When this year’s Ashland Independent Film Festival kicks off on Friday, April 1, it will be the third year in a row that the event is held virtually.
With mask mandates expiring and coronavirus case numbers declining, that might seem an overly cautious approach. There are, however, a couple of good reasons. One, according to the festival’s new Artistic Director Roberta Munroe, was because, at the time the decision needed to be made, she just didn’t feel comfortable having an in-person event. There was the audience demographic to consider as well as the need to avoid, as she put it, “programming on quicksand” due to the inherent uncertainty of the pandemic’s path.
The other reason may have been the compressed schedule that Munroe and new Director of Programming Joe Bilancio were dealing with. There had been a change in leadership just prior to Munroe’s hiring, and when the previous executive director tendered her resignation in January, “we decided that it was advantageous for me to take on the executive and artistic director roles.” She quickly brought in Bilancio, who she describes as a “rock star,” and who jokingly refers to himself as “the festival whisperer.” By then it was February, so the pair was faced with the task of accomplishing, as Munroe puts it, “six months’ work in something like six weeks. It would not have been possible without the staff. They really stood and delivered.”
I spoke with Munroe the day after she finished driving from her hometown of Toronto to Ashland, and despite five days on the road, she was in good spirits and eager to discuss her vision for the festival. She cut her teeth organizing press and industry screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the largest in the world. “Then,” as she tells it, “I fell in love with this girl and I moved to New York.” There she did work on behalf of the Independent Features Project (IFP) related to the international No Borders film market. “I learned so much in New York, but, inevitably, the breakup happened.” Looking for a change of pace, Munroe took a six-month gig at the LGBTQ-themed Los Angeles film festival Outfest, despite the fact that she had no affection for the Golden State whatsoever.
“That six-month contract became, let’s see, I’ve been in California twenty-one years,” Munroe says. Shortly after arriving on the West Coast, she encountered Sundance Film Festival bigwigs John Cooper and Trevor Groth, which led to a long-term job as a programmer for that prominent event. During all this, Munroe managed to direct six short films of her own, and is credited as a producer on more than forty others. Oh, and she also wrote a book: How Not to Make a Short Film (2009).
For Munroe, it’s always been about making the right connections. “My whole life,” she says, “has been a series of those moments where the ancestors, or divine intervention, just pops up and says ‘Here, do this!’” One of those moments came when she accepted an invitation from Joanne Feinberg, who served as the Ashland festival’s director of programming from 2004 to 2015, to participate in a panel at the 2015 AIFF.
Like so many who visit Ashland, she fell in love. “I was born in the city, but I think at heart I’m a country mouse,” Munroe says. “A country mouse who presents as a city mouse, in a way.” Fast forward to 2021, when the festival’s board mounted a search for a new artistic director. When they offered the job to Munroe, she didn’t immediately accept. “I would get a lot of offers to come in and be an executive director, or an AD, or teach at universities, and I’ve always said no. I liked my entrepreneurial independence. But they wore me down. And whenever I mentioned Ashland to people, they said how much they loved it. Among content creators, this festival is beloved.”
Munroe’s past experience at festivals large and small has helped her to understand just how hard it is to run one. “It’s like filmmaking—you’re making the impossible possible. What I felt really made a difference,” Munroe says, “was the staff and the fact that we have almost a brand-new board: Out of nine members, six are new. We have a bunch of people of color who joined, we have an Indigenous woman, we have local business owners who know the community, who work hard here already, and who believe in this festival.”
“Part of my vision for the festival is that it’s a community festival. This is not Sundance; this is not where the entire world descends upon. It’s a boutique festival. We show a specific number of films, and I’ve tried to open that up” by removing the geographical limitations that in the past meant only North American and Central American films were solicited. The result this year is a seven-film Iranian series, including the crowd-pleasing Hit the Road.
Bilancio has plenty of festival experience as well, having worked at the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival for 16 years, as well as for lengthy stints with the Reel Affirmations LGBTQ+ Film Festival in Washington, D.C. and the OUTShine LGBTQ+ Film Festival in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. “Roberta and I have known each other for many years,” he says. “We have the same sort of mood–not much riles us. So that was the main reason [for accepting the position]. I also really like festivals that are committed to the filmmaker, to the art of film, and to doing what they can to support the industry.”
