The Virginia Film Festival: An Embarrassment of Riches

The Virginia Film Festival: An Embarrassment of Riches

Historic and heartwarming (Loving). Family-friendly and inspiring (The Eagle Huntress). Searching and shocking (The Promise), romantic (La La Land) and jaw dropping (Liv Ullmann, Werner Herzog and Shirley . .. that’s right, MacLaine)—if it boasts more than 125 films, and way too many admiring modifiers to choose from, it’s the 2016 Virginia Film Festival, screening November 3-6 in Charlottesville.

First conceived of in 1999 as a vehicle to educate and engage audiences, encourage discussion, and support films and filmmakers in the Commonwealth, the Virginia Film Festival is an annual

feast of cinematic riches and related conversations, bookended by a couple of great parties. This year’s festival, says Jody Kielbasa, in the topics it covers, the cultures it celebrates, the film icons it brings to town, and the thoughtful discussion it is sure to stimulate, “is the best in my eight years as director. It is a very rich and compelling program that will engage our community in a significant dialogue, and be a lot of fun.”

Opening Night Film
This year’s Opening Night presentation, Loving (7:00 p.m., Thursday, November 3 at The Paramount Theater) will be “very much a part of the Golden Globe and Oscar dialogues,” Kielbasa believes. The critically acclaimed film dramatizes the courageous story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple from a small Virginia town who were married in 1958, in defiance of state law. First jailed, then banished, the Lovings fought for their union all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a landmark 1967 case affirmed their right to marry. Directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes International Film Festival. Nichols, Negga and Bernie Cohen, one of the original ACLU lawyers who argued the case, will discuss the film following the screening.

Loving captures an important moment in the history of the Commonwealth,” says Governor Terry McAuliffe, “and tells a story that speaks to the triumph of love over division—a story that resonates in our world today. The film also shines a deserved spotlight on Virginia’s thriving film industry, which continues to be an important driver in our work to build a new Virginia economy.”

Centerpiece Film
Long before the O.J. Simpson spectacle, the trial of UVA honor students Elizabeth Haysom and her German boyfriend Jens Soering riveted the nation on live TV. Charged with the gruesome double murder of Haysom’s parents in rural Bedford County, the convicted couple have now spent over three decades behind bars. Soering, however, still proclaims his innocence. New evidence presented in journalist Karin Steinberger and filmmaker Marcus Vetter’s investigative film The Promise has made headlines and may win him a new trial. Soering’s lawyer and several of the original investigators and journalists will discuss the film after its North American premiere, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, November 5 at The Paramount Theater.

Closing Night Film
While the Opening Night and Centerpiece films tell true stories of love triumphant and love overcome by tragedy, Closing Night offers a romantic musical comedy-drama of two young strivers finding love in the big city. An audience favorite at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the wryly named La La Land (7:30 p.m., Sunday, November 6 at The Paramount Theater) pays tribute to a classic Hollywood genre, and to the city from which it takes its name. Starring Ryan Gosling as a dedicated jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress, this beautifully shot film is “a kind of a love letter to the traditional old Hollywood movie musicals,” Kielbasa says, with an “incredibly charming” leading couple. “It reminds me a little of a modern-day Singing in the Rain.”

A Conversation with Liv Ullmann
Along with the chance to view so many classics and so many contenders in one short burst, another of the Festival’s great pleasures is the opportunity it affords to hear and to question the people who make them. One of the great actresses of her generation, Liv Ullmann won fame for her daring work with master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman in Persona, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, and other such explorations—12 in all—of the human psyche and the human predicament. Still active after seven decades, Ullmann has most recently directed for the stage and the screen, including a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and a film version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Ullmann will be at UVA’s Culbreth Theatre at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, November 3 for a moderated discussion led by Michael Barker, Co-President and Co-Founder of Sony Pictures Classics.

“There is an elegance about her career that is extraordinary, that you don’t often see today,” Kielbasa says. She is really a very, very intelligent actress. It’s an honor to bring her back and to have the conversation moderated by Michael Barker, whose films have been nominated for 159 Academy Awards. This is clearly a gentleman who knows his stuff.”

Ullmann will be on hand as well after the screening of Liv & Ingmar (1:00 p.m., Friday, November 4 at Vinegar Hill Theatre), a 2012 documentary about her 42-year relationship with Bergman. The director and the woman he called his “Stradivarius” fell in love when she was 25 and he was 46, each married to someone else. Told entirely from Ullmann’s own perspective and including films clips, love letters and behind the scenes footage, the film chronicles a great passion that became a deep friendship.

The World of Werner Herzog
A pioneer of the postwar West German cinema movement and one of the world’s most innovative contemporary directors, Werner Herzog began his 45-year career at age 19 and has since produced, written and directed more than sixty feature and documentary films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grisly Man (2005).

“Herzog’s nearly half century long career has taken him to the ends of the earth, the bottom of the sea, and down into deep forgotten caves,” says VFF Programmer and Operations Manager Wesley Harris. “He has dragged ships across the mountains. He’s one of the most iconic and strong-willed minds in the art world. I think this artists’ work helps an audience become better movie watchers.”

