The Ashland Independent Film Festival is back with an Oregon slant, Oscar nominees, a Japanese classic with a Shakespeare connection, famed tattoo icon Ed Hardy and lots more. The ninth AIFF will get under way Thursday, April 8, with a full slate of films and its annual Opening Night Bash at the Ashland Springs Hotel.

The Ashland Independent Film Festival is back with an Oregon slant, Oscar nominees, a Japanese classic with a Shakespeare connection, famed tattoo icon Ed Hardy and lots more. The ninth AIFF will get under way Thursday, April 8, with a full slate of films and its annual Opening Night Bash at the Ashland Springs Hotel.

"This year is probably the most excited we've been," AIFF Executive Director Tom Olbrich says. "We've had the most recognition we've ever received."

MovieMaker magazine, a trade journal, named the AIFF one of the top 25 North American festivals for filmmakers out of an estimated 4,000 festivals. The spring issue of Documentary magazine had the AIFF on its cover alongside prestigious Sundance and the noted South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas.

Olbrich says more filmmakers than ever have made the commitment to come to the festival this year, including Roger Williams, who recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for his film, "Music by Prudence," and who plans to be on hand in Ashland for all four screenings of his film. He even said he'd try to finish his acceptance speech, a joking reference to his getting cut off by a woman who jumped in front of him and took over the camera at the recent Academy Awards broadcast.

Filmmakers from around the world submitted 952 films — the most ever — for this year's festival, of which 81 were selected. Olbrich says he expects attendance to at least match last years, when the AIFF sold about 16,000 tickets.

"We figure that's about 6,000 people," he says. "It was about the same as the year before. The economy may have made some people see fewer films, but we didn't dip."

Many arts organizations have been hammered by the recession.

A mix of feature films, documentaries and shorts will run from 9 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. daily except Thursday, when screenings will begin at noon, on all five of the Varsity's screens. Films will run at the 500-seat Ashland Armory daily except Thursday and Monday, and special events are slated for Thursday though Sunday at the Ashland Springs Hotel.

Filmgoers will notice a strong Oregon connection this year, with 21 of the event's 81 pictures having been made here.

"We've tried to inspire local filmmakers and get them to submit their films," Olbrich says. "A number of first-ever films made it."

"Calvin Marshall," a comedy about a young athlete with a dream, was made around Ashland and Medford and co-stars Steve Zahn as a baseball coach.

"The River Why," co-starring William Hurt, is based on David James Duncan's beloved novel, which was set in Oregon. Post-production work on the film has not even been completed, and the advance screenings here are billed as a thank you to Oregon from the producers.

"Reverie," a film about two former friends whose reunion opens the wounds of a dark past, is set in Southern Oregon's Illinois River Valley.

"Greenlit" is a documentary about working to make "The River Why" in an environmentally friendly way. It will be followed by a program called, "It Ain't Easy Being Green," with a panel including film people and locals.

"There are also some Oregon shorts," Olbrich says. "This year it all just coalesced."

In a departure from its usual fare of new works, the AIFF will screen Akira Kurosawa's acclaimed "Throne of Blood" at 3 p.m. Friday in the Armory. Based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," it's set in feudal Japan.

The reason for including the half-century-old classic is to tie in with an upcoming play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The OSF in July will present the world premiere of the stage version of "Throne of Blood," adapted by the director Ping Chong. After the screening, OSF Associate Designer Christopher Acebo and dramaturg Gina Pisasale will be on a hand for questions and a discussion.

"We're excited about presenting this before the world premiere at OSF," Olbrich says.

Other highlights include "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," a documentary about the former Vietnam war planner who came to see the war as a crime and turned over documents to The New York Times.

"Burma VJ" contains film footage recorded by courageous young Burmese video journalists who risk the violent wrath of their own government to document what's happening on the streets of Rangoon.

"Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World" is the record of the visionary tattoo artist, who turned his back on the path that would have led to a fine arts degree from Yale to begin tattooing neighborhood kids. Today his work can be seen on the bodies of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and it's part of high fashion around the world.

More than half the films in the festival are shorts. They are grouped in programs for showing. Saturday and Sunday the festival plans to reprise a popular program of short films for families. A program called "Locals Only" will featured works by area filmmakers.

Free forums with filmmakers are set for 10:30 Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Ashland Springs Hotel. Bohemia Gallery, at 552 A Street, plans an exhibit of Ed Hardy's work in connection with the film about him during the month of April.

The AIFF's Opening Night Bash ($25) with wine and cheese is set for 7:30 Thursday at the Ashland Springs Hotel, and the Awards Celebration ($75) for 7:30 Monday at the Armory.

For a schedule of films, visit www.ashlandfilm.org.