19,000 expected at AIFF

An inside view of the Kennedy family, the crusade to keep Detroit going, a cold, hard look at global warming — all are part of the lineup for April's Ashland Independent Film Festival, which promoters hope will draw more than 19,000 viewers in its 11th season.

The big splash will be guest Julie Taymor, director of "Across the Universe," the fantastical review of Beatles music, which will be shown and followed by a question-and-answer session. Taymor directed Helen Mirren in "The Tempest" and won a Tony for Best Director in a Musical for "The Lion King."

She joins Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch in "Essential Transformation: In Conversation with Julie Taymor," set for 6 p.m. Friday, April 13, and two days later will receive the AIFF Artistic Achievement Award.

The popular movie festival runs April 12-16 and is noted for its accompanying social scene, in which viewers and filmmakers get to know each other at local restaurants and watering holes, says Anne Ashbey Pierotti, who is in her first season as AIFF executive director.

"It's one of those times that Ashland really comes alive," says Pierotti. "The streets are filled with a vibrant feel of people streaming in and out of the Varsity Theatre and the Historic Ashland Armory. It's a wonderful thing that may seem a little daunting, but even if you get to see one film, you see how easy it is to get in conversations about it."

Asked for her favorite, AIFF director of programming Joanne Feinberg selected "ETHEL," a firsthand look at Ethel Kennedy, widow of assassinated presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy, through the eyes of her many children — with youngest child Rory as filmmaker.

"You fall in love with all the films, of course," she said, "but this one is so iconic in history, showing us a side of this national family that's very touching and moving."

Two films study homelands that are threatened. "Detropia" looks at Detroit, once a prosperous and confident industrial giant that's now teetering on bankruptcy, but with a note of hope from residents who are trying to turn it around.

In a similar story, "The Valley of the Saints," a young boatman is seen struggling with the desire to flee to a better life or rebuild the land he loves in India.

"These are about people making the conscious choice to stay and find new ways of invigorating their cities while facing a scale of problems we can't imagine facing," says Feinberg. "You're moved by their determination. It's their home."

Films tackle some tough issues — gay marriage, climate change and a broken health care system. "Love Free or Die" explores the unequal world of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people through the life of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop.

"Chasing Ice" is the tale of National Geographic photographer James Balog's Extreme Ice Survey, which uses time-lapse shots to establish a record, in Antarctica, of the planet's warming ways.

"The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare" puts a magnifying glass on the powerful forces seeking to keep the dysfunctional system patched together so it can produce profits instead of care.

Filmmaker Lucy Walker, who showed "Wasteland" at AIFF last year, returns with "Tsunami and Cherry Blossoms," a close-up look at the devastation to Japan and its people's resiliency in rebuilding, says Feinberg.

Paul Salzman's "Return to Mississippi" looks at his struggles in the Civil Rights movement there in the '60s.

Beth and George Gage will show their "Bidder 70," about activist Tim DeChristopher drawing a two-year prison term for bidding more than $1 million on oil and gas leases in the Southwest when he didn't have the money.

The festival showcases local films, with free admission, on Sunday and Monday mornings and Monday evening, including winners of the Southern Oregon University film competition. "The Spirit Behind Bowmer in the Park" shows the community responding to OSF's Bowmer Theatre going dark when a beam cracked. "An Ordinary Life" shows the times of Ashland activist Dot Fisher-Smith. "Walk-In," based on Scott Blum's novel, "Summer Path," will feature many actors from OSF.

"Two things are really wonderful at the festival — the intimate scale of it, with everything in walking distance, and the access to filmmakers, who always speak very highly of the knowledgeable audience and how they stay for Q&A," said Feinberg.

Like most nonprofit organizations, says Pierotti, AIFF faces financial challenges in this down economy. Only a fourth of the festival's revenues comes from ticket sales, with another fourth from memberships.

The festival features filmmaker panels Friday, Saturday and Sunday — two on documentaries and one on narrated films. Full details of the festival are on blog.ashlandfilm.org. Tickets for members go on sale March 20 and for the public March 25. Tickets are available online or at the kiosk in the Ashland Plaza during the festival. Filmgoers also can show up for rush tickets, which become available 15 minutes before shows.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him by email at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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