2016 Virginia Film Festival Report

On the final night of the 2016 Virginia Film Festival, Festival Director Jody Kielbasa said that he was more pleased with this year’s festival than any other he has been a part of in his entire career. From my own perspective, I concur. The quality and variety of the films was extraordinary, thanks largely to the talents of Programmer and Operations Manager Wesley Harris. The list of special guests was very impressive: Shirley MacLaine, Werner Herzog, Liv Ullmann, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Danny McBride, and more.

As my friends know, I’ve been attending the festival since 2009, when my film BEDFORD: THE TOWN THEY LEFT BEHIND was screened there. It was Jody’s first year running the festival, having just arrived from the Sarasota Film Festival where I first met him when PAPER CLIPS played there in 2004. I was so impressed by the experience — which certainly includes the beauty of Charlottesville, Virginia in November! — that I asked how I could stay involved. I was invited to introduce films and lead post-screening interviews and discussions with filmmakers and actors. The VFF is now a fixture on my calendar, and I plan my Novembers around it.

Charlie Barnett (l) takes a question from the audience, as Cheryl Rattner Price and I listen. (Credit: Amos Eye)
Charlie Barnett (l) takes a question from the audience, as Cheryl Rattner Price and I listen. (Credit: Amos Eye)

This year I once again had a film play the festival: NOT THE LAST BUTTERFLY, which I co-directed and co-produced. It played in one of the larger theatres at the Violet Crown multiplex to a very receptive audience who joined in a spirited post-film conversation with executive producer/co-director/co-producer Cheryl Rattner Price, my long-time favorite composer Charlie Barnett and me.

Although I was busy with my assignments, I was able to catch the opening and closing night films as well as the Salute to Shirley MacLaine. LOVING, which opened the festival, was shot in Virginia. It tells the story of the interracial couple whose lawsuit set the precedent upon which other marriage equality cases have been based, including United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges which made discrimination against same-sex marriages unlawful throughout the country. LA LA LAND, which closed the festival, is a very creative musical directed by Damien Chazelle (WHIPLASH) that follows in the genre-expanding footsteps of MOULIN ROUGE. Both films are major Oscar-contenders.

Shirley MacLaine charmed a capacity audience in the spectacular Paramount Theatre in a conversation moderated refereed by director and film festival expert Mitch Levine. Following a snappy film intro edited to her own performance of “If They Could see Me Now” from the film SWEET CHARITY, Ms MacLaine took the stage and didn’t relinquish her grip on it nor on the crowd for two hours. The plan was to have more film clips interspersed throughout the event, but only one — from her film debut in Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — made it onto the screen. As the conversation continued, Mr Levine set up the next scheduled clip and cued the projectionist, only to have the lady override him. “My stories are better than these clips,” she declared, and I feel certain she was correct. I doubt if anyone in the room missed whatever else would have unspooled from the booth. Indeed, everyone was enthralled by Ms MacLaine’s life, her spirit and her quick wit. Her energy was all the more remarkable when you stopped to realize that she’s 82 years old.

The films for which I led discussions can give you and idea of the diversity of the festival’s programming…

SAMMY AND SHERLOCK CAN’T GET ANY is a light drama about contemporary relationships built on a McGuffin triggered when a young stoner couple run out of weed…

NALEDI: A BABY ELEPHANT’S TALE is a very moving documentary set in Botswana that tells the story of one young elephant and the elephant and human families that look after her…

A ROAD TO HOME takes us inside the struggle for survival of homeless LGBT youth in New York City…

DRIFTWOOD is a unique, disturbing and dialogue-free allegory about society and relationships — amazingly, it was shot entirely MOS (“mit out sound”) and the entire sound track was created in post

BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS adds something new to the recent spate of docs about people on the autism spectrum (LIFE, ANIMATED; HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO; et al), introducing us to twenty-year-old Michelle Smith, who is also legally blind and learning how to live on her own — and challenging what’s normal as she enters a provocative alternate sex community…

…and finally biographical documentaries MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE and LIV & INGMAR (see separate post coming soon).

What a stimulating experiences I had, being with the filmmakers, subjects and actors from these fascinating films!

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