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Ashland Independent Film Festival

Ashland is a very small town. To give you an idea how small, I did a favor for one of the members of the Ashland Independent Film Festival staff and ordered them a 'Venti Four Pump Chai' at the local Starbucks, to which the barista confidently said..."Oh, this is for Tom". That's right, Ashland isn't just a town where everyone knows everyone else, it's such a small town that they knows what everyone else drinks.

In Ashland's case, "small town" isn't necessarily a pejorative term. Part resort town, part retirement spot and a dash of tourist destination (for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Ashland is a unique mixture of locals and tourists, sharply educated and completely folksy. It's hard to neatly wrap up the Ashland experience as it's several things all at once.

So too is the Sixth Annual Ashland Independent Film Fest (AIFF), a festival that on one hand shows small, intimate and overlooked independent films, while on the other it has a Bruce Campbell retrospective (complete with Army of Darkness, Bubba Ho-tep and a sneak preview of My Name is Bruce).

The audiences for the AIFF skew older than many of the film festivals I've attended. At most of the screenings I attended the grey-haired audience members clearly dominated. Don't let the age of the AIFF audience fool you - these audiences are as enthusiastic about the films they see, no matter what the subject. Can you imagine a seventy year old woman exalting the work of Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness? I was shocked myself when I heard it. AIFF is the kind of film fest you can bring your mother along to and both have an equally good time.

There are some downsides, though, to the older demographic of the festival. With very few evening events, the fest isn't a good one to whoop it up at, and the town of Ashland closes up shop and goes to bed quite early. Last call on Saturday night at the 'after bar' was at 12:30am and by 12:45am they were shuttling us out the door.

The AIFF also has some issues that come from being successful. Almost every screening I went to was sold out, and with some of the theaters being on the small side, getting a good seat wasn't easy. It was easy to feel unnecessarily rushed to get into line to secure a seat and I had to wolf down more than one meal to rush to screenings. This frenzied rush is a complete disconnect from the otherwise chilled-out pace of Ashland. In addition, a huge percentage of the festival's audience are locals, so if you are visiting the fest from out of town it's easy to feel a little disconnected.

Issues aside, AIFF strongest element is its programming. The festival offers a strong slate of diverse films at consistently high quality levels. A number of the films in the festival are 'hidden gems' from some of the larger festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Tribecca. With over eighty films to chose from, picking the ones to see was no easy task.

Looking over the program I found I was drawn to the numerous collections of short films. Some of my favorite short films included: Friday's at The Farm - an extremely sweet look at one family's experience with community supported agriculture. Filmed with a still camera and using time lapse photography, Friday's at The Farm is a beautiful and personal film that captures a joy and connection with food that is really special. The Tribe - I've seen Tiffany Shlain's short five times now (after first seeing it Sundance) and I've enjoyed more and more each time I see it. The Tribe is the quintessential short film and should serve as an example in film schools on what to do in a short. The Blood of Yingzou District - a touching look at kids living with AIDS in China, it won this year's Academy Award for short documentary and I can see why. Full Disclosure - a pitch perfect short film that explores the question, "What if people were brutally honest about themselves on the first date?" Director Douglas Horn does a fantastic job with Full Disclosure and fans of Judy Greer must seek this short out, because she's never looked or acted better.

While I was only able to catch a few features, I was lucky enough to see Hear and Now - which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Hear and Now is a touching look at an elderly deaf couple who both get cochlear implants and how that impacts their lives, their relationships and their interaction with the world. Hear and Now is an exceptional film that gives you a window into a world you've never seen, and makes you care deeply about the people involved.

On a completely different note, the AIFF featured a special sneak preview of Bruce Campbell's new film My Name is Bruce (slated for release later this year). The premise of My Name is Bruce is simple. A town facing a killer daemon turns to Bruce Campbell to save the day. The one problem, Bruce Campbell is of course an actor and not the Ash-like hero they think he is. The results are hilarious and classic Bruce Campbell. It's hard to think of a film that so clearly delivered on its premise. Fans of Bruce Campbell will want to seek My Name is Bruce out. Everyone else will probably want to get up to speed on the actor before seeing this film.

My favorite film at AIFF was Air Guitar Nation. It's almost impossible to talk about the competitive sport of Air Guitar while keeping a straight face but the more you talk about it, the more serious it becomes. Director Alexandra Lipsitz does a phenomenal job of creating one of the most fun and pleasing documentaries of the past few years. Rather than hold competitive Air Guitar up as an example of an oddball or eccentric activity, she finds the heart of it and the people who compete in it and presents it in a way that will keep you glued in your seat till the very end. If you've ever pulled out the air ax and strummed a few licks of air guitar then you absolutely owe it to yourself to run out and see this movie (which opens wide in 30 cities in a few weeks). If enough people catch this film I'm predicting it could be one of the biggest documentaries of the year.

Other notable films which played AIFF (and got thumbs up from my fellow film fest travelers) include: Wristcutters: A Love Story, The Trails of Daryl Hunt, Manufactured Landscapes, Prison Town USA, Room 314, The Cats of Mirikitani and Beyond The Call. Also one of my favorite films from the Bend Film Fest 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama played again at AIFF.

Over my weekend at the Ashland Film Fest I made a point to take a break from the fest to catch a play over at the Oregon Shakespeare Fest. Not taking advantage of the world-class Shakespeare festival is like going to Park City for Sundance and skipping skiing or snowboarding. Lots of people make this mistake and miss out. Unfortunately the timing didn't work to see one of their Shakespeare plays and I ended up seeing a disaster of a musical called Tracy's Tiger. The combination of doing the AIFF and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is more than enough reason to make the trek to Ashland a must-do annual event (provided you have better luck selecting plays than I did).

There's a reason the Ashland Independent Film Festival has been going strong for six years. With strong programming, an extremely supportive audience, and a charming small town (with a world class Shakespeare festival), it's an excellent festival choice for people who can't imagine dealing with a larger fest like Sundance or SXSW.

- Geoffrey Kleinman


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