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Artbeat: Talking film with AIFF Director Richard Herskowitz

With the Ashland International Film Festival moving from the Railroad District to its new home on Main Street, and as it continues to move from strength to strength, I caught up with Richard Herskowitz, the festival’s artistic and executive director, to talk about the new digs and the future of the festival.

JG: How did you find your way to Ashland and into this role?

RH: After getting a BA in filmmaking and deciding a filmmaking career was not for me, followed by an MA in film studies and a decision not to go for an academic career, I fell into film curation. Programming films was the perfect midway point, for me, between filmmaking and film scholarship. For 12 years, I programmed over 500 films a year for Cornell Cinema, one of the largest university film societies. Then film festivals began to take over from film societies, and I took charge of the Virginia Film Festival in 1994. My wife, Jill Hartz, got hired in 2008 as director of UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and we moved to Eugene, where I launched a festival called Cinema Pacific that UO hosted, and also commuted regularly to Houston, where I was artistic director of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

From Eugene, my wife and I regularly traveled to Ashland for OSF and AIFF, and I grew increasingly eager to move down here. Joanne Feinberg’s decision to turn over the director of programming job to someone else made that possible. After a year in that role, the board decided they could save money and also add a development position we badly needed by giving me both the artistic and executive director roles. I’ve handled both jobs since 2017, and am looking forward to the day, which may be soon, when the organization will be able to support two directors. I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished in strengthening the organization and especially shepherding the launch of our new AIFF Film Center, but it’s the curatorial part I love and take pride in the most.

One aspect of that, and part of what endears Ashland to me, has been the opportunities the Schneider Museum of Art has given me to co-curate media art exhibitions there that coincide with the festival. This year’s exhibition, “Migrating Bodies: For(saking) Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is co-curated by both Schneider Museum Director Scott Malbaurn and Jill Hartz, who finally retired from the Schnitzer Museum and is living here with me full-time.

JG: What do you feel are some key factors to keeping film festivals relevant and thriving into 2020 and beyond?

RH: Hollywood keeps film festivals relevant by failing to give women directors and artists of color sufficient opportunities to express their diverse voices, and by narrowing the aesthetic possibilities of cinematic expression. This year, like last, more than half of AIFF’s film directors will be women. Our program will be filled with documentary and narrative films that provide opportunities to experience the world from the standpoint of classes and races other than our own. I suppose the one class of folks we neglect, for which I feel little guilt, is the superhero.

I’ll also add that film festivals are thriving because they are perpetuating the collective, theatrical experience of cinema in an age of streaming and mini-screens. That’s because festivals emphasize “live-ness.” The interactivity we offer through post-film discussions with filmmakers in the theater and other patrons online (42% of our patrons cite “sense of community” as our greatest asset), plus the live music, theater, art and educational experiences we mix in with our films, draw people together joyously.

JG: What factors inform your decisions when evaluating programming and content for the AIFF?

RH: My role is gatekeeper, and I lead a team of over 30 screeners and associate programmers who evaluate over 900 film submissions to this festival. I also seek out and invite intriguing films I hear about or see at other festivals. I’m looking for works that are cinematic and deserve to be seen on the big screen. They have to offer fresh cultural perspectives and artistic approaches, because we are here to open people’s eyes to different ways of engaging the world, instead of having habitual ways of thinking and seeing reinforced. I pay attention to what seems especially relevant at this moment. For example, this year’s festival includes two very strong documentary films about the history of America’s relationship with Iran: Taghi Amirani’s “Coup 53,” about the CIA-led overthrow of the elected Iranian leader Mossadegh, and Barbara Kopple’s “Desert One,” which picks up the story from there and examines, from the standpoint of both Iranians and Americans, the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages after the Shah’s overthrow.

JG: What’s exciting for you in terms of the future of the festival, and how can your public best support that?

RH: With the opening of the AIFF Film Center at 389 E. Main St., we are evolving into a year-round arts organization with a big centerpiece event, the Ashland Independent Film Festival. We are putting the finishing touches on the space, which has a gallery and lounge where we’ll be displaying media art on First Fridays, and a screening room where we hope to start offering workshops for aspiring filmmakers and screening series for aspiring cinephiles, and much more. During the festival, the space will offer a lounge open to festival members, a shop open to everyone, a series of afternoon community conversations on provocative films, and evening “microcinema” screenings of avant-garde films. From the reactions we’ve received since we announced this move, I can tell the excitement I feel is shared by many.

The hope is that this step will make the festival organization stronger than ever. The festival is already a beloved event in Southern Oregon, but it is tremendously costly and challenging to host one of the “25 coolest film festivals in the world” (according to MovieMaker in 2013 and 2016) in a small town, to bring filmmakers from around the world and keep our wonderful staff compensated year-round. We’re very excited to have just received a major six-figure gift that has allowed us to establish an endowment at the Oregon Community Foundation, which we hope others will help us grow. We’re now focusing on our membership campaign, encouraging more people to visit ashlandfilm.org and join so they can order tickets early, get on the members line and into the festival lounge, and help AIFF build its reserves and achieve its full potential.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a columnist, arts reviewer and cultural commentator. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Richard Herskowitz