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Keeping The “I” In Independent: A Preview To This Year’s AIFF

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The 1996 Telecommunication Act may sound like a somewhat dated and bureaucratic piece of legislation; but, it is really more like a seed planted two decades ago that has grown deep and gnarled roots into American culture. Consider, at the time, the 10,000 or so radio stations in America were owned by about 5000 different parties, but today 80 percent of those radio stations have been consolidated into ownership by three corporations. Clear Channel, for example, only owned 40 or so radio stations in 1996, but a decade later controlled hundreds.

How does that relate to a film festival?

It matters because our media—and subsequently culture and viewpoints—are increasingly becoming homogenized. Did you see the recent video circulated by Dead Spin showing dozens of newscasters on Sinclair-owned TV stations parroting the same script about “fake news”? It was one example about a media that is no longer free-thinking or independent.

Within the paradigm, Ashland Independent Film Festival is an important, and even critical event—four days to celebrate and engage with directors, filmmakers and actors who are trying to build careers in their own images and ideas, as opposed to catering and answering to a corporate boss; four days to explore different and, at times, uncomfortably “other” view points and attitudes.

“Freethinking is what comes to mind as what defines independent,” says director Pablo Bryant, whose film Mr. Fish is a remarkable and important case-study of one independent artist, a political cartoonist. Mr. Fish, the main character at the core of the documentary, isn’t trying to please anyone—and, although publishing in major magazines like Harper’s, his fierce independence creates problems with his career, but also answers a higher calling. “He is not looking to create an easily digestible tidbit that won’t ruffle anyone’s feathers,” explains Bryant. “The end result of a culture that does not value, or cannot handle an independent view, independent criticism, or freethinking,” continues Bryant, “is one that ends in fascism. It sounds blunt when I put it like that, but it’s just a matter of playing out the scenario.”

Increasingly more and more Americans seem more interested in media that re-enforces and hardens their own viewpoints, and our news feeds increasingly are catered from our Facebook friends and self-selected media outlets. Alternatively, Ashland Independent Film Festival offers a smorgasbord of viewpoints, attitudes, and styles—and we hope you sample and consider as many as possible.


Mr. Fish: Cartooning From the Deep End: Highly, highly recommended

At last year’s film festival, my favorite documentary was Nobody Speak: Trails of the Free Press. What sounds like a puerile story about Hulk Hogan’s sex tape turned out to be a profound and frightening study about the First Amendment, and an important exploration about the media’s vulnerability to censorship (as a result of a lawsuit over the sex tape, Gawker was shut down). The film fed conversations for me for many months later.

Mr. Fish arrives at this year’s film festival with some momentum from other festivals—and also lands as an informal companion piece to Nobody Speaks; another study into the contemporary media landscape, and a film I know I will reference for months to come.  

Mr. Fish, the real life person at the center of this documentary, is a political cartoonist. He is likable and, at times, vulnerable. And, he is also complex and sometimes distasteful, both in his art work, and his stubborn and overly opinionated personality; that is, the perfect recipe for an engaging central character.

Moreover, the film doubles down on independent media, as in the Ashland Independent Film Festival. It is a case-study about how an independent artist tries to financially and spiritually survive as a grown-up, and also the examination about the role of defiantly independent art in political discussions. That is, it may be the film that best exhibits the soul of an independent film festival.

Ultimately, Mr. Fish is a fun, engaged, and thoughtful documentary. But the result is a complex set of emotions and thoughts: Not necessarily pessimistic or optimistic, but certainly concerning. PB

6:40 pm Thurs, 12:40 pm Sat, 9:40 pm Sun at Varsity 3


Unnatural: Recommended

This short film is bursting at the seams with talent. Blaine Maye is the young actor playing the uncomfortable, central role as a pedophile. With simple gestures and intense gazes, Maye portrays the character’s torment, trying to shake free from his lustful impulses and to be a normal kid. It is a captivating performance, and one that makes the would-be pedophile something more than a creep, but a tender and likable person.

