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AIFF 2010: The Ashland Experience

People love Ashland.

Ashland, Oregon appears, at first glance, to be a quintessential small American town.  It has a population of about twenty thousand and a compact, walkable downtown where the closest thing to a skyscraper is the Ashland Springs Hotel - once the tallest building between, depending on who you ask, either Sacramento and Eugene or San Francisco and Portland - which towers over the Main Street “skyline” but never reaches double-digit storeys. Within a few blocks from downtown’s central plaza off Main in any direction, you’re into residential streets where a tree is never further away than a child’s toss of a baseball.

And yet, Ashland is not quite Anytown, USA.

The most notable thing that sets it apart is that it is the home of the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is also what garners Ashland a place in the well known world travel guide, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.  The OSF runs eight months a year indoors and expands to three concurrent venues in the warmer months, including an outdoor stage modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe.

The near-constant presence of the OSF flavors Ashland in two easily discernable ways: there is an open, artists’ colony vibe around town and there is an influx of tourists – and tourist dollars.  Some of the out-of-towners clearly become enamored with what Ashland has to offer and stay, as there are more metropolitan expats here than one would expect in a town this size.  Usually, small towns bleed population to the glamour of the “big city”, but Ashland draws in those looking for a small community where you can know your neighbors and do your part to improve the quality of life in your chosen village.  Add in about five thousand students from the college campus that begins a few blocks away and that means that downtown’s storefronts can cater to indulgences rather than merely the utilitarian needs of a small town.

Instead of being filled with the likes of hardware stores, dry cleaners and small grocery markets, the two blocks between the central plaza and the Ashland Springs are home to more eateries than a town this size would normally be able to support.  A quick stroll reveals any of the following styles, some of them multiple times: coffee shop, eat-in bakery, sandwich shop, pizzeria, burger grill, vegetarian wrap joint, organic food, ice cream parlor, frozen yogurt bar, chocolatier, steakhouse, wine bar, eco-friendly microbrew pub, English Pub, French Bistrot, Italian Bistro… plus Mexican, Asian-fusion, Sushi, Thai, and Indian cuisine, and – as of this week – a new Greek restaurant.

Why all of this local background in the coverage of a film festival?  Because this festival is about more than just film.  Because the people that put it together want you to see their town – and because you can’t help but soak it in. 

The mainstay of the festival is the Varsity Theater which has five screening rooms that seat from as few as thirty to just under two hundred.  Next door is the Ashland Springs Hotel, which hosts the opening night bash and the morning panel discussions.  For large gatherings and special events, a short walk away is the Armory, a warehouse-sized room that seats as many as five hundred.

The films are scheduled throughout the day in regular three-ish hour blocks.  Beginning at 9:30 am and then at noon, 3, 6 and 9 pm, the Varsity starts films ten minutes apart (the Armory’s generally on the hour) and even after Q&A there’s often an hour or more available between the films on your list, even for back-to-back screenings. 

That’s a good opportunity to sample the local fare.  If you skip just one time block, now you’ve got several hours to have a leisurely meal or perhaps a stroll or a conversation with a friend.  Usually at a festival, I’m so busy running from film to film that I’m lucky to consume anything besides buttered popcorn, Kit Kats and soda (or a once-a-day beer) all week.  By the time the festival’s over, my body is crying out for a vegetable or some solid protein.  Here, even if you’re cramped for time, you can still run across the street – actually, cars will stop for you here, so you can walk without taking your life in your hands – and grab a huge croissant breakfast sandwich and eat it while waiting in line, to the envy of those around you.  Which brings me to another part of the festival that isn’t film-centric.

Even though this 9th edition of the AIFF set new records for ticket sales well before the festival was over (nearly 17,000 tickets to 6,000 attendees), it seemed like there were familiar faces in the crowd all week.  By pure chance, I happened to sit in front of the same foursome in three different screenings - twice on the first day and once on the last – and we had a friendly, week-long, three-part pre-screening conversation that ranged from the films we’d seen to world travel.  In other instances, I’d be chatting with people about comments made in Q&As of prior films or discussing can’t miss selections about screenings still to come.  That might seem common in a small town where people know each other, but I’m not from Ashland.  In fact, I live 3,000 miles and a continent away.  Yet, after a few days, Ashland feels like home.

That feeling extended to the honored guests as well.  Filmmaker after filmmaker noted how special they felt Ashland was, whether whispered in buttonhole conversations or proclaimed into the mike when accepting an award. 

Filmmakers at one Animated Shorts Q&A were asked what projects they had going on now and what further success they hoped for their current work.  For some locals, the answer was that making the AIFF was all they ever wanted.

Nationally known film critic Elvis Mitchell was honored with AIFF’s Rogue Award in 2009 and liked the festival so much he came back to emcee the entire 2010 awards ceremony. 

Lauded cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld not only has the festival’s cinematography award named after him, but he shows up to present it. 

Jeb Berrier (Bag It, Rogue Creamery Audience Award: Documentary Feature) showed the award ceremony crowd how the AIFF Staff gets even the little things right – in this case, literally – as he revealed a tiny, tiny festival pass that they made for his eight-and-a-half month old son, whose impending, and then actual, birth becomes a motivating factor in the documentary that brought them both to Ashland.

When Executive Director Tom Olbrich introduced this year’s Made in Oregon tribute – highlighting the roughly twenty-five percent of this year’s entries that were made in-state and reading a statement sent by fellow Oregonian William Hurt (The River Why) when his project schedule did not allow him to attend the festival – you can see how much the locals care about where they live, and care that you appreciate the wonders of Oregon. 

Come.  See the high desert of the eastern state.  Come to the rocky shores of the Pacific.  Come ski the mountains and hike the trails and fish the streams.  Come drink the wine and eat the food.  Come enjoy the arts.  Come.  Shoot your movie here.  Apparently the state will even subsidize your production if you listen to the siren song.

Yes, people love Ashland – and Ashland loves them right back.

Comments (1)

AIFF 2010

Great account - I see that you go to a lot of festivals; AIFF is the only one I've ever been to (I live in Ashland) but it's always a high point of the year for me and you really capture what it's like. Thanks and see you next year. Does Quincy come too?

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