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A still from animator Bill Plympton's 'Hot Dog.' It’s a sequel to the Oscar-nominated short “Guard Dog.” This time, our intrepid “hero” dog goes to work for the fire department, and chaos, as always, ensues. - Film still courtesy of AIFF

The Ashland Independent Film Festival

It's become almost a cliche to observe that in the overcrowded field of movie festivals, the Ashland Independent Film Festival is a jewel. "If there's a film festival in heaven," director Patrick Creadon said, "I'm sure it looks a lot like Ashland."

The event is about to return for an eighth edition with 94 films, special guests critic Elvis Mitchell and animator Bill Plympton and a schedule jammed full of events designed to set cinema buffs afire.

The event is set for Thursday through Monday, April 2-6, at the Varsity Theatre and other locations in Ashland. Tickets, festival membership passes, the full schedule and description of films and the 80-page festival souvenir program are available at ashlandfilm.org and the Varsity box office.

Executive Director Tom Olbrich says the event's format has not been tampered with.

"What's new and different is Bill and Elvis," he says, "a world-class animator who'll be drawing on stage — and our Rogue Award winner.

"We've never presented an award to a critic before, but he's such a great writer and speaker. He's a commentator on modern culture and entertainment in a way no other critics are."

More than 6,000 cinema lovers each year buy more than 16,000 tickets to the films — both features and shorts from around the world. The event features filmmaker question-and-answer sessions, a nightly gab group at the Black Sheep Pub and Restaurant, morning film discussions on Saturday and Sunday at Munchies restaurant, free screenings of locally made films and filmmaker forums.

Olbrich says the troubled economy doesn't seem to be hurting ticket sales.

"They're right about the same as last year mid-way through our ticket season," he says.

The 2009 documentary, short and feature films focus on Garrison Keillor, The Beatles, Cirque du Soleil, art car aficionados and native tribes working to remove dams from the Klamath River. They include a musical version of a modern "Midsummer Night's Dream," six Academy Award-nominated and/or winning films and more.

An Opening Night Bash will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 2, at the Ashland Springs Hotel, with food and wine tastings presented by the Rogue Creamery along with award-winning cheeses, area chocolates, meats, wines and ales, and music by Duo Flamenco. Tickets are $25 for the public and $20 for AIFF members.

Sunday evening, April 5, juried and audience awards will be presented at the annual awards celebration party and dinner at the old Ashland Armory, with food provided by 10 of the region's top restaurants.

Entertainment critic Mitchell will be presented with this year's AIFF Rogue Award. Mitchell is best-known for his film reviews on NPR and as the host of "The Treatment" on Turner Classic Movies. He was a film reviewer for the New York Times and part of the PBS show "The Edge." He's a filmmaker himself, having produced "The Black List" with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a film about race, culture and success with Toni Morrison, Chris Rock, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others, and a follow-up called "The Black List Part 2" with Angela Davis, Tyler Perry and others.

Mitchell will give a talk titled "Cinema: Past, Present and Future" at a special AIFF event set for noon Saturday, April 4, at the old Ashland Armory. Tickets are $10. Call 488-3823. (See Bill Varble's interview with Mitchell at mailtribune.com/movies.

The 2009 AIFF Artistic Achievement Award will be presented to director, producer, writer and animator Plympton. Several of Plympton's short films and his newest animated feature, "Idiots and Angels," will be shown.

"Bill's work is still hand-drawn in a world of computer graphics," Olbrich says. "He'll talk about his art."

Also on tap: "Animation Live: An Evening with Bill Plympton," an animation demonstration and retrospective.

Before Plympton won multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for two Academy Awards, he grew up Portland and says it was far too wet to play outside. He credits Oregon's rainy climate with nurturing his drawing skills and imagination.

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon and Glamour. "Plympton," a political cartoon strip, was syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate.

The film lineup figures to be a strong one. Here are a few highlights:

"All Together Now" is the story of "Love," a visual and musical circus spectacular with Cirque du Soleil performing to the music of The Beatles. The film includes rare Beatles archival footage. Before each screening, Ashland's Le Cirque Centre's TILT Dance Theatre will perform on ropes, silks and aerial hoops.

In "Automorphosis," filmmaker Harrod Blank, a son of 2007 AIFF Artistic Achievement Award Winner Les Blank, unveils the creative eccentrics, visionaries and just plain folks who have transformed their automobiles into art cars. Blank, an art car creator himself, will bring his "Camera Van," which is encased completely in cameras, and regional car artists will be invited to bring their automotive art as well.

Blank will also present "Automorphosis Photography," exhibit of art cars from around the world, at Houston's Custom Framing and Fine Art to celebrate Ashland's First Friday Art Walk from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday.

"Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes" provides the behind-the-scene look Keillor fans have wished for, a mix of his live broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" and his personal life.

In "Were the World Mine," a gay high school boy is cast as Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and stumbles on a recipe hidden in the script to create the play's magical love potion.

In "Upstream Battle," a coalition of people from the Klamath, Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa tribes battle to force the removal of dams that have devastated the salmon population on the Klamath River.

The AIFF again will feature Academy Award recognized films, including the Oscar winner in the Documentary Short Subject category, "Smile Pinki," and another nominated in short documentary, "The Final Inch." Two films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category, "The Betrayal" and "The Garden," also will be included in the festival.

The AIFF again will offer "Locals Only," or free programs of works by local filmmakers. The Sunday morning program will feature the winners of The Launch, the festival's Southern Oregon student competition.

Also on tap are three films by Southern Oregon University students and alumni, and "Meeting with Chekhov," a documentary that examines former Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Libby Appel's lifelong love of the Russian playwright's work.

The festival also will again feature free TALKback panel discussions with filmmakers of all genres discussing their craft at the Ashland Springs Hotel at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In a new event, AIFF board members are inviting film lovers to gather around a table, put analysis aside and talk about reactions to films from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday at Munchies restaurant.

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