Actress Helen Hunt and documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles will be honored at this year's Ashland Independent Film Festival. The seventh annual edition of the growing indie fest will present 87 films (47 shorts, 25 documentaries and 15 features) and many of the filmmakers in attendance. The presence of two Academy Award winners and six Oscar-nominated films figure to spice up the program.

Actress Helen Hunt and documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles will be honored at this year's Ashland Independent Film Festival. The seventh annual edition of the growing indie fest will present 87 films (47 shorts, 25 documentaries and 15 features) and many of the filmmakers in attendance. The presence of two Academy Award winners and six Oscar-nominated films figure to spice up the program.

The festival will run Thursday through Monday, April 3-7, with films at the Varsity Theater, 166 E. Main St., and the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St.

The festival's Opening Night Bash is at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 3, at Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St., Ashland. The bash will offer samples of cheeses, meats, chocolates, fruit, beer and wine from Southern Oregon producers and live music by Thieves of Sleep. Tickets cost $25 and are available at ashlandfilm.org or at the AIFF box office in the kiosk on the Ashland Plaza. Box office hours are 3 to 6 p.m.

Hunt's film, "Then She Found Me," started on the festival circuit last fall and will open in theaters in another month. Fortunately for the AIFF, Hunt has a family member in the Rogue Valley.

"It took a month, and she said yes," says AIFF Executive Director Tom Olbrich.

Maysles, who made "Gimme Shelter," a seminal "rockumentary" with The Rolling Stones, was a name that seemed to come up every year, Olbrich says. This year he has just released "The Gates," his fifth film with the artist Christo.

"We finally decided to ask," Olbrich says. "And he was available."

Tickets and a complete festival schedule, as well as film descriptions, are available at ashlandfilm.org. Discounted rush tickets to non-sold-out films will be sold just before showtime for some pictures. Free copies of the 88-page 2008 Ashland Independent Film Festival souvenir program are available at the festival box office, online and at the Varsity Theatre.

At last count there were some 1,500 film festivals in North America. But the AIFF has continued to gain national attention. Last fall it won a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, intended to enable more filmmakers, actors, and documentary subjects to travel to Ashland and showcase their work. The AIFF was one of only 20 in the country, and the only one in the Northwest, to receive the grant. The LA Weekly hailed the AIFF's "almost-perfect blend of programming, audience and location."

"Every year, more filmmakers find out about us, and we increase our chance of having higher quality films each year," Olbrich says. "My feeling is that they are getting just a little better, year by year."

Nearly 800 films were submitted for consideration. Each submission gets seen at least five times, Olbrich says, and sometimes eight or 10 times.

Last year more than 6,000 filmgoers bought about 15,000 tickets to film showings. Olbrich expects the number to nudge 17,000 this year.

New wrinkles include a new 14-by-25-foot screen for the old armory and a new digital projector, purchased with the help of grants from the Carpenter and Collins foundations.

Academy Award winner Hunt will be honored with the AIFF's Rogue Award for her directorial debut in the film "Then She Found Me." She also stars in the drama she adapted from the Elinor Lipman novel.

"It is a story about betrayal, and the surprising, funny and redemptive things that are born out of that," the actress said in a press release.

She said she worked on the script on and off for seven years. She says that her years of developing stories and directing episodes for the television sitcom "Mad About You" was "a kind of boot camp, the best possible way to go to film school." The film co-stars Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Colin Firth. Hunt will introduce the film and return after the screening to receive the award and host a question-and-answer session.

The festival's Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Maysles, whom the New York Times called "the dean of documentary filmmaking," at the Awards Celebration to be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 6, at the armory. Tickets to the ceremony cost $75.

Maysles and his late brother David were among the first to capture life as it unfolded before the camera — without scripts, sets or narration. The AIFF will feature screenings of "Gimme Shelter," "Grey Gardens" and his latest work.

The festival's special presentation, "Handheld from the Heart: Albert Maylses Live" is a rare, self-portrait. In his own words, and with many film clips, Maysles will highlight his 50-plus years in filmmaking. Clips could include The Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Martin Scorsese and more. Maysles will take part in a post-film question-and-answer session for "The Gates" on Saturday and introduce "Gimme Shelter." He will also answer questions after the Sunday morning screening of "Grey Gardens."

"The Gates," which was co-directed by Antonio Ferrera, documents New York City's biggest public art project ever: a "golden river" of 7,500 orange, fabric-paneled gates installed in 2005 in New York's Central Park by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Ferrera will attend the Thursday and Friday showings for questions and answers.

As in previous years, the AIFF will offer free, Locals Only programs of works by Southern Oregon filmmakers.

The Sunday morning program at the armory will feature several short films by longtime filmmakers and the winners of The Launch, the festival's Southern Oregon student competition. The free program was moved to the armory last year because of high ticket demand. The festival will also feature free panel discussions with filmmakers of all genres discussing their craft.

The director-producer team of Gary and Anne Lundgren will present an advance screening of rough-cut footage from their soon-to-be-released feature film, "Calvin Marshall." They will be joined by key cast and crew members for a panel presentation on "Filmmaking in Southern Oregon."

The film stars Alex Frost, a Portland native now based in Los Angeles, who appears in the coming Owen Wilson film "Drillbit Taylor," Steve Zahn ("Rescue Dawn," "Reality Bites") and features many Southern Oregon actors. The Lundgrens' award-winning short film "Wow and Flutter" was also shot in Southern Oregon and was a previous AIFF selection. Their feature "Lithium," about a young woman's struggle with manic depression, aired on television's Showtime.

Tickets to AIFF films cost $9, $8 for seniors, $5.50 for students and $5.50 for family shorts. Locals Only programs are free. Memberships to AIFF are available for $60. To purchase tickets, visit the AIFF box office or visit ashlandfilm.org online.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or at bvarble@mailtribune.com.