World comes to Ashland through film

The Ashland Independent Film Festival and Coming Attractions Theatres offer a week of international films as a celebration of the diversity of the human experience.

Each film offers a prism through which to view another world, constructed of profoundly different perspectives, some images nuanced, subtle, while others are deceptively familiar. This is the art of independent filmmaking, and why it can inspire and educate and enrich our lives.

This year's selections are wide-ranging and compelling. Take, for example, "Elena" (Russia, 109 minutes), a film that begins in the most benign way — Elena and Vladimir, two 60somethings, living in an upscale Moscow apartment. Vladimir is a successful businessman who, after a medical crisis, requiring hospitalization, marries his nurse, Elena.

Elena has a chronically unemployed son who's married with two children, and Vladimir resents supporting him and his family. Everything about the film seems, at first blush, uneventful, the tones of Moscow gray. But then some foreign films are so cautiously shaded that they all but flatline, which seems to be the case with "Elena." End of act one. Then, abruptly, the narrative takes a sinister turn, and Elena becomes more than simply a house frau, taking care of Vladimir. What transpires is unsettling and worth the wait.

Strikingly different is "Valley of Saints" (India, 82 minutes). The photography is rich, exotic, the colors vibrant, the culture almost dreamy and eternally baroque. The film focuses on a poor, young boatman, Gulzar, working on Kashmir's Dal Lake in India's Himalayan region. He begins guiding a lovely Kashmir-American environmentalist, Asifa, who is taking water samples from various locations on the lake, a lake that is overwhelmed by man-made pollution and clearly dying.

Their relationship evolves into a tender romance, tentative, hesitant, absent even a hint of Western signals. It's wonderful. This is a beautifully crafted film, poetic and lyrical, one that unfolds ever so gently, creating a thoughtful cultural contrast to what is known as a Hollywood romance.

"La Camioneta" (Documentary, Guatamala/USA, 72 minutes) is a surprise in so many ways, decidedly improbable in its subject matter, and yet the film is irresistible. Who knew that retired American school buses, painted classic yellow with black piping, are auctioned off, destined for a second incarnation in a faraway country?

This documentary follows a singular bus from an auction in New Castle, Pa., south through dicey Mexico, on its journey to Guatemala City. The driver and filmmakers log 16-hour days, finally arriving at an urban workshop-junkyard. This is where the magic happens. What was essentially a monochromatic camioneta is retooled and repainted in a riot of colors by local workers and artists, then blessed in an elaborate ceremony by the local priest, its new purpose a city bus. Workers, drivers and families gather to welcome the new camioneta to the small fleet.

"La Camioneta" is both simple and complex, for there is a dark side to this tale. Bus drivers often are killed if they fail to pay extortion money to local gangs, a surprising yet not uncommon occurrence.

"La Camioneta" is an unexpected quilt of personal stories stitched together by a road trip that highlights a connection between America and Guatemala.

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