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New Ashland Independent Film Festival programmer wants to 'broaden the range of voices'

New Ashland Independent Film Festival Program Director Richard Herskowitz will make his Ashland curatorial debut during Varsity World Film Week, Oct. 2-8. With an master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Herskowitz has been programming films for festivals and universities for more than 30 years. I visited him on Skype from AIFF’s offices on A Street in Ashland. This is the first of a two-part column. The second will be published next Monday, Sept. 21.

EH: How did you become a film programmer?

RH: I became a cinephile at a pretty young age. My parents were school teachers, and they had their summers off. In my early teens, they would go to Cornell University and sublet student apartments for the summer. At night they would drop me off at the Cornell Cinema Movie Theater. That’s where I got exposed to Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Antonioni, Bogart, the Marx Brothers — all of them. I became enraptured with world cinema, particularly the dialogues around it, and the thoughtfulness that it inspired. Obviously it opened up a big world to me. Interestingly enough, my first job out of graduate school as a programmer was the director of Cornell Cinema. So I got to take over the place that had inspired me. I ran that film society for 12 years, and showed close to 500 movies a year, every night of the week.

EH: Did you study film?

RH: I had a double major in college, both cinema studies and history. I got very interested in the social context of films. I wrote a lot of papers about film noir — for example, how it originated, rooted in the post-war era. I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and “Triumph of the Will” and its relationship to Nazi Germany. I also got very influenced by avant-garde film makers, the art of filmmaking, and I became interested not in just story/narrative cinema, but also experimental film, film that is more broadly rooted in the visual arts. That became another passion. My taste in film became very wide-ranging.

As a programmer, I try to both advance and reflect the audience. I do want to push people to look at more challenging cinema. I feel that film festivals are on a mission to broaden the range of voices. For example, there’s such a limited participation by women directors and artists of color in mainstream cinema. Foreign language cinema is so subdued right now, and so strained in its exhibition. That’s why World Film Week is so important.

I do think that there’s a stretching of the audience that’s vital to the future of film culture. I want to introduce people to the exciting work that’s done by visual artists utilizing the full potential of the cinematic medium. I’ll see how responsive people are. I’ll try to see whether there are galleries in town that may want to collaborate with us on shows, or whether the Emerging Media & Digital Arts program at Southern Oregon University might want to do things together.

Because of all the screens in people’s lives, in their pockets and on their computers, drawing people to movie theaters is a challenge, especially younger people. What’s being done by cross-over artists that are on the boundaries between theater and film and music is exciting. A lot of the work that I’ve been seeing and showing engages people; it draws people into theaters. It’s an experience that they have to have live.

Tickets for World Film Week are available at the Varsity Box Office. For tickets and information, or to volunteer, visit www.ashlandfilm.org. The 15th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival will be celebrated April 7-11, 2016. For more information, visit www.ashlandfilm.org.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.