The Ashland Independent Film Festival, an 11-year-old intimate spring fest nestled in Oregon's Rogue Valley, reminds me of the early days of Sundance and Telluride. Last year as a member of the doc jury I enjoyed spending time with documentarians Morgan Spurlock, Tiffany Shlain, Ondi Timoner and Harry Shearer. Ashland also hosts the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which pulls first-class theater talent for its multiple mountings of Shakespeare and other plays such as Mary Zimmerman's visually stunning comedic take on a classic Chinese fairy tale, "White Snake," complete with sexy demons, villainous monks and heart-felt romance.
This year, I spent gratifying time with AIFF Artistic Achievement Award-winner Julie Taymor, who I've interviewed in the past ("Across the Universe" here, "The Tempest" here). She did an in-depth Q & A with Oregon Shakespeare Fest director Bill Rauch, accompanied by clips of four of her works: top-earning global musical and Tony-winner "The Lion King," plus three films screened during the fest: "Across the Universe," "Titus," and "The Tempest."
"No matter what I do as an artist," Taymor told Rauch, "I have to be passionately involved and love it, from $11 to 70-million films to $400,000 to 70-million theater pieces." While theater offers more freedom and stylization, Taymor likes the broader audience and permanent record that films provide (although she's now tracking down prints of her films for safe-keeping).
Even with her most commercial projects, she doesn't patronize the audience, she said: "You don't have to dumb it down." She was as comfortable with the three-hour German "Magic Flute" as the two-hour English language one (the first Met Opera to stream live). She doesn't believe in talking down to kids, who are closer to the world of make believe.
"It's a constant fight to do something fresh and new that the audience doesn't know ahead of time," she said. On "The Lion King," Disney's Michael Eisner backed her on the crazy puppets, saying,"with the bigger risk, you get a bigger payoff."
Taymor is still casting new productions of "The Lion King" –"it's not just spectacle, it's spirit"–as she develops a film of "The Transposed Heads" with her partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal (who won an Oscar for the score of "Frida"), as well as raising financing for another film musical. Her years on the challenging but successful "Spider-Man" on Broadway are behind her but financial stakes loom large as she fights the show's producers on a copyright case. And she teased the Ashland crowd: "There might be an 'Across the Universe 2,' you never know."
During the award ceremony several participants paid tribute to Taymor for inspiring their work; when she accepted the AIFF Artistic achievement award, Taymor reminded that the great thing about a film festival, at a time when many folks are at home watching film on TV, "is it's live."
True; these days filmmakers who don't get traction at one festival try to build support at another. I was disappointed by one meandering SXSW doc entry, "Tchoupitoulas," from the Ross brothers, whose doc "45365" I had enthusiastically voted the grand jury prize as a jurist at SXSW. This time the duo spent months in New Orleans immersing themselves in the music scene, shooting miles of footage, waiting to find someone to follow for a narrative spine; they did track a lively trio of black kids over a few days and nights, including one constant blabbermouth. These filmmakers can shoot, and almost pulled off their atmospheric "you were there" concept–at least this year's Ashland doc jury thought so.
Two other Sundance entries made an impact at Ashland. Veteran documentarian Rory Kennedy, the 11th child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, was born months after her father was killed. One of the brothers she interviewed grew up thinking there were ten kids and didn't remember that she was the 11th. Looking at the Kennedys from the point of view of Ethel and her brood is a telling and unique vantage point for the dramatic, heartrending saga that everyone of a certain age knows too well. There wasn't a dry eye in the packed house. Ethel comes through: competitive, athletic, bright, strong and loveable. (The servants and support team needed to keep that household and those children, horses, dogs and seals running were kept hidden.) It was no surprise that "Ethel"–which will air on HBO– won the Ashland audience award.
The short doc jury voted our special jury prize to Matt Bockelman's passionate public defender portrait "You Have the Right to An Attorney," while the best short doc was a moving film about Esperanto called "The Universal Language." The audience award went to well-made but too-long oil controversy doc "Pipe Dreams."
The winner of the narrative audience award was another SXSW premiere, "Gayby," about two best chums, a gay man and straight woman, who have a child together; it was expanded from short to uproarious comedy, and also took home the jury award for best ensemble.
The best narrative jury award went to Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award-winner "Valley of the Saints," a terrific hybrid docudrama shot by NYU writer-director Musa Syeed in Srinigar, Kashmir, the land of his parents, known as the fourth dirtiest city in India. He shot with a Canon 5D around a polluted lake in the summer and fall of 2010 at a time of unrest when curfews curtailed his access to the city. "We tried not to put ourselves in the midst of real violence," he said at the Q & A. "We embraced our limitations."
Syeed found his lead actor in a boat man with the soul of a poet who rows the lake in his water taxi. The filmmaker co-starred him with a journalist playing his best friend and a soap opera actress as a scientist studying the fragile ecosystem. Will the people who exploit the clogged and shrinking lake wind up killing their own livelihood? The film is a lyrical, beautiful, and satisfying journey of self-discovery. And yet it still lacks a distributor, which is not unusual.
Another Ashland filmmaker who spent more time making a good movie than figuring out how to get it in front of eyeballs was New Yorker Joel Fendelman. "David," a story about an unlikely friendship between a Muslim and a Jew, has been making the festival circuit, from Brooklyn and Napa to Montreal and Rome. Jewish groups and educators love the movie, but short of raising serious levels of P & A cash, theatrical distribution looks far away.
Timing is everything in movies now, reminded producer-actor Donal Logue, the host at the Ashland closing night ceremony Sunday. Since Wim Wenders first discussed his two-decades-in-the-works adaptation of Walker Percy's "The Second Coming" with Daniel Day Lewis, they've been waiting another five years for the single-minded actor, who will only think about one project at a time, to emerge long enough to read their script. "Independent films are a labor of love," Logue said, stating the obvious.