Not to be outshone, the cinematography is breath-taking; rich and simmering blues of swimming pools, and dusty shadows of bedrooms. This is a beautiful film, far beyond an art film budget. PB

(Part of Short Stories 1: In the Light of Day) 6:30 pm Thurs & Fri, 3:30 pm Sat, 12:30 pm Sun at Varsity 5


The Blessing: Recommended

Sunrise comes and, as he does every morning, Lawrence, a coal miner and family man, gives thanks to Mother Earth. He is Navajo, trying to reconcile his spiritual ethics with working for the largest coal mining corporation in the world. With the predicted closure of Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine spanning between Navajo and Hopi lands, it leaves more scarring amongst the people than the gouged landscape of the Black Mesa mountains, the source for electricity and irrigation development for millions. Like any great documentary, part of the excellence is by simply capturing a true and unique story, and one that provides insights to larger truths and trials, like this story about the daily grind going against the grain of fundamental beliefs.

Lawrence has supported his family by working for the mining industry and admits his doubts and fears about the morality of helping in the destruction of the sacred mountain of the native people. “I live in two worlds,” he says, and as he prays he hopes for redemption.

Caitlyn, his daughter, struggles internally with her desire to help her father understand her values and beliefs. A senior in high school, she is “experiencing” her sexuality, secretly playing for the high school football team and continually hoping for a deeper connection to the father she’d been taken away from until his sobriety helped bring them together as a family once again. Empathic and quietly living her own ways, Caitlyn tells him she wants to be a writer but doesn’t receive the feedback she wishes to hear. “If it’s not my anxiety shoving my words back down my throat,” she writes in a journal, “it’s my uncontrollable cry that always stops me. I have everyone on my mind, and I never speak of it.”

This simple, yet subtly complex, film by Emmy and Cannes Lions winning directors, Hunter Baker (Motorcycle Jesus, Miles) and Jordan Fein (Bowline, White Carpet), reveals the depth of disruption amongst a spiritual community afflicted with the dispute between need and rejection of the fossil fuel industry. Shot in the Navajo Nation against the placid desert skies and open lands of the Four Corners region of Arizona, the film captures family celebrations, Caitlyn’s graduation and her crowning as Homecoming Queen amidst a battle between spiritual renewal and technological development at the expense of the Earth’s properties. CATHERINE KELLEY

Noon Sun at The Armory


The Citizen Blue: The Life and Work of a Great Filmmaker: Worth Watching

Although James Blue isn’t a household name and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, you already have seen footage from his documentaries. In 1963, he was the primary director for footage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington. Although much of the footage has been pared down to soundbites, the entire documentary, “The March,” is a deliberate and captivating consideration about civil rights. It is a style and pacing that largely—and unfortunately—has been pushed aside by quick-cut editing and in-your-face interviews. This was Blue’s style, patient and curious footage that created slow-burning cinematic essays, often about civil rights and different cultures.

Blue, an Oregonian, died young, but over his nearly two decade career of filmmaking and teaching, he left a tidy legacy—and this hour-long documentary does a nice job re-accounting and paying tribute to his career. PB

6:40 pm at Ashland Street Cinema, 10 am Mon at Varsity 5 (with “The March”)


Saving Brinton: Highly Recommended

Saving Brinton deals with one man’s endurance and persistence in trying to bring a vital piece of early American film history to light. The man is Michael Zahs, an ex-school teacher and native of the small town of Washington, Iowa. An avid amateur historian and collector, Zahs decades ago acquired the Brinton Collection, a series of films shown by the itinerant film screener and entertainer Frank Brinton when the motion picture industry was in its early infancy. Initially storing the films in a shed, Zahs gradually began showing them to interested parties at various local events. The film chronicles Zahs’ attempts to bring the films to a wider (even international) audience and wake the world up to their tremendous historical significance.

