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The organizers of the Arizona International Film Festival attempt to showcase films from around the world that resonate with Southern Arizonans.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary year, the festival spans 20 days and features more than 140 feature-length and short films from 22 different countries.

"A lot of the filmmakers who come visit us have a good feeling about it, about Tucson," said Giulio Scalinger, of the Arizona International Film Festival. "It's a place they want to come back to."

Around half of the feature films and 80 percent of the short films are submitted by filmmakers for consideration by festival organizers. However, programmers also scour other festivals—such as the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, Calif.; the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah; and the Slamdance Film Festival, also in Park City—to find films to show.

Scalinger said they try to highlight stories that will matter to Tucsonans.

This goal is evident with the opening-night screening of Journey From Zanskar. The film, narrated by Richard Gere, focuses on two Buddhist monks who are carrying 12 children from an impoverished Kashmiri village to a Tibetan school in the distant city of Manali. The monks want the children to receive the type of education they deserve, no matter their socioeconomic status—an issue that Scalinger said resonates with Arizonans.

"It's a very timely film for Arizona, because it focuses on the importance of education and the importance of preserving cultural identity," Scalinger said. "Those themes made it (our choice to open the festival). We felt we needed a film that was uplifting. A lot of independent films tend to be pretty dark, with your stomach churning. But something about people overcoming major challenges was nice."

A $10 fee will get you into the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., at 8 p.m., Friday, April 1, to see the movie—and to hear from Frederick Marx, the Peabody Award-winning filmmaker behind Journey From Zanskar, as well as other acclaimed films such as Hoop Dreams. He's just one of numerous filmmakers who will be in Tucson during the festival.

"The filmmakers will be here, and we make the filmmakers very accessible," Scalinger said. "Other festivals get name stars, but if you are interested in talking to filmmakers, they are here to be talked to."

Another issue the festival tackles is the environment. One film that may strike a chord with Tucsonans is On Coal River, a documentary which deals with a Coal River Valley community whose environment is being threatened by toxins. Another documentary, from Ireland, The Pipe, tells the story of a coastal farming and fishing village that is close to being split in half by a gas pipeline.

"It's close to the Rosemont Mine issue that is on everybody's mind right now," Scalinger said about these films.

Scalinger said the festival also features the work of local filmmakers, like Alan Williams' The Avenue, which depicts the fight by Fourth Avenue businesses to keep the street's eclectic feel. The makers of six short films will also compete for an Arizona filmmakers' award.

"The important thing is that these are independent filmmakers who believe in what their work is, and they aren't controlled by outside sources. Most independent films don't have Tom Hanks, and so they are really dependent on story, on content," Scalinger said. "It's the initial plunge into independent film that one has to take, because we like to say, 'In the festival, there's always one film for you. But you have to find it.'"

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