Harris will join the director at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 5 at The Paramount Theater, in a program that will include Herzog reading from his writings as well as other texts, followed by an audience Q & A.

Herzog’s new documentary Into the Inferno, a survey of the world’s active volcanoes and the cultures and religions that have formed around them,  “is a return to form, old-school Herzog,” Harris says. “He’s trekking around the world, going to places of physical and geographical extremes and violence, and having some fun exploring the odd characters that he comes across. If there is any through line thematically to his work it’s the violent indifference of nature towards man, and this film is that in a capsule. He’s a filmmaker of extremes, but he also manages to give nuances to these largest possible landscapes and characters that he comes across in his films.” Into the Inferno will be shown at 9:15 p.m. on Friday, November 4 at the Culbreth Theatre.

A Salute to Shirley MacLaine
Richmond native and six-time Academy Award nominee Shirley MacLaine got her big break as an understudy on Broadway in 1954 when the leading lady broke her ankle. MacLaine’s performance in The Pajama Game so impressed a major film producer that he signed her to Paramount Pictures, where her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year—Actress. Hot Spell and Around the World in Eighty Days followed, as did a total of in 72 films and 44 awards in 50 years, and even an amusing turn as a formidable mother-in-law on Downton Abbey.

“Just last night I was reviewing her career and kept being surprised at the number of films I had forgotten were part of her filmography,” Kielbasa says, marveling not only at “the length, scope, and breadth” of her career,“ but “at the fact that she is still working.” MacLaine will appear at the Paramount Theater at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, November 4 to discuss her career with Bob Gazzale  of the American Film Institute and even—her idea—take questions from the audience.

An Embarrassment of Riches
Even for casual film fans, the embarrassment of riches that is the Virginia Film Festival each year rewards a close look at the line-up. Grown-up Disney lovers will be intrigued by an extraordinary screening of Beauty and the Beast (3:00 p.m. Saturday, November 5 at the Culbreth Theatre), the first feature-length animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, shown here in the same work-in-progress state in which it previewed (25 years ago at the New York Film Festival) with original pencil drawings alternating with completed animation. Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, and producer Don Hahn will discuss the process by which the film was made. Hahn will also screen and discuss his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, on the revitalization of Disney’s animation studios, at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 6 at Vinegar Hill Theatre.

Fredericksburg native Danny McBride wrote and starred in the HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down, and now co-stars in the network’s hit comedy Vice Principals. Joe Hill is co-creator and director of both series. McBride and Hill will screen two episodes of Vice Principals plus clips from Danny’s career, and  discuss their artistic process at 6:45 p.m., Friday, November 4 at Culbreth Theatre.

Filmed in the breathtakingly beautiful Mongolian steppe, The Eagle Huntress (6:45 p.m., Saturday, November 5 at St. Anne’s-Belfield) tells the story of a 13-year old girl training to be the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her family. “It’s a great story of female empowerment,” Harris says, “delving into a heritage amazingly removed from what many Western audiences would have any experience of.”

Just four days before the election, legendary filmmakers DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus will show their classic documentary The War Room (6:00 p.m., Saturday, November 5 at the Culbreth Theatre), a look behind scenes of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign that introduced us to George Stephanopoulos, James Carville and Paul Begala. Begala will join the filmmakers for a discussion moderated by Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics.

Since 1996 the folks online at IndieWire have been a leading source for film and television news, reviews, interviews and festival coverage. Three of the site’s four founders and its current chief film critic, Eric Kohn, will be at Vinegar Hill Theatre at 4:30 p.m., Saturday, November 5 for a moderated discussion on film criticism and IndieWire’s 20-year legacy.

When a five-year-old Indian boy becomes separated from his older brother on a train platform in Lion (7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 6 at the Culbreth Theatre), he winds up nearly a thousand miles away in Calcutta, is adopted by an Australian family, and raised in Tasmania. Twenty-five years later, to find his original family, he turns to Google Earth.

Family Day on Saturday, November 5 at the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds at the University of Virginia will feature award-winning short films from Disney Animation Studios, interactive arts workshops, a Musical Instrument Petting Zoo, and screenings of films made by the more than 600 local students taking part in the Festival’s Young Filmmakers Academy. The highlight of the day will be a 20th Anniversary screening of James and the Giant Peach, at 12:30 p.m. at the Culbreth Theatre.

At 9:30 Saturday evening the 13th Annual Adrenaline Film Project comes to the Culbreth to show what 10-12 teams of young filmmakers under the guidance of Charlottesville native Jeff Wadlow (Kick Ass 2, Bates Motel, Non-Stop) can write, produce, and edit in a mere 72 caffeine-fueled hours. 

Throughout the Festival, the Digital Media Gallery in the Second Street Gallery will feature video installations by UVA cinematography students and young filmmakers from Lighthouse Studio, offering visitors a look at the latest in digital filmmaking technology.

From celebrated classics to cult favorites, from soon-to-be blockbusters to seat of the pants debuts, the 2016 Virginia Film Festival is a four-day dive into the world of cinema. We’re so lucky to have it. Silence your cellphones; and open your eyes.

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