In many ways what is most interesting and engaging about the piece is how it works as a profile of Zahs himself. Brinton was a native of Washington, Iowa as well, and it is touching how dedicated Zahs is to preserving not only the Brinton Collection, but all kinds of artifacts and time honored facets of his home town and state’s history. Though Brinton and the early film makers whose movies he screened are the literal subject, they feel more like inspiring silhouettes, backgrounds to Zahs’ crisp foreground focus.

Zahs is a tall, saintly-looking fellow with a white beard and a tendency to get misty and emotional. But he is also meticulous and determined, and the documentary’s strength lies in its portrayal of his sense of emotional investment in, and reverence for, the cause of preserving these all-but-forgotten treasures. Along the way the viewer gets a parallel look into Zahs’ local familial and civic world as well as the expanding travels and acclaim that finally begin to reward his humble integrity.

This is not to say that we don’t also learn a thing a two about Brinton and early film history, as well as all kinds of interesting odds and ends about the techniques and challenges of the archival process, in this documentary. Frank Brinton was something of a pioneer, showing many Americans their first motion picture, running a theater in Washington, and making a tidy living for himself in a virtually unknown medium. Traveling with his small outfit, The Brinton Entertainment Co., he toured the Midwest showing his moving visual wonders in cities and towns to audiences for whom it must have seemed like the attraction of the century. WILLIAM MacBRIDE

9:30 am Sat at the Armory


A River Below: Worth Watching

Issues facing local communities are never truly local. A River Below, directed by Mark Greico, reveals an issue not only affecting a village of people, but a country.

“I don’t know any animals that are so profound, so beautiful,” says National Geographic and Brazilian superstar Richard Rasmussen. “They just come to you. They just give themselves away, you know. Anyone who has this experience will turn into a better person.” He’s talking about the pink dolphin, one of the most sacred animals in South America and one of the most threatened.

The fishing industry has a high demand for piracatinga in Brazil and even Colombia. One of the best way to get this scavenger fish is pink dolphin flesh. While the demand for the fish increases, the pink dolphins’ numbers are dwindling rapidly. Biologist Frenando Trujillo has dedicated his life to figuring not only to stop pink dolphin poaching, but spreading awareness as well.

A theme in this film is how one’s actions, though noble and perhaps pure, creates grave consequences. When footage is captured of men killing a pink dolphin and using it as bait, Brazilian government bans piracatinga until a better bait is found. Despite this being a triumph for the pink dolphin, the risks taken to get this footage cost more than one animal. It cost a village.

On a broader scale, A River Below reminds the viewer that each country has its own set of issues. While this may not affect North Americans on a visible scale, there are millions on other continents faced with this crisis. This film isn’t just about revealing how Rasmussen paid a village to kill an endangered animal to bring awareness to the public; it also reveals how the mercury levels in the piracatinga are dangerously high, as well as the water.

This film shows Trujillo’s plight to get the attention of those who can make the changes to protect the public and provide them with safe water and food. Rasmussen finds resolve with the village he promised solutions for, but he also has to live with the guilt of how his actions have affected these people.

This film is objective and beautifully shot. Between aerial shots showcasing the vast wonder of the Amazon River and surrounding cities, the images captured under water with the dolphins are as mesmerizing. JORDAN MARIE McCAW

12:30 pm Thurs, 10 am Fri, 3:30 pm Sun, 12:30 am Mon at Varsity 5


The Last Hot Lick: Worth Watching

The Last Hot Lick is a dramatic narrative with documentary overtones, which draws from the life of filmmaker Jamie Leopold, who was the original base player for a vibrant 1970s band, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks—and pours those into Jack Willits, who is played by Leopold himself.

Willits never quite landed on his feet after a brush with youthful fame came crashing down around him, amid a storm of drugs and alcohol. The next decades becomes a quest for a second act, to recapture those “good times” and the success they represented. Now an aging musician of 69, he lives an unending tour of gigs in smoky bars, and cheap hotel rooms connected by long stretches of lonely highway. The music of loss and longing help to tell the story, while Willits’ wavering voice is poignant testimony to the dreamer who refuses to give up.

