrative that included what the band members are doing now.

“We need to write and tell women’s stories,” Hart insists. “History is written by the victors. It’s time to celebrate our victories.”

The subtitle of Fanny, “The Right to Rock,” is inspired by the women’s suffrage movement and the fact that on June 4, 2019, America celebrated the 100th anniversary of Congress’s decision to ratify the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. The film was supported financially in part by California Humanities Documentary Grant.

While all-female bands and women in the music industry are certainly more commonplace today than they were when those hard-working, enterprising, and determined teens first formed Fanny, there is no question that we’re still climbing uphill. America has yet to elect a woman president or vice president; and to this day only some 8 percent of the inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are women.

The Oregon focus

Ashland Independent Film Festival always includes a large selection of local films. These are usually indie productions made in Southern Oregon and Northern California (what Herskowitz refers to as the Siskiyou Region), as well as films shot elsewhere in Oregon and in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year the Festival hosted the world premiere of the midlife crisis comedy film, Phoenix, Oregon, directed by Gary Lundgren, which went on to tour widely and win an audience award at the Klamath Independent Film Festival. 

This year Herskowitz says not to miss Emma Was Here, a feature directed by Daniel Rester starring Mig Windows who plays a close friend of a terminally ill young woman who decides to end her life using Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Herskowitz says Mig Windows is a woman to keep an eye on. 

Emma Was Here (2019). Filmed in part on the Oregon coast, and directed by Southern Oregon University alumnus, Daniel Rester.

Windows, a writer and director in addition to being an actress, studied theater at SOU (class of 2015) and is now on her way to Los Angeles. Rester, who is based in Medford, is also an SOU alum (class of 2014). Emma Was Here is “a really powerful well-made film,” Herskowitz tells me.

Hollywood’s (lukewarm) love affair with Oregon

Oregon, by land mass, is the 9th largest state in the United States (the top three are Alaska, Texas, and California.) But Oregon’s population—an estimated 4.3 million people—is small compared to its size. Because large swaths of Oregon are mountainous and forested, we have a relatively sparse population.

It’s partly the rugged terrain that has attracted both Hollywood oriented and independent filmmakers to settle in Southern Oregon, where they can enjoy the natural beauty of the state and relatively easy access to Hollywood but be far enough away from California that they can also have some privacy.

Indeed, for a city with a population of only 21,000 inhabitants, Ashland has a wealth of cinematographers, documentary filmmakers, and artistically oriented year-round inhabitants. Among the most famous is Alex Cox, who directed the 1984 science fiction comedy Repo Man, as well as the 1986 British cult classic Sid and Nancy, about the punk rock band The Sex Pistols. Cox grew up outside of Liverpool, England and studied film at UCLA. He moved to Oregon 27 years ago to be with his wife, Tod Davies, herself a prominent screenwriter. Though Cox believes creativity comes from within, he loves living in Oregon. “The beauty of the state and the variety of the state are their own advertisement. It’s just fantastic,” he says, mentioning Oregon’s coast, the high desert, the mountains, and the forests.

Still, while he loves that a city of our size has such a robust and well attended independent film festival, Cox is glad that for the most part the Hollywood film industry is not flocking to the southern part of the state and the government doesn’t offer tax write-offs to blockbuster filmmakers.

“Comparatively few films are shot here and that’s good,” Cox, 65, says cheekily. “Who wants to have a bunch of boorish people in big trucks blocking the Green Springs Road?”

Illegal (2019). A mother and her son who Laz Ayala met at the US-Mexico border. The family fled as part of a large migrant caravan; they had been stuck at the border for several weeks.

Ask a film buff, “Quick, name five movies that were shot in Oregon?!” and chances are you’ll get a bit of a blank stare. Sure, there’s the 2014 Wild, which stars Reese Witherspoon and tells the story of a young woman who is addicted to heroin and sex who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to reset herself. Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. There’s also Lean on Pete, which was shot in Eastern Oregon and released in 2018.

Perhaps the best known and most beloved Oregon movie is The Goonies, a 1985 coming-of-age story about two brothers (Brand Walsh, played by Josh Brolin, and Mikey Walsh, played by Sean Astin) and their misfit friends from the wrong side of the tracks (the “Goon Docks”). The friends embark on an absurd adventure to find pirate treasure in order to rescue the Walsh house from bespectacled evil developers who want to build a golf course. Other notable movies that have been filmed in Oregon include Overboard (1987), Kindergarten Cop (1990), Free Willy (1993), Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Sean Porter, 37, is another local celebrity. Porter is a cinematographer who works on feature films, television series, commercials, and documentaries. He was Director of Photography for award-winning 2018 movie about African American virtuoso pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) Green Book. Porter and his family moved to Southern Oregon five years ago (and I first met him because our children attended the same preschool). In 2014 he worked on a horror-thriller, Green Room, which was shot in Portland and Astoria, an independent film that won awards at film festivals in both Cannes and Toronto. “With independent films you don’t have the gloss or charm but you have the soul,” Porter, who is now a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures (the body that decides which films win the Oscars), says. Green Book, he explains, actually started as an independently financed movie but was then picked up by DreamWorks.

“The Academy is expanding their horizons,” Porter insists. “The old white Hollywood is changing.” Porter believes that part of that change is being catapulted by independent filmmakers and the people, like Richard Herskowitz, who work so hard to promote and support them.

“Indie films—films that are trying to say something—want to open minds or open hearts.”

Ready to have your mind and heart cracked wide open?

Illegal (2019) is a feature-length documentary about the miraculous journey of Salvadoran immigrant Laz Ayala (RIGHT).

You won’t be able to watch Illegal, which tells the story of a young teen who fled from El Salvador on a harrowing journey north in search of a better life, without crying. Laz Ayala went from having nothing to becoming a tremendously successful Southern Oregon based entrepreneur. Hope. Dreams. Hardships. Grit. Humanity. Love.

The films at this year’s Festival celebrate the fact that we humans have more in common than we sometimes believe.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal. Her last feature for the magazine, “Shedding Light On Darkness,” tackled the difficult subject of the rise in suicides among young people. An award-winning journalist and Fulbright grantee, she lives with her husband and four children in Southern Oregon. Read more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net