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AIFF first day: transitions

Alt-film lovers queued up eagerly on the sidewalk in front of the Varsity Theater in the drizzling rain Thursday, launching four days of trying to cram in some of the best offerings of the 18th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Out of the starting gate came “Why Can’t I Be Me? Around You,” a feature documentary about Rusty, a man’s man if ever there was one. He’s a motorcycle mechanic, art-car fabricator, drag racer — but a guy who longed to be a gal as far back as he can remember.

Rusty, who must be in his 50s, does the hormone treatments and goes under the knife to gain those fulsome appendages that practically move him to tears, and certainly attract gaping stares at the mall.

Fortunately for him, there is plenty of support now with transgender people, groups, counselors, surgeons, but, alas, no one to make your dad and the old pals from the motorcycle shop want to hang with you. So the tears flow and the grief is “like a club beating me” every day, Rusty says. But for trans people, he explains, 41% contemplate or carry out suicide. So it’s a choice: move ahead with the new life or else.

“I want to be desired and loved,” says Rusty, but the psychiatrist in the movie says people get “terribly upset” when they can’t put someone in the boxes they’re comfortable with.

In “Jaddoland,” we see a lingering, tragic dissolution of Arabic culture. As refugees — people who have been clan members in Iraq for countless generations — resettle in Lubbock, Texas, they start raising a new generation of children (including the filmmaker Nadia Shihab), who speak perfect English and are hearing the tales and helping with the cooking of a wispy, vanishing homeland.

Her mother is a brilliant painter. That is the heart of the film. She paints walls of concrete blocks with amazing images, especially of womanhood, which she takes from photos she shoots of her daughter, in alternating poses of hope, strength and beauty, set against crouching grief and despair.

Grandfather comes to visit. He is revered but now old and broken by the cataclysms of Iraq. He stands in the backyard going through ritual motions. He is put on Skype with other grandchildren he will never see again. Here, you get in a personal way the fallout of the Iraq War.

This is really cinema verite, and the filmmaker puts the camera on a tripod and lets it run for long minutes, letting the soul, longing and grief of her family roll on and on. Millions of refugees have been in this place through centuries of America’s melting pot — far from home, never going back, trying to acclimate, knowing their children will be creatures of a new world, not the old one.

In the end, the artist is losing the ability to speak her native tongue and will marry an American man. They are smoking a lot. She doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

The festival runs through Monday. For information on films, tickets and locations, plus special events and fillmmakers talks, visit ashlandfilm.org.

Jamie Lusch / Ashland Tidings The AIFF began on Thursday.