Festivals celebrate collective film watching experience

Ashland Independent Film Festival Artistic and Executive Director Richard Herskowitz has put together a stunning festival, bringing in numerous films, filmmakers, panel discussions, interviews, live performances, gallery exhibitions and interactive events for a four-day run that concludes this evening, April 16. We visited at Bloomsbury Coffee House to discuss his vision of independent filmmaking and festivals.
RH: A film festival is inevitably a potpourri of things. It’s got to reach a lot of different tastes and audiences. I create a kind of a meta film out of a lot of different movies by creating themes and connections between them. At the same time there is scholarship and education involved.
One of the major themes of the festival this year is the importance of classic film — preservation and exhibition. Without the knowledge of classic film, emerging filmmakers lack a foundation. Being exposed to films done in the past makes you realize that there are alternative ways of doing things than films done in the present. I’ve seen filmmakers, inspired by classic films, do things in a different way. The way we do things now has evolved and will transform again in the future.
EH: What separates a good film from a great film?
RH: I don’t make those judgments. My inclination is to see films historically. Films speak to particular moments. I resist objectifying a work of art. I think works of art are historically based. I do believe there are masterpieces. EH: How do you evaluate films to be screened in the festival?
RH: Generally we are looking for films that are cinematically adventurous and masterful. I want the films to utilize the cinematic medium and all its expressive potentialities: cutting, cinematography, framing and mise-en-scene. I want it to work on a big screen and to use the potentialities of the art form, so that it can get deep inside us. Content isn’t enough.
EH: How has the production of independent film changed over the years?
RH: There have always been independent filmmakers working outside the mainstream. I’m a big admirer of what Robert Redford did at the Sundance Film Festival. Independent film owes a great deal to Sundance. It wasn’t just the festival — beginning in the early ‘80s, Sundance, with its various institutes, has developed an economic infrastructure to support independent feature production. Sundance has had a huge impact, so that actually a commercial alternative to Hollywood has begun to emerge. I still admire the kind of film activity that happens on the fringe of the fringe, outside of Sundance.
The internet has happened and exploded the possibilities of more people making and exhibiting films independently. One thing that’s happened (that is a shame) has been the declining importance of theatrical exhibition, especially with the rise of the internet.
Film festivals have become more and more important because they provide a social experience for watching films. The social experience of theatergoing has revived and continues the important collective experience of movie-going.
EH: What do independent films bring to us that other films don’t?
RH: I consider independent film and film festivals a movement. It’s about transforming mainstream culture. Commercial media culture tends to be very reinforcing of the status quo and stylistically very conservative. It tends to promote only the most established voices, the ones that seem to represent authority in the culture. Independent films have a heroic mission: To bring voices that are neglected in the mainstream to prominence.
I believe the role of the independent media maker is to push the culture forward. It’s vital to democracy that alternatives to the mainstream have opportunities to be seen. It’s a movement that we’re a part of.

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