Many of us have found safe, socially distant ways to do the things we considered normal before the pandemic, such as drive-by birthday parties or outdoor, masked haircuts. When and how we might go to the movies like we once did is a tougher issue to resolve, because there’s no getting around the problem of a group of strangers sharing circulated air in a closed room for two hours.
Until we can breathe easy again, audiences have rallied around the previously undervalued drive-in experience, and virtual cinemas have allowed independent theaters and filmmakers to connect in innovative ways. You may have to experience the Virginia Film Festival in isolation this year, but rest assured, you are not alone.
One Night in Miami & Shiva Baby
As of the moment this preview was written, two drive-in highlights have already sold out: One Night in Miami on opening night, and Shiva Baby on closing night. The films are very different in tone and content, yet both are deeply personal to their respective filmmakers—industry veteran Regina King in her directorial debut, and newcomer Emma Seligman—and are essential examples of why the festival experience, however diminished at the moment, is worth saving. (One Night in Miami, October 21, at 7:30pm at Morven Farm, and 8pm at Dairy Market; Shiva Baby, October 25, at 8pm at Dairy Market)
Here’s a useful festival tip: Whenever you see anything labeled a “hidden gem,” give it a chance, no matter how odd it may seem. These movies rely on your word of mouth, and you may find a new favorite in an unlikely package. This is certainly true of Jumbo, from French writer-director Zoé Wittock in her feature debut. The most shocking thing about Wittock’s film isn’t its premise, about a woman (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) who falls madly in love with a carnival ride. It’s that she makes you believe it. With each new romantic escalation, Jumbo challenges you to remember when you were judged for feelings you couldn’t explain, or loved someone you shouldn’t. Wittock directs the story like this the only way one could, with total earnestness and respect for the character’s point of view. The ride, communicating only through spinning, flashing lights, and—ahem—leaking, is as expressive as any human actor. Jumbo will make you stand up and cheer as you rethink your definition of “wholesome.” (October 21, streaming)
Feels Good Man
Moving to documentaries, Feels Good Man is the single most clarifying political film I’ve seen in years. Director Arthur Jones explores the long journey of Pepe the Frog, the ubiquitous meme that once captured the anarchic spirit of the internet before becoming a mascot for its darkest underbelly. We follow Pepe creator Matt Furie, a positive-minded artist, as he attempts to understand how his easygoing character, originally part of the harmless Boy’s Club comic series, was absorbed and reappropriated without his knowledge or permission. Feels Good Man is the first documentary I’ve seen that understands how to navigate the hive mind of the internet, and how to comprehend the alt-right’s irony-drenched iconography. It is an essential film for understanding the current moment, how this toxic movement formed the way it did, and why it congealed around an innocent figure like Pepe. (October 21, streaming)
Where Feels Good Man focuses on the lawlessness of digital culture, Coded Bias looks at how the norms of technology are written, by whom, and who gets left behind. For example, MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers that her facial recognition software only acknowledges her when she wears a totally white mask. As the documentary shows, that’s far more than a glitch. Algorithms are not objective, they are as we create them, and those creators come from a very slim, very white, extremely wealthy, and overwhelmingly male segment of the population. Not only is the technology’s failure to recognize people of color an insult, it is omnipresent in our smartphones, our surveillance cameras, and our law enforcement, with virtually no oversight or accountability. Is technology improving our lives and lifting all boats, or is it another means of enforcing the same social order? Director Shalini Kantayya’s documentary comes to VFF after a huge impact at Sundance, where some called it the most important documentary of the year. (October 21, streaming)
The third documentary recommendation is Boys State. I cannot decide whether this film is exciting, charming, or harrowing, but I am certain that it is vital. We are a nation in desperate search of a metaphor for our current situation, and I can think of no better microcosm of our fractured state than a gathering of 1,000 young men who all want different things, attempting to build a model of representative democracy from the ground up at a Texas summer program. Some are participating to rule according to their own values, some are treating it like a game, and some want to ensure that all voices are heard in a room of 1,000 primarily white and conservative boys. The very purpose of power and democracy come into question, as many of the participants have already cemented their views along the current divides that dominate national politics. Are we giving the next generation a chance to build a better world, or are we training them to continue fighting our proxy wars? (October 24, streaming)