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Travel around the world on Main Street

A big benefit of Ashland’s Independent Film Festival's Varsity World Film Week is that these dozen movies show you deep insights into cultures you probably don’t know much about — and you’d have a hard time finding the flicks anywhere else. 

That’s the perspective of Richard Herskowitz, Ashland Independent Film Festival’s programming director for the 27th annual festival, which runs at the Varsity Theatre Friday, Sept. 30, to Thursday, Oct. 6 — with all films running each day, starting at 12:50 p.m. through 9:30 p.m.

“The lineup this year is extremely strong,” he says. “It’s tough to pick a standout because they are all so fresh and adventurous cinematically. They leave a mark by taking you to new places.”

Asked to pick three favorites, Herskowitz names “Aferim!” — a kind of Balkan Western film set in the 1800s — “Paths of the Soul,” a so-called slow film that puts you in a meditative state, and “Icaros: a Vision,” about Americans seeking understanding with shamanic drugs in the Peruvian jungle.

"Aferim" means "bravo" and, he notes, is a good word for the exciting and creative kind of movies coming out of Romania these days. It’s a zany mix of comedy, tragedy and details the adventures of a pompous lord and his son as they hunt down a gypsy slave who had an affair with his owner’s wife. It’s in black-and-white and deals with class and racism, while being very entertaining.

In “Paths of the Soul,” we get to see Buddhists bowing, taking a few steps, then laying on their faces again, covering 1,200 miles in the process. You get to know the actors and you inevitably put yourself in their place, because the actors are actually covering that very long distance. “It’s not remotely like anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s a a slow movie, a creative, meditative experience that counters the bombardment of fast movies we get from Hollywood — and it tells a story as it does it.”

In “Icaros,” which the AIFF staff “loved and desperately wanted,” but had a hard time getting, we see a woman going on retreat in the Amazon for a journey on the indigenous drug ayahuasca, as she attempts to heal her cancer. “It’s a healing psychedelic experience, a motionless voyage,” he notes, adding that the filmmaker was, in fact dying of cancer as she made the film — and died before it was done, so a collaborator finished it.

The Independent Film Week has become popular over its 27 years and differs from the AIFF in showcasing filmmakers from outside the U.S. “It’s harder to find these on American film screens … but they open a world to Ashland movie goers.”

The number of foreign films shown in the U.S. has declined precipitously, he adds, “but they are among the most inspiring film-making happening in other countries.”

Many American filmmakers are drawing their inspiration from new avenues plowed by foreign films, he says, “so we need exposure to global cinema to get some sense of the world perspective and on our own reality.”

Films include: “Lamb,” the story of an Ethiopian boy and his quest to save his beloved pet lamb destined for slaughter; “Speed Sisters,” a documentary of the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East; and “As I Open My Eyes,” about a young Tunisian woman struggling to balance the traditional expectations of her family with her creative life as the singer in a politically charged rock band.

The festival was started by John Schweiger, owner of The Varsity and many other Coming Attractions Theaters in the Northwest. Shows are not usually sold out. Tickets are $9, or $7 for AIFF members, seniors, students, active military and children. A passport to six is $40.

Trailers of the films, details and tickets are online at the AIFF website, www.ashlandfilm.org.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.