This year’s Virginia Film Festival shines brightly without star power

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Filmmaker Ross McElwee documents lives along the infamous military route through Georgia while on his own personal journey in Sherman’s March. Courtesy the Virginia Film Festival. Filmmaker Ross McElwee documents lives along the infamous military route through Georgia while on his own personal journey in Sherman’s March. Courtesy the Virginia Film Festival.

Strong showing

Longtime attendees may notice that this year’s Virginia Film Festival does not have the star power of recent years, but the content looks as strong as ever, with a line-up that includes several notable, well-established filmmakers, and a number of films that will be of particular interest to locals.

One of the most exciting is Ross McElwee. Best known for his beloved film Sherman’s March, the autobiographical 1986 documentary that depicts McElwee’s journey through the American south, camera in hand, tracing the route of William Tecumseh Sherman’s notorious military campaign. Matters are complicated when McElwee’s girlfriend dumps him on the eve of his departure, and the film’s real topic becomes his search for a new partner on his travels.

McElwee is a one-man crew, 16mm camera in hand, filming and conversing with a variety of Southern women, whose relationship to McElwee is, somewhat respectfully, never made fully clear. Many more people now have access to a handheld cameras than they did in 1986, but few of them show as much care and consideration for their subjects as McElwee. He is as thoughtful, considerate, and talented as filmmakers come; his dry humor and keen observational skills are often counterbalanced against the wild personalities he encounters, and his willingness to follow and fully incorporate many tangents and distractions in his work is exemplary. Sherman’s March is a touching, inspiring, and hilarious classic of independent cinema.

McElwee has had a strong career since the ’80s, and in addition to Sherman’s March, he will present two shorter works: 1984’s Backyard, and his newest, Photographic Memory, which deals with McElwee’s relationship with his son. In an effort to bridge the generation gap, he revisits footage of his son from throughout his lifetime, as well as footage that he shot of himself at the same age (it helps that McElwee apparently films everything).

The local take

One of the strongest aspects of the film festival in recent years is the focus on local productions and contemporary documentaries. Music lovers will have a lot to listen for this weekend. Hardcore Norfolk: a Story of Rock-n-Roll Survival tells the tale of two Norfolk-based labels, LaGrande and Shiptown. “Hardcore” in this case refers not to the punk sub-genre, but to the ardency of the music’s fans, who have kept Virginia rock ‘n’ roll (including Gene Vincent and Gary U.S. Bonds) alive over the years.

Something in the Water takes a look at Charlottesville itself. Marc Adams (director of last year’s Alchemy of an American Artist, the documentary about infamous local personality Christian Breeden) here turns his camera towards Charlottesville music in general, capturing interviews with and live footage of a range of legendary locals, including Bella Morte, The Hogwaller Ramblers, The Hackensaw Boys, Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri, John D’earth, and Corey Harris.

Charlottesville director Eric Hurt makes his feature debut with House Hunting, a psychological horror-drama about two families trapped in a nightmarish real estate open-house. The plot seems reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic The Exterminating Angel. Hurt’s film is a local production starring Marc Singer (of Beastmaster fame) and prolific character actor Art Lafleur, both of whom will be on hand to discuss the film with Singer.

Some less celebratory documentaries take a tough look at Virginia’s often-difficult history: Slavery By Another Name addresses the years following the Civil War, in which many former slaves lived and worked in harsh conditions that continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation. The film features interviews with living descendents of those slaves, as well as historians and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas Blackmon of The Miller Center, who will discuss the film at the screening.

And while the topic of grave-robbing might make most of us think of old monster movies, Until the Well Runs Dry deals with the horrifying details of the actual historical practice. From the 1800s up through the early 20th century, Richmond’s African-American cemeteries were regularly raided for corpses that were used for dissections and anatomical studies at the Medical College of Virginia.

Two more documentaries deal with more recent issues of national importance by focusing on local subjects: Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare heavily features the UVA Department of Emergency Medicine, while It’s Only (a) Natural is a personal investigation of the concept of beauty—specifically, black women’s hair—by Richmond model and filmmaker Yolanda Lee.

The hype

One of the Festival’s most anticipated events is The Man With the Iron Fists, the directorial debut of The RZA, the musical mastermind behind Wu-Tang Clan. Robert Diggs has dabbled in soundtrack work and acting roles in films by Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, but this will be his first feature behind the camera. RZA’s career has been wildly inconsistent—he’s produced some of the best rap albums of all time, as well as an avalanche of lesser, forgotten releases—but if we’ve learned anything since Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it’s that the man knows his way around a kung fu flick.

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