Attention grabbers: Dont-miss documentaries at the 31st annual Virginia Film Festival

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The Ballad of Shirley Collins is one of many don't-miss documentaries at this year's Virginia Film Festival. Photo courtesy VAFF The Ballad of Shirley Collins is one of many don’t-miss documentaries at this year’s Virginia Film Festival. Photo courtesy VAFF

At a festival that offers more than 150 films, highlighted by selections that have awards buzz and super-special guests, it can be difficult to choose wisely (and, with the way the VFF tickets sell, quickly). Here are five under-the-radar documentaries that rose to the top of our list, and are well worth your time.

Key changes

Whether or not you agree that Mumford & Sons ruined the genre, folk music has undeniably gone through enormous changes in the past decades—many of them thanks to innovators like Shirley Collins, who helped pioneer the shift from traditional to contemporary during the English folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s. British documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins studies a similar shift in Collins’ career, juxtaposing some of her most famed classics alongside the creation of her first album in 38 years. As is the case with all music documentaries, the tunes are just as important as the story. In addition to a talk with the film’s directors and producers, the event features live music from Charlottesville’s Ned Oldham and Jordan Perry, a duo whose alt-country, electronic stylings truly bring folk into the 21st century.

Saturday at 7:45pm. Violet Crown.


 Not a drop to drink

When it comes to pollution, few forms are as extensive and hard to ignore as a tainted water supply. West Virginia’s capital, Charleston, known for its industrial infrastructure, made headlines in 2014 for a chemical spill that left up to 300,000 people without clean drinking water, a tragedy chronicled in the documentary Still Life. The nation was shocked when a Freedom Industries facility released crude chemicals into the Elk River, but residents of Charleston and its surrounding counties were no strangers to unethical and irresponsible practices of corporations. Charlottesville native Johnny Saint Ours directed this documentary that takes a personal approach, focusing on the ways in which individual lives were affected or put on hold by the unnatural disaster. A discussion with Ours, along with producer Nana Agyapong, follows the harrowing film. Vivian Thomson, a retired UVA environmental science professor, moderates.

Saturday at 5pm. Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.


Collision of color

Black and Blue tells the story of Nate Northington, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. When the African American football player joined the Kentucky Wildcats in 1967, he broke a major color barrier as the first black athlete to compete in the Southeastern Conference. This documentary details the incredible true story of Northington’s tumultuous journey through an all-white environment, spurred on by the memory of a fellow black athlete and friend whose plans to play alongside him were cut short in an unforeseen accident. Along with director Paul Wagner, Wilbur Hackett, and Paul Karem—one a fellow black athlete, the other an advocate for athletes’ rights, and both subjects of the film—will all participate in a discussion moderated by Claudrena Harold, a UVA professor of African American and African studies and history.

Friday at 6pm. Vinegar Hill Theatre.


Cultured creativity

There’s more to M.I.A. than just catchy hip-hop tracks. The artist everyone knows by her three-letter moniker and energetic, politically charged tracks like “Paper Planes” and “Go Off” has lived under three identities in her life—Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A.—and the documentary of the same name seeks to capture each phase. From being a daughter of the resistance in civil war-torn Sri Lanka to finding both physical and creative refuge in the U.K. to her birth as a musician, the brilliant, brash artist’s voice has been shaped over multiple continents and a life’s worth of experience. This documentary compiles the musician’s personal videos, filmed during the past 22 years, as a means of explaining the unique circumstances that made M.I.A. one of the most singular and important voices in hip-hop.

Saturday at 8:30pm. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.


Highest education

Whether a conversation focuses on solving climate change, curing cancer, or perfecting artificial intelligence, it seems like “the next generation” is always referenced. But how well equipped is the next generation to tackle such enormous projects? The documentary Science Fair seeks to provide an answer, tracking nine bright high school students from across the globe as they progress through the eponymous competition while at the same time dealing with issues that come with growing up. Though the prestigious “best in fair” hangs over each competitor’s head, this story is less about the contest and more about the young minds involved, giving an impressive, reassuring window into the lives of some of the geekiest teens on Earth. A discussion follows the film with Charlotte and Emily Keeley, two associates of the Boston Consulting Group, and Curry school professor Jennie Chiu. The panel is moderated by Matthew Shields, a science teacher at Charlottesville High School.

Thursday at 6pm. Newcomb Hall Theatre.

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