To “educate and engage audiences on the art of film.” To “promote discussions between artists, students, academics, and audiences about the films and how they relate to the world in which we live.” And, not to forget, to “support the films and filmmakers of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” At the Virginia Film Festival, watching Oscar winners and Oscar contenders is only part of the fun, and part of the idea. Now in its 27th year, the increasingly popular event derives its unique-to-the-U.S. mission from its presenting body, the University of Virginia.
It’s a film festival with guest talks by stars and directors, or an unusually exciting academic conference with illustrations by Godard and Chaplin. Take your pick – and do it this November 6-9 from more than one hundred screenings and numerous panel discussions, plus parties, competitions, and a day’s worth of educational fun for the whole family.
“Once again this year, I think we have an incredibly strong program of films that entertain and engage us in addition to inspiring important dialogue around the issues we face every single day,” says Festival director and UVA Vice Provost for the Arts, Jody Kielbasa. “We are thrilled to welcome an extraordinary lineup of special guests who include all-time acting and directing greats, some of today’s most talented actors, leading cultural figures and personalities, and the largest collection of filmmakers we have ever brought in for the Festival.”
The greats come to town starting Thursday, November 6, as the festival kicks off at the Paramount Theater with a 7:00 p.m., world premiere screening of Big Stone Gap, written and directed by bestselling author Adriana Trigiani. Based on Trigiani’s popular series of novels and filmed on location in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the film stars Ashley Judd as the small town’s self-appointed, middle-aged spinster who keeps countless secrets before discovering one of her own that will change her life forever. Cast members Patrick Wilson, Jenna Elfman, and Jasmine Guy will join Trigiani for the post-film Q & A.
That same evening, the man who’s been called “the first black action hero,” actor Richard Roundtree, will be the special guest at UVA’s Culbreth Theatre for an 8:00 p.m. screening of Shaft, the seminal 1971 Blaxploitation film by Gordon Parks, perhaps best known for his documentary photography. Parks’ 1948 Life magazine photo-essay, “Harlem Gang Leader,” is on exhibit at UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Mark Twain once quipped to the New York press. Tony Award-winning actor Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain in an acclaimed one-man show for 60 years, so perhaps it’s fitting that he too – just this October – has been denying reports of his demise. Concerned parties can ascertain the truth for themselves when the 89-year-old actor comes to town for a performance of Mark Twain Tonight!, 7:00 p.m. Friday at the Paramount, and a screening of the acclaimed documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Dickinson Center.
Mark Twain Tonight! has been seen in all fifty states, in twenty countries, behind the Iron Curtain, and by five U.S. Presidents. Filmed in classic black and white, director Scott Teems’ 2014 film documentary features excerpts of the show, plus interviews with Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Emile Hirsch, and Cherry Jones among others. A discussion with Holbrook and Teems will follow.
Williams Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a 20th century masterpiece, the chronicle of a once proud aristocratic Southern family as told by an idiot, a suicide, and their bitter, scheming brother. Director James Franco’s adaptation was produced by Festival advisory board member Lee Caplin, and stars Franco, Seth Rogen, Joey King, Danny McBride and Scott Haze, with Loretta Devine as the wise and longsuffering maid, Dilsey.
“James Franco is a guy that really constantly surprises me,” Kielbasa says. “It seems every time I turn around he’s doing something that is period or new and exciting and different, from doing Of Mice and Men on Broadway most recently, to popping up in more commercial fare. Danny McBride hails from the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area as well, so it’s a really interesting cast.” Miller School graduate Scott Haze was one of Variety’s Top 10 Actors to Watch for 2013. He will discuss the film following its 6:15 p.m. Friday screening at PVCC.
Television journalist and talk-show host (and UVA alum!) Katie Couric will be at Culbreth Theatre at 2:00 p.m. Saturday to screen and discuss Fed Up, a new documentary by Stephanie Soechtig with the startling claim that “everything we’ve been told about food and exercise for the past 30 years is dead wrong.” Examining the epidemic of childhood obesity through interviews with food and nutrition experts and the heartbreaking stories of overweight kids, “the film the food industry doesn’t want you to see” blames the corporate juggernaut “Big Sugar” and its allies in government for a problem they didn’t want to control.
Longtime festivalgoers know to expect an exciting new release on Saturday evening at the Paramount. This year’s Centerpiece film, November 8 at 8:00 p.m., is 5 to 7, a “cinq-a-sept” romance between an aspiring novelist (Anton Yelchin), and the sophisticated wife of a French diplomat (Bérénice Marlohe). Lambert Wilson plays the diplomat and Frank Langella and Glenn Close play the writer’s disapproving parents. Langella will be interviewed after the screening, along with director Victor Levin, and 5 to 7 producers Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis.
“One of the first things I wanted to focus on when I started working for the university and the film festival,” Kielbasa says, “is how we could more effectively engage with the community.” With this his sixth Virginia Film Festival, he notes, “the growth of the festival these past couple of years, and the impact that it’s had on our community, is something that makes me proud.” Part of that impact has been achieved through partnering with other public-spirited institutions – showing classics with the Library of Congress, for instance, and works of political import with the Miller Center.
