Moving Pictures

A look back at the 24th Annual Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville

Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

Audience at the Virginia Film Festival

The Virginia Film Festival lit up the City of Charlottesville earlier this month, with 115 screenings from November 3 to 6. I was fortunate enough to experience the festival as a guest, having had an entry in the Narrative Shorts Program, and I was thrilled by the networking opportunities and the triumphantly programmed four days. As suggested in my preview, it was a whirlwind event where each film screened only once forcing viewers to arm-wrestle themselves to choose one compelling film over another if the screenings overlapped or there wasn’t enough time to travel between venues. But I’ll take too many good films over not enough any day.

Charlottesville proved again they’re an eager audience and, according to Festival Director Jody Kielbasa, the 24th Annual Virginia Film Festival enjoyed an attendance of 24,077 and set an all-time record of 27 sold-out films of a truly diverse nature. “What this means to me is that we are continuing to engage our audiences across a wide spectrum of issues and topics, which is exactly what we are trying to do,” said Kielbasain on the Festival’s website. I can say without reservation they succeeded. There were so many options for those hungry for meaty content.

These Amazing Shadows, the documentary about the Library of Congress and the National Film Registry was the first I saw. It was absolutely terrific. It offers a look inside how films are restored, takes the viewer on a visual and nostalgic journey of the medium’s storytelling and technical evolution and contains interviews with some of our most revered players. Regarding the importance of film’s societal role as viewed through a cultural and historical lens, I found the quote “Stories unite people; Theories divide them” to be most poignant. In the discussion following, with Gregory Lukow and George Willeman of The Library of Congress, it was interesting to learn that the Library of Congress gets a copy of every film that plays in a movie theater. Their collection is immense and the painstaking restoration efforts that go into those shot on film, and disintegrating due to improper handling, is astonishing. It is sad to note that many films were lost to the shortsightedness of the studios, which regarded the earlier films purely as vehicles for profit and afterwards discarded them, thinking that no one in the future would want to see them.

The Narrative Shorts Program on Friday comprised 11 films. I found myself analyzing the programmers’ selection process. It made sense that the subject matter and genres would vary, as would the filmmaking techniques. Some were more successful than others. It was fun to interact with the producer who was there with The Box Man, which was awarded best narrative short film by the programmers. The Argentine film was about a man who lives a fully functional, if lonely, life with a box on his head until he bumps into the woman of his dreams, also wearing a box on her head. It required a suspension of disbelief, but the commitment to the picture was evident from the physicality of the actors, the set design and the score.

The audience award winner, The Proposition, had other festival play and was fully deserving of its award. The dark comedy about a woman who interviews a hit man to take out her daughter was pitch perfect. It’s incomprehensible to imagine a parent being so premeditative and unapologetic. Even the hit man was shocked. Yet, the actors’ comedic timing and performances set up the delicious pay off at the end. The director, Edward Stein, was also there and I regretted not having more interaction with him. It was a very impressive piece of work and we’ll see more from him for sure.

Another film from Italy, Grandma Must Get Dirty, was a standout. The production value was exceptional and the acting was top-notch. The film takes place at the vineyard estate where Grandma has died. Her children return to divvy the estate only to encounter the lawyer’s bad news. They must locate a key to the all-valuable safety deposit box that proves their right to the inheritance. While tearing the house and each other apart, they blindly ignore the inquisitive grandson who may just have the answer to the problem.

The Interview was about a young man who survives a pandemic in Los Angeles and goes to a radio station for a job as much as for the company. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a woman with whom I had been in a theater company in LA produced it, featuring actors we’ve seen before. True to my tastes, the films mentioned were my favorites, as their stories were the strongest, although some of the other projects’ efforts were evident and understandably, they were selected to screen.

Lastly, our film, D.i.g.i.t.a.l High, was well received and prompted questions from several audience members I saw at other screenings. It’s a very rewarding feeling to have your vision acknowledged via the questions and comments of strangers. The film deals with 21st century drug addiction (the drug is new, not the behavior) and the audience, as much as the lead character, can’t be sure what’s real. The film also features Emma Rayne Lyle, who’s making a tidy little mark on Hollywood at the tender age of 8. It just goes to show the powerful difference it can make getting an early start on your career, provided you have the support and well-being to avoid the self-destruction that can accompany success at a young age. For those interested, the film can be seen at www.vimeo.com/digitalhigh.

His powerhouse accomplishments aside, Oliver Stone presents as a really normal guy. I’d seen the bulk of his films, and enjoyed them immensely, but somehow I missed JFK and the off-screen drama surrounding it. The Washington Post discredited the film, before it was even “in the can”, and those critical of the picture say Stone “took liberties.” His entertaining argument, which accelerates in a three-picture arc (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK), is that it is government who “takes liberties”, and why as a populace aren’t we asking more questions? After the screening on Friday at the Culbreth, the filmmaker acknowledged the criticism and reiterated his description of the film as “a counter myth to a fictional myth.” All the actors delivered tour-de-force performances, but I was dumbstruck by both Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner’s extensive and provocative monologues. Stone, to this day, continues to read on the subject and one can’t fault him for believing that the artist’s responsibility is to raise questions and encourage the audience to think for themselves. Someone’s got to, if the media machine won’t. We should be thankful for antagonistic contributors like Oliver Stone who can both deliver the goods and take the heat in service of higher ideals.

