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6 flicks to see at AIFF

The 15th Ashland Independent Film Festival opens Thursday with more than 100 feature-length movies, shorts, documentaries, animated pictures and films for children.

The festival runs through Sunday at the Old Ashland Armory, Varsity Theatre, Ashland Springs Hotel, Ashland Street Cinemas, ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum and Schneider Museum of Art. See ashlandfilm.org for details, schedules, a roster of special events and ticket information.

Here are thumbnail reviews of some noteworthy entries that made the cut out of more than 1,300 films that were submitted.

1. “The Seventh Fire”

(documentary, 76 minutes, directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono, produced by Terrence Malik, Natalie Portman and Christ Eyre)

"The Seventh Fire" is like a punch to the guts. Rob Brown, a gang leader on a remote Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota, is facing a fifth trip to prison. As Brown glimpses middle age and struggles to come to terms with his life and its meaning, 17-year-old Kevin, who idolizes Rob, faces a fateful choice.

The camera shows in a nonjudgmental way the devastation of reservation life by the casual omnipresence of drugs and alcohol and lack of opportunity. With no narration, it becomes clear that Rob probably has some regrets about his role in what’s happening to his people even as he messed up his own life. It’s equally clear that Kevin at least fantasizes about escaping the cycle of drugs and despair on the reservation.

Chances of that, as Kevin’s father points out, are slim. But there’s a prophecy that young Ojibwe will return to save their people. The film has a stark beauty, and it’s shot as if it were a feature and not a documentary. It’s all the stronger for an absence of preaching. The palpable despair makes it hard to watch to times, but it needs to be seen.

2. “Borrowed Time”

(short, seven minutes, directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj)

In the old West, a grizzled sheriff returns to the scene of a tragic accident that both scarred and shaped his life. As he reruns his memory tapes, we see a long-ago drama. It’s Pixar-style animation, with spectacular scenes of desert, mesas, moody sky. But the focus is on the old man, who makes a discovery linking the past to the present.

3. “Greenwood”

(short documentary, 20 minutes, directed by Adam Newport-Berra)

This observational short lovingly documents a tree in the woods of upstate New York being turned into an old-fashioned post-and-rung stool, step by laborious step. The action takes place in the woods with craftsmen using old-fashioned hand tools. Shot over two days of painstaking workmanship, the film observes — with no dialogue or narration — a relationship in which man turns nature to his ends in old ways that predate industrial culture.

4. “MA”

(feature, 82 minutes, directed by Celia Rowlson-Hall)

This is a surreal, largely silent journey to something unknown: perhaps doom, or maybe salvation. Full of symbolism and spiritual aspirations, it invites viewers to follow the desert odyssey of a mysterious young woman — the Virgin Mary? — who spends a lot of time in down-at-the-heels Southwest motels with a blank young man, sometimes pausing to encounter a menacing troupe of Fellini-esque strangers who seem to have no more substance than one of those far-off mirages on old Highway 66.

There is no dialogue. “MA” tells its story with movement, dance, confrontation, the lines of the body. It’s full of odd cuts that dare you to distinguish between reality, memory and hallucination as this stranger in a strange land tries to learn the landscape. It’s lyrical and frequently beautiful and arresting in streaks, but it invites viewers follow it to places some will find downright inaccessible. I dare you to see the ending and not think of Stanley Kubrick. Still, there’s something haunting about its mysterious beauty.

5. “The Stairs”

(short feature, 33 minutes, directed by Zach Bandler and Kelly Blatz)

Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Anthony Heald is the older man in this encounter between two men on Christmas Eve. Heald tells the story of his youthful search for identity as a gay man to a young male escort he’s hired for the evening. Heald’s sensitive portrayal gives the young actor (Blatz) plenty to work with as the film explores loneliness, intimacy, sex and the need for connection.

6. “Bastards y Diablos”

(feature, 98 minutes, directed by A.D. Freese, screenplay by Andrew Perez)

"Bastards" is a new twist on the buddy picture/road movie. The buddies are half-brothers Dion (Dillon Porter, of Medford) and Ed, who don’t know each other very well, and the road has been laid out for them by their father before his recent death.

The action is episodic, as the boys visit their father’s loved ones and relatives. The voice of the father, who also appears in flashbacks as a young man played by Sebastian Eslava, ties things together and acts as an occasional narrator, guiding us through his story as he guides his sons to the passionate embrace of life that his own life embodied.

We don’t know the backstory, and the film takes the wise course of never spelling it out for us. But as the boys visit Bogota, Cali, Caragena, their lives mirror their father's, and as they come to know him, they begin to know each other. The cinematography is breathtaking. If you didn’t know this labor of love was made on a shoestring, you would never believe it.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

'The Stairs' features Anthony Heald, long-time Ashland resident and actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. - Submitted photo
'Borrowed Time' - In the old West, a grizzled sheriff returns to the scene of a tragic accident that both scarred and shaped his life. - Submitted photo