Anchorage film festival reels in local and international talent

Bring on the snow. The seventh annual Anchorage International Film Festival is just around the corner, bringing 170 independent films together for 10 days of “Films Worth Freezing For.”

The winter festival, nominated as one of the top ten film festivals in North America, began seven years ago with a bored filmmaker and a dash of intuition. AIFF founder Tony Sheppard and his friends came up with the idea after they realized most of the nearby film festivals repeatedly showed the same material.

“They were boring,” Sheppard said. “I thought they should have a film festival here with more variety, and I found there wasn’t one at all.”

Sheppard went on to create a Web site in 2000, about 18 months before the first festival, to raise awareness for the event. He received over 200 submissions and rallied supporters sooner than expected.

“I got a bunch of hits from people the year we weren’t even having (the festival),” Sheppard said. “Through that I found the power of the World Wide Web.”

Now all of the AIFF’s advertising is done via the Internet, and the response has been a positive one. The festival initially was seven days long and had an average of 200 submissions. Now the festival lasts 10 days and receives nearly 600 entries.

This expansion has brought many world-renowned producers and film studios to the AIFF, including DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. This year’s guest is American actor-producer D.B. Sweeny, who has appeared on television series including “House M.D.” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

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This continuing success would not be possible without the responsive foundation of volunteers on which the entire festival is based.

“Most festivals have a paid staff, but we’re fairly young,” said new volunteer Lee Bullington. “We are always looking for new volunteers.”

This unique recruitment system is not the only thing that sets the Anchorage International Film Festival apart from others. For the first time in Alaska, the AIFF will be responding to the gay and lesbian community as well.

“This year we have Out Fest,” Bullington said. “There’s a big gay and lesbian community, and I don’t think there’s ever been a festival catering to that crowd at all.”

Other new programs include Surreal Cinemas, Martini Matinee and The Vault, which offer additional film screenings for attendees. And if the weather is just right, the festival will also have a snow screen where guests can watch films projected onto a panel of snow.

With films varying from comical animation to full-length features, it’s no surprise that the festival is targeting all age groups. For college students, the AIFF is a cheap and convenient alternative to watching big-screen films made by the major studios.

“If you have special interests and you’re trying to figure out what you like, which is what you do in college, this is a great way to see a wide range of films,” Bullington said.

Of the seven categories of films offered, documentaries are one of the most popular, taking up about 30 percent of the festival’s spotlight, Sheppard said. Nearly one-third of the documentaries in the festival take place in Alaska or involve an array of Alaska-related concerns.

“Typically the subject matter is about revolution, war and the environment,” Sheppard said. “These are all popular subjects with the college-aged crowd.”

One documentary film titled “Anchorage is our Home” portrays the problems with racism in the Anchorage community. Created by Alaska residents Marie Husa, Erick Cordero and Mollie Boyer, the film acts as an educational tool on how to heal the discrimination plaguing today’s society.

“I was drawn to this project because I strongly believe in the importance of addressing and being honest about racism where we find it lurking in the streets or buried in our thoughts,” Boyer said.

Another documentary, “Ice Crystals,” focuses on a much different problem in Alaska. Eirin Strickland, a first-time filmmaker, painted a portrait of the meth epidemic evolving in the Matanuska Valley.

“Meth is by far the dirtiest and most dangerous drug,” Strickland said. “The Mat-Su has always been dear to me, and to see it in the throes of such a terrible addiction is disheartening to say the least.”

However, not all documentaries focus on Alaska’s population or the nation’s crises. “Autism: The Musical” is an optimistic portrayal of five autistic children in Los Angeles who are writing and rehearsing a musical. Many similarly stimulating documentary films focus on themes such as nature, music and adventure.

Regardless of what category tops the list this year, the AIFF is a chance to unwind. For others, it’s an opportunity to learn about the place Alaskans call home. For the bored filmmaker with intuition, it’s an art and a gift.

“We take that impact of what film does socially and tie that into the artistic side of it,” Sheppard said. “These festivals are art galleries for motion pictures, and it’s our chance to see films you can’t get anywhere else in the world.”

Alaskan documentaries worth discovering

Of the seven categories of films offered, documentaries are one of the most popular, taking up about 30 percent of the festival’s spotlight, Sheppard said. Nearly one-third of the documentaries in the festival take place in Alaska or involve an array of Alaska-related concerns.

“Typically the subject matter is about revolution, war and the environment,” Sheppard said. “These are all popular subjects with the college-aged crowd.”

One documentary film titled “Anchorage is our Home” portrays the problems with racism in the Anchorage community. Created by Alaska residents Marie Husa, Erick Cordero and Mollie Boyer, the film acts as an educational tool on how to heal the discrimination plaguing today’s society.

“I was drawn to this project because I strongly believe in the importance of addressing and being honest about racism where we find it lurking in the streets or buried in our thoughts,” Boyer said.

Another documentary, “Ice Crystals,” focuses on a much different problem in Alaska. Eirin Strickland, a first-time filmmaker, painted a portrait of the meth epidemic evolving in the Matanuska Valley.

“Meth is by far the dirtiest and most dangerous drug,” Strickland said. “The Mat-Su has always been dear to me, and to see it in the throes of such a terrible addiction is disheartening to say the least.”

However, not all documentaries focus on Alaska’s population or the nation’s crises. “Autism: The Musical” is an optimistic portrayal of five autistic children in Los Angeles who are writing and rehearsing a musical. Many similarly stimulating documentary films focus on themes such as nature, music and adventure.