On Saturday morning I saw The Monk, a striking French film shot in Spain, which was based on one of the most famous gothic novels every written, The Monk: A Romance, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. Thematically the film is rich and diverse, suggesting that one never exposed to temptations in life is left weak and exposed, rather than impervious to the dangers of a manipulative, sinning world. It is a beautifully shot and terrifically acted film. The thriller draws you into its world, without ever allowing you to be overtaken by it, thereby granting you the opportunity to objectively examine your own fears, biases and views on religious doctrine.

Later that afternoon it was Terence Malick’s 1973 Badlands, with Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk (veteran production designer and Spacek’s husband) present. The film stars Spacek, who also narrated the picture with beyond-her-years wisdom, and Martin Sheen who plays her charming, older, trigger-happy lover. Early in the film, Kit, a swaggering twenty-something Sheen, approaches Holly, a teenaged Spacek in hot pants, twirling a baton in her front yard.

Kit: “Wanna take a walk with me?”

Holly: “What for?”

Kit: “I got some stuff to say.”

The understated brilliance of that scene spoke volumes about the characters and set the stage for their unfolding, in-spite-of-themselves relationship. After the screening, Spacek revealed that then, little-known Sheen was auditioned only as a courtesy to his agent, as he was too old for the part, but that his read sparked a response in her that no other actor had, and he fit the role like a glove. It was a happy accident, so comfortable and true to the role he was, you can’t imagine the film without him. Spacek’s counter-performance is self-possessed and without affect, her talent so evidently innate. The taut direction and unassuming, yet grand production design draw you into a world of riveting, yet passive mayhem.

The only upside to learning a desired movie is sold-out is that the decision is then made for you. I had originally intended to see We Need To Talk About Kevin (not realizing it had distribution), and instead to my delight, saw Albert Nobbs (also sold-out) instead. The film, about a woman who not poses, but lives her life as a male butler, examines gender identity and sexuality in 19th century Ireland. It stars Glenn Close (in the title role) and Mia Wasikowska (Helen) whose characters pursue an unlikely relationship based on Nobbs’ naiveté and Helen’s reluctant deceit. Meeting Director Rodrigo Garcia, an unrelenting champion of female stories, was a highlight for me. His prolificacy as a writer and director is astonishing. I honestly don’t know how he does it. The film’s two female producers, from Mockingbird Pictures, Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis, were also there to discuss Glenn Close’s 20-year journey in getting the film made (she originated the role on stage in 1982).

Lynn was effusive about her return to Charlottesville. She has roots here, having graduated from UVa with a BA and a JD. She practiced law at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression before moving to LA and making the career switch. These two producers offer a beacon of hope as successful women in the oft male-dominated world of filmmaking, but are also shining examples of what balanced teamwork and successful collaboration can deliver. Rounding out the panel was the young, humble Australian starlet, Mia Wasikowska, whose bound to be around for quite some time.

The late-night wrap party on Saturday night brought more opportunity to socialize and I enjoyed chatting a bit more with Ben Mankiewicz, the host from Turner Classic Movies, and a generally funny guy. I was also happy to meet Rachael Harris; although I wasn’t able to see the film she was here with called Natural Selection. Some people’s talents, however, are just obvious. I noticed her first on a commercial a few years ago, where she did so much with so little, and then of course, she came to the forefront in The Hangover.

The Virginia Film Festival is a friendly one, and several guests have remarked that it was one of their more pleasurable festival experiences. From Kielbasa to every last volunteer, I can assure you, they’re doing something right. I saw 21 films (including the shorts), attended 2 parties and met some dynamic folks, household names and otherwise. I can only say, I’m left with a fervent desire to repeat the experience, again here and at other festivals as well.

VIrginia Film Festival 2011 Awards:

Audience Favorite Award winners were:

  • Best Narrative Feature – The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Narrative Short – The Proposition (Edward Stein)
  • Best Documentary Feature – Elevate (Anne Buford)
  • Best Documentary Short – Wounded Warriors Resilience (Jay Lavender)

Winners of this year’s Programmer’s Choice Awards were:

  • Best Narrative Feature – Days Together (Peter Monro)
  • Best Narrative Short – The Box Man (Florencia Calcagno)
  • Best Documentary Feature – Wrestling for Jesus: The Tale of T-Money (Nathan Clarke)
  • Best Documentary Short – Jerry (Jeff Reynolds)
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