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Firefighter Aidan Ostrowski of Massachusetts pulls water hoses in “Young Men and Fire,” showing this weekend at the Best of the Fests. Film still courtesy of Alex Jablonski

AIFF launches new Best of the Fests

Ashland Independent Film Festival screens films, shorts and documentaries for five days each April and showcases world films in October, and it now seeks to establish a more year-round presence with its first Best of the Fests showing of the most popular films viewers say they want more of.

Best of the Fests starts Friday and runs through Sunday, Sept. 21-23, with the Oregon premiere of “Young Men and Fire,” a feature-length documentary focusing on three firefighters from the Grayback Firefighting Team of Grants Pass, who went toe-to-toe with the 132,000-acre Soberanes fire in Big Sur in 2016.

The film was accepted for the main AIFF season last spring, but with unfinished editing, so, says Richard Herkowitz, director of programming, the Best of the Fest is the prime spot to introduce it to Southern Oregon audiences, who’ve reeled for months in wildfire smoke.

“The film is about proving to yourself what you are capable of and how to carry that forward the rest of your life,” says its director, Alex Jablonski. “It doesn’t mention climate change specifically, but most of the audience will understand that as part of the backdrop. Climate is changing rapidly, and the fires are more severe and dangerous.”

Far from standing behind the camera capturing soundbites, Jablonski says he and his co-director joined the crew and were fighting fire 90 percent of the time. They got an upfront view of their values, goals and risks and learned that wildland firefighting is dangerous as hell, even in its small moments.

“The film is about how young men grow up doing this. Underneath are the socio-economic issues,” Jablonski says. “There’s not a lot of work out there for guys with a high school education.

“I’m really proud of it and excited about bringing it to Ashland,” he adds. “Being part of this crew was a total joy, one of the great experiences of my life. We became wildland firefighters to make this film. We embedded with this film.”

Jablonski will attend the festival and answer questions after the showings, which are at 6:15 and 8:45 p.m. Friday at Varsity Theater 5, 166 E. Main St., Ashland.

Grayback Forestry Firefighters base manager and crew boss Tim Brewer of Grants Pass are in the film and will be at the screenings. Aidan Ostrowski of Massachusetts and Charlie Abbott of Kansas are the other main characters in the film.

“We enjoyed being in the film,” Hendrix says. “It shows a lot of ups and downs, both on the front end and in mop-up of fires. It shows young men having no idea what they’re getting into, being trained, and how they grow into young adults, also an older man who has had a hard life and is getting another chance. You see them learning to help the environment, being part of a team. You see how they build and expand on their character skills in life.”

“The story is out of Grants Pass,” Herskowitz notes. “It’s a local story, very poetic, very cinematic, a work of art, yet extremely topical, and we enthusiastically accepted it in April.”

The finished film version of “Young Men and Fire” premiered Sept. 15 at the Camden Film Festival in Maine.

The inspiration for an extended AIFF season, Herskowitz says, is the fact that word-of-mouth support for certain films grew over the five-day festival, and viewers wanted the April season extended. It wasn’t possible, so the festival opened a September extension.

Best of the Fests will continue on Saturday and Sunday with three screenings of AIFF 2018 highlights at Collaborative Theatre Project, 555 Medford Center, Medford. Look for “Symphony for Nature: The Britt Festival at Crater Lake” and “The Reluctant Radical,” the latter accompanied in person by Portland environmental activist Ken Ward. Also screening will be “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” followed by a Skype conversation with cartoonist Dwayne Booth and director Pablo Bryant. The programming culminates on Sunday with Best of the AIFF 2018 Shorts, selected and introduced by Herskowitz and senior programmer John Stadelman.

Tickets for “Young Men and Fire” at the Varsity Theatre are $12, $10 for students and seniors. Tickets for screenings at Collaborative Theatre are $10, $9 for students and seniors.

Proceeds from these screenings will benefit AIFF and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. See ashlandfilm.org for details.

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