Although the character development of Willits and his female counterpart, Bobby, felt a bit penned in, the story told is relatable in its pathos. Leopold’s performance is authentic and compelling (and why not, he lived a lot of this), making us want to root for the singer songwriter. (Sadly, Leopold died in March, adding a sharper edge to the emotions in the film.) When Willits believes that he’s found his salvation in the story’s mystery woman, Bobby, you ache for the false hopefulness of a man too trusting. Actress Jennifer Smieja gives a heart-felt and dark performance that is a well-balanced counterpoint to the over-trusting Willits. (It is also worth noting that all of the actors are not professionals, and this is Smieja’s debut.)

The Last Hot Lick evokes a portrait of a Willy Loman type of musician that speaks to that nagging unfulfilled dream in many of us, bringing us face-to-face with life’s betrayals, and love that can be as elusive as fame. The Last Hot Lick is an exploration of dreams that won’t give up and desperation that won’t let go. STEPHANIE RAFFELOCK

6:20 pm Thurs, 12:20 pm Fri, 12:20 pm Sat, 9:50 am Sun Varsity 2


Love, Cecil: Recommended

Love, Cecil is an honest and probing documentary on the life of British Artist Cecil Beaton. A man of many talents, from war photography, to fashion, to interior design, to drawing to Oscar-winning stage and costume design, Cecil is responsible for inspiring countless modern-day fashion artists; not to mention the style and look common in a time of American cinema, from films such as My Fair Lady and Gigi, are attributed to Cecil’s distinct style.

Yet, although wildly successful, he also failed quite a bit along the way—and this film captures the whole picture, warts and all—which, after all, is what makes a film honest and not just a homage, and makes a person interesting not just an icon.

The documentary puts his work under the eye of scrutiny, pulling apart his art and showing not only why it is unique, but also why it’s brilliant. Set against interviews of Cecil’s friends and coworkers, and countless diary entries from Cecil himself, it is a holistic view of an inspired artist.

Love, Cecil is a lovely documentary about an eccentric man with lofty dreams. It is about a man who wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, and the biopic captures both sides of his story: the perfection and impaction, the success and failure. NICK BLAKESLEE

Noon Sat at the Armory


One October: Recommended

It is odd to think of 2008 as the good old days, as a simpler time; after all, major banks were failing, the housing market was beginning a freefall and Americans

But One October captures a series of sunny day interviews, that twilight into the Manhattan night from that time. At the fringes is talk—and muted optimism—about Barack Obama’s upcoming election and some scenes at a frenzied Wall Street, but mainly the interviews, conducted by a local radio personality Clay Pigeon, are easy-going, yet frank discussions about “who are you?,” “what are you thinking?”, all set against a rich collection of snapshots of New York City life coming and going.  

Yet pieced together—and, ultimately, this film is a beautiful mosaic of everyday Americans—the film is more than a collection of Studs Terkel-like interviews; it is a sum greater and more sublime, and it is a movie that matters now because of the juxtaposition between now and then, between pre- and post-Obama, and, like putting a lightning bug in a jar, captures the collective psyche of American political mindset. That is to say, One October is a poignantly nostalgic poem. PB

12:40 pm Thurs, 10:10 am Sat, 6:40 pm at Varsity 3


Tortoise: Highly Recommended

Although only ten minutes long, this short film packs in a lot: Wry humor, poignant loneliness, dark humor and a talking turtle. But what makes this buddy film/love story/road trip movie even more moving is the behind-the-scenes story about the writer/director and producer, who met on a volunteer trip to Haiti and decided to collaborate on the writer/director Stephen Cervantes’ third short film. An award-winning NYU Tisch graduate, Cervantes is currently working as an editor in LA and developing his first feature film about his experience growing up between Connecticut and the Panamanian jungle, while producer Sarey Martin was recently a finalist in Sundance’s New Voices Episodic Lab. That talent and their emotional chemistry is on full display here; yes, in a love story about a man and a turtle. PB

Part of Short Stories 2: After Hours, 9:30 pm Thurs – Mon at Varsity 5


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