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Community collaborations matter

In mid-March 2020, a collaboration forged over six years proved invaluable to two major Rogue Valley institutions: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Southern Oregon University (SOU) and the Ashland Independent Film Festival (AIFF).

Lorraine Vail, an OLLI instructor and former OLLI Council president, hspearheaded the partnership in 2014 with an annual course titled “OLLI Goes to the Ashland Independent Film Festival.” Vail and Richard Herskowitz, artistic director of AIFF, selected the films for the OLLI class. Students came to a pre-AIFF OLLI class, attended the film showings, and met later in four sessions to discuss the films.

This same format was planned for OLLI’s Spring 2020 term. When the pandemic lockdown occurred, OLLI and AIFF had to turn on a dime to retool their respective programs that were to begin shortly thereafter. How these two organizations, mired in their own extreme challenges, were able to work together on the narrower goal of holding that particular OLLI class is a case study in how relationship building, dedication, and resilience pay dividends.

Vail already had 75 OLLI members signed up for her class when everything came to an abrupt halt.

“All dressed up and nowhere to go,” Vail remembers thinking, amidst worrying about what was going to happen to the other hundred OLLI classes planned for spring term.

Herskowitz vividly recalls the moment the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. “We were just about to finalize our program. We immediately started brainstorming what a virtual film festival would look like and how fast we could do it.”

“Fast” was definitely the operative word. In a matter of weeks, AIFF was ready with more than 100 feature-length films, many short films, and nine curated programs with flexible viewing times.

“When Richard told me the festival would continue, but over a three-week time frame rather than the usual long-weekend format, I thought great, class members won’t have the challenge of seeing six films in just three short days. Then the reality of what ’virtual’ meant hit.”

Once virtual, each student had to access the new streaming channel, purchase their own tickets, and stream the films on their computer or TV. Vail says, “This was where our partnership mattered most. AIFF staff trained me, and I helped the students. When problems arose, AIFF tech support staff came to our rescue.”

The next challenge was mastering Zoom for the class discussion. Fortunately, SOU technology students and other OLLI instructors familiar with Zoom were able to assist.

“Surprisingly, Zoom fostered lively interactions,” Vail reports. “We discussed two movies each class and Richard led the final session. As in previous years, life experiences influenced our attachment to the characters and the story being told, even in this virtual discussion format.”

Fortunately, the Festival had pre-recorded video Q&As with every exhibiting filmmaker, plus a few notable collaborators. “The filmmaker’s point of view deepened insights and enriched the discussion. They hope to transport us to another place, or time, or even a different frame of mind,” Vail adds.

It’s been a year since AIFF and OLLI made extraordinary adaptations within their organizations. Unconstrained by the dimensions of a physical space and geography, both organizations discovered some unexpected benefits of a virtual format.

At OLLI, the successful experience in the spring with Zoom convinced OLLI leaders that it could migrate its entire curriculum to a digital platform. It did so with over 250 courses this year. For AIFF, the hard work and creativity was rewarded when it was recognized by Moviemaker and Smithsonian Magazine as having one of the best virtual film festivals.

OLLI’s spring term begins March 29 with 80+ diverse course offerings, and the 2021 Ashland Independent Film Festival launches April 15 with its traditional emphases on the subjects of activism and the arts.

Herskowitz adds, “We’re also excited about our yearlong series of events culminating in our 20th anniversary hybrid ‘Double Feature’ festival in June. We fervently hope that past, current, and prospective AIFF members will join us in this amazing line-up of films, conversations, and connections. There will be a special focus on the theme ‘Rising from the Ashes,’ in recognition of Southern Oregon’s emergence following the fires.”

Vail and Herskowitz are selecting eight films to be discussed in four OLLI classes this term. Unlike last year when Zoom was new to everyone, Vail feels better prepared.

Like other OLLI instructors, she has now internalized the ABC’s from the “Teaching on Zoom” workshop: Appearance (lighting, camera, media); Be Zoom-Ready (know the Zoom tools); and Communicating (make students feel welcome and confident with using Zoom).

Vail remarks, “These new skills join a long line of lifelong learning experiences of the past year.”

Anne Bellegia is a former marketer of health care products, volunteers on the OLLI Communications and Community Outreach Committee. She can be reached at annebellegia@mac.com.

Lorraine Vail (left), Dave Ferguson, and Kathy Roselli, co-instructors of the OLLI course on the AIFF, are watching the film “Way to Go.” Roselli was producer and director of the film that was part of the AIFF 2020 and won Best Local Film award.