Last Weekend, the Virginia Film Festival wrapped up its 36th year, delivering a captivating array of critically-acclaimed films and fostering a beautiful, arts-supportive atmosphere in Charlottesville once again. The Virginia Film Festival, or VAFF, is organized annually by the UVa Arts Foundation and receives sponsorship from a diverse range of community partners. These include both local and national institutions, such as the Violet Crown Theatre and the National Endowment for the Arts. This year, over 115 total film showings and other events were held throughout Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVa’s Arts Grounds. These include cinema work representing 35 different countries, spotlight talks with directors and crew, with an estimated 17,000 or more attendees making their way to the festival. UVa students took advantage of the opportunity to purchase free tickets due to generous sponsorship from the UVa Arts Foundation, making up over 2000 of the tickets sold to this years’ festival despite some popular programming competing with Halloween weekend activities. International films and perspectives descended on Charlottesville, with people coming from far and wide to share in what VAFF calls “the unique brand of magic that happens when audiences gather in person to create a community in which to experience a film.” Though I wasn’t able to attend every event I wanted to, each screening I attended was filled with this magic. The crowds were all engaged and reactive: laughing, gasping, and experiencing the rollercoasters of each story together, creating a beautiful experience. Most featured screenings were held at the historic Paramount Theater in downtown, with screenings and talks also taking place at the Violet Crown, the Jefferson, Culbreth Theatre, and other venues throughout Charlottesville. Staff, volunteers, and attendees alike were buzzing with excitement, encouraging folks to vote for their audience favorite or contribute to VAFF via donations or concessions.
The festival this year boasted an impressive line-up of speakers and screenings, most notably with acclaimed director of When They See Us and 13th, Ava DuVernay, Grammy-winning composer and artist Jon Batiste, artists from featured productions like Kazu Hiro, the Makeup Effects Artist on Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, and many more actors, directors, producers, from multiple films screened from October 25th to the 29th. I talked to community members and students who greatly appreciated the opportunities for Q & A at various panels and the care taken to craft detailed, meaningful introductions before the screening of each film, a practice that greatly enhanced our understanding of the films and their themes.
While it’s impossible to cover all of the films shown at the festival in this review– I’m only one person!– here are some notable highlights. I would greatly encourage you to take the time to watch these movies upon their release if the description interests you! Each one was a truly unique experience, and made me excited to see the future of media throughout the world.
Dream Scenario was the first film I caught, shown at Culbreth Theatre on Friday night; it’s a