The festival program contains a mixture of films that are submitted to the festival and those that the festival solicits, and according to Bilancio, “doing both of those at once presented some challenges. It was a daunting task, but it was made easier thanks to the people who were already here and who had laid some of the groundwork.”
The fact that AIFF is virtual didn’t necessarily affect the decisions Bilancio made, but there are definitely some entries that make him wish audiences could see them on a big screen. “We have a film called River, this beautiful, drone-shot travelogue with narration by Willem Dafoe, that would be much better in a theater, but it’s still such a good film,” he says. For other, more intimate films, “seeing them virtually is in some ways better. We just want people to see good film.”
It’s certainly true that the virtual festival removes barriers for people who may not be comfortable returning to theaters, have other reasons for preferring home viewership, or who live in areas without a variety of theatrical options. “Anything we can do to foster the experience of film, even starting that experience in front of their computer or casting to their TV, for us that’s a bonus,” Bilancio says. Viewers across the country can access many of the titles in the virtual program, while others are restricted to people in Oregon or have other geographical limitations.
One of the challenges of programming a festival, for Bilancio, is that “you have to realize that you’re not programming a film festival for yourself, you’re programming it for your audience. We wanted to provide the best possible programming to the best audience we could, and in the end I think we were spot on in doing that.” Despite that, he has his favorites.
Asked to recommend festival titles to especially look out for, Bilancio mentions Devil Put the Coal in the Ground, which explores the experiences of West Virginians affected by the coal industry and its decline. He also points out the array of music-themed documentaries, including a-ha: The Movie; Boulevard! (about the ill-fated efforts to turn Sunset Blvd. into a stage musical); and Mija (about an undocumented young woman who works as a music manager for aspiring pop stars). On the narrative side, he loved Straighten Up and Fly Right, about a physically disabled New Yorker who takes a young woman with the same condition under his wing after she gets a job walking his dogs.
Other program highlights include a trio of titles from National Geographic Films. Ron Howard’s documentary profile of celebrity-chef-turned-human-rights-advocate Jose Andres, We Feed People, is the opening night film. The Territory, AIFF’s Centerpiece Screening, is an astonishing and heartbreaking look at the conflict between land-hungry farmers and the Indigenous people whose land reserve they aim to invade. And The closing night selection, Fire of Love, chronicles the unique relationship between a pair of married volcanologists who captured hundreds of hours of spectacular footage in the 1970s and ’80s. Those titles are available to stream only on April 1, 6, and 10, respectively, while most (if not all) of the other films are available anytime during the festival.
Other nonfiction highlights include My Name is Gulpilil, a portrait of the late Australian aboriginal actor; Framing Agnes, about a forgotten figure from transgender history; and Mrs. Paine and the Assassination, a deep dive into JFK conspiracy lore that focuses on the woman with whom Maria Oswald lived in the weeks prior to the president’s killing. On the narrative side, in addition to Hit the Road (which is directed by the son of the noted Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi), the quirky drama Porcupine features a memorable performance from Jena Malone as an adult woman who puts herself up for adoption and is taken in by a retired couple. More harrowingly, Plan A is based on the true story of a band of Jewish vigilantes who attempt genocidal revenge against Germans shortly after the end of World War II. There are also selections of locally made and student-made short films.
Looking forward, Munroe confirms there will be an in-person mini-festival this summer, while Bilancio imagines that in future years “most festivals will be largely in-person, but with a few things that make sense virtually. It allows you to do so many things that most festivals other than the biggest can’t do. A guest from Australia, for instance—I probably couldn’t afford to bring them in to Ashland, so it’s great that we have the ability to open up Q&As to filmmakers from all around the world.”
“What matters to me is that the Ashland Film Festival belongs to Ashland—to everyone in Ashland and the surrounding area,” says Munroe. “We’re not looking to be Sundance, we’re looking to be Ashland, but with the clout and the power of Sundance.”