In a sign of the halfway-hopeful place in which we find ourselves these days, the Ashland Independent Film Festival is returning this year in a hybrid format for its 20th anniversary. A virtual, online version of the fest kicks off Thursday, April 15, and runs through April 30, followed by five evenings of outdoor, socially distanced screenings in late June, by which point both vaccination rates and summer weather should make such events more feasible.
The online portion of AIFF kicks off with a screening of The Water Man, the directorial debut of actor David Oyelowo (Selma). It’s a family-friendly drama about a boy (Lonnie Chavis) who seeks out a forest-dwelling supernatural being that he believes can help his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson). Oyelowo, who also appears in the film, will participate in an online talk on April 16. Ashland has always been a festival that punches above its weight, and that continues this year, especially in regard to the documentary offerings.
Those range from the outrageous to the inspiring, and from the sublime to the ridiculous. One common thread is the power of youth. Of both local and global interest is Youth v. Gov, a thoroughly engaging look at the groundbreaking, potentially lifesaving lawsuit filed by a group of 21 children against the United States government, alleging that the continuing support of fossil fuel technology amounts to a deprivation of their constitutional rights to life and liberty. Led by attorney Julia Olson of the Eugene nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, the case made news back in 2016 when an Oregon District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to sue. This led to a barrage of attempts by the Trump Administration to get the case thrown out, a process that Youth v. Gov chronicles in a way that provides clarity on the legal maneuverings and insight into the impressive cast of kids and their formidable lawyer.
Perhaps not as epochal, the story of Lily Hevesh is nonetheless tremendously endearing. She’s the world’s greatest domino toppler, a 20-year-old marvel who creates eye-popping works of art that combine the absurdly intricate precision of a Rube Goldberg device with the evanescence of a sand mandala. Lily Topples the World follows her journey from college student to YouTube phenomenon to budding entrepreneur, throughout which she remains grounded, quietly persistent, and seemingly imperturbable—good qualities to draw on in those rare instances when a wrong move sends thousands of perfectly placed dominos prematurely in motion.
The teenaged stars of American Gadfly aren’t as innately likable as Lily, but they make up in gumption what they lack in polish. Former Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel is best known for two things: reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record back in 1971 and mounting a quixotic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Then, in 2019, three politics nerds with chutzpah and social media instincts decide to recruit him for one more go. American Gadfly follows their quest to qualify the 88-year-old iconoclast for the Democratic primary debates. It was a blink-and-miss-it episode in the overall election cycle, which makes the deep dive the movie takes into the life of a fringe candidate all the more valuable. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like hobnobbing with and vying against the Tulsi Gabbards and John Delaneys of the world, then this one is definitely for you.
If youth is merely a state of mind, then Lydia Lunch should barely be able to vote. The musician, actor, and spoken word artist (to name but a few of her skills) emerged as a vital, vibrant, vulgar personality in the 1970s Lower East Side “no wave” scene that also produced Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, and the band Suicide. Unlike too many members of that scene, she made it out alive and, at sixty, hasn’t lost any of her bite. Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over provides both an overview of her multifaceted career and a look at the work she continues to do, both of which are heavily informed by the trauma and abuse she suffered as a child. It’s an overdue ode to an American original.
AIFF has several themes running through its programming, one of which is a focus on Cuban cinema. This includes an opening night screening of the landmark 1963 documentary I Am Cuba for members of Ashland Film only. It also includes the impressive drama Sin la Habana, about a young couple struggling to realize their dream of leaving the island and making a new life elsewhere. Leonardo (Yonah Acosta Gonzalez) is a skilled ballet dancer and his girlfriend Sara (Evelyn Castroda O’Farrill) is studying to be a lawyer. Neither has much of a future in Cuba, so they decide that Leonardo will seduce and marry a Canadian tourist (Aki Yaghoubi), move to Montreal, find steady work, and then send for Sara. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Director Kaveh Nabatian refuses to make anyone in the triangle that develops either a villain or a victim, resulting in a story that’s about three people making bad choices for the right reasons.
Also on tap are a few titles that recently screened at the Portland International Festival, including the documentary Who Is Lun*na Menoh?, about the Japanese-born artist and musician; Everything in the End, about a Portuguese tourist stuck in Iceland for humanity’s final days; and A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, the oddly affecting film about one woman’s response to the downfall of the infamous Ponzi schemer. With Madoff’s recent death, it’s an especially relevant experience.
One important note: Unlike so many other online festivals, the movies playing at AIFF aren’t available throughout the entire run of the fest. Each has a one- or two-day window during which it can be viewed. In addition, a small number of titles are only streamable within Oregon. So consult the schedule at ashlandfilm.org and plan accordingly. And look forward, as I do, to the day when attending the Ashland Independent Film Festival includes the considerable perk of actually going to Ashland.