As part of its own mission to introduce indigenous artists to new audiences, UVA’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is joining with the Festival this year to show three new films: an Australian Aboriginal documentary, a Navajo feature-length drama, and a vampire comedy from New Zealand.
The documentary Ringtone, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, November 6 at UVA’s Newcomb Hall, looks at Yolngu Aboriginal families through their choice of cell phone sounds. Drunktown’s Finest, 9:00 p.m., Friday, November 7 at PVCC, follows an adopted Christian girl, a rebellious father-to-be, and a promiscuous transsexual on the Navajo reservation where director Sydney Freeman grew up. The “mockumentary” What We Do in the Shadows, 9:15 p.m., Saturday November 8 at Newcomb Hall, charts the daily travails of vampire roommates, all from different historical periods, as they try to adapt to 21st century life – finding fresh blood is the easy part.
What We Do in the Shadows “is solidly in my top three vampire films at Sundance this year,” cracks Festival programmer Wesley Harris. Not just funny, the film “is also wicked smart in how it deconstructs the genre tropes and the mythos of the vampire as it’s evolved in the pop version. I think it’s going to go on to be a pretty big film in the long run.”
Harris has high expectations as well for two films that shared the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival: 25-year old director Xavier Dolan’s emotionally-charged Mommy (“deeply character-driven, experimental in unexpected ways; maybe a future cult hit”), and revered 83-year old director Jean Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D, the story of a married woman and a single man who fall in and out of love, told in typically experimental, pastiche fashion. Mommy will be shown Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Regal Theater on the Downtown Mall. Goodbye to Language will be screened at the Regal on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Godard is most celebrated for his radical 1960s films that demonstrate a deep knowledge of film history. Charlie Chaplin was an English actor, comedian and silent film director whose bumbling, mischievous vagrant is one of film history’s most beloved characters. It was a hundred years ago that Chaplin first donned a black bowler hat and an ill-fitting suit to become the Little Tramp. At 2:15 p.m., Saturday at the Regal, the Library of Congress joins the Festival in offering a series of short films to celebrate the centennial of the silent film icon.
In the annual school screening, students will see Stanley Nelson’s stirring documentary Freedom Summer, about the efforts of more than 700 student volunteers, black and white,
to help black citizens register to vote and secure access to good schools and legal aid in segregation-era Mississippi. A panel discussion will follow, with civil rights leader and former national NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and Deborah McDowell, Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at UVA.
“It seems like each year we receive more films, and more impressive films, that highlight Virginia filmmaking – and by that I mean films that were either made in Virginia or by filmmakers with distinct Virginia ties or roots,” Harris says. “This year’s crop was exceptionally strong.”
The Winding Stream, 7:45 p.m., Saturday, at the Dickinson Center, traces the career of old time country music’s legendary Carter family, from their first recordings in Bristol, Virginia in 1927, to June Carter’s marriage to Johnny Cash, and the efforts of family members today to keep their musical legacy alive.
This documentary Big Moccasin, 4:15 p.m., Friday at the Regal, explores faith and tradition along Big Moccasin Road, a 25-mile stretch in the Appalachian Valley in Southwest Virginia.
Besides celebrating Virginia filmmaking, the festival also nurtures the next generation of film pros and film fans with Family Day, a free, all-day Saturday affair, now on UVA’s Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds. This year the red carpet leads directly to the yellow brick road in a 75th anniversary screening of one of Kielbasa’s favorite films, The Wizard of Oz, 10:00 a.m. at Culbreth Theatre.
“We’ve engaged the arts programs and departments on the Grounds to create interactive workshops for the kids to look into the art of filmmaking,” Kielbasa says. That means fun-filled sessions on everything from audition techniques and dance routines, to make-up, stage combat and computer animation, plus a Musical Petting Zoo courtesy of the Charlottesville Symphony. Winning entries in the Young Filmmakers Academy contest for elementary and middle school students will be shown at Campbell Hall.
Results of the 11th annual Adrenaline Film Project, in which small teams of filmmakers write, cast, shoot, and edit their films in a mere 72 hours, will be shown 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Culbreth Theatre. Winning short (really short) films in the statewide “Action!” contest for high school students, will be screened at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Regal, preceding Run Boy Run.
On Closing Night the Festival will celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of the most iconic films of the last quarter century, Dead Poets Society, starring the late Robin Williams. A discussion with producer and UVA alum Paul Junger Witt and screenwriter Tom Schulman, who won an Academy Award® for the film, will follow the 7:00 p.m., Culbreth Theatre screening.
Under Kielbasa’s leadership, the Virginia Film Festival has enjoyed extraordinary growth, almost doubling audience attendance and setting a box office record of over $120,000 in 2013, while continuing its mission to educate and inspire as well as entertain. Now in its 27th year, it’s a film lover’s delight – and a Virginia tradition.
By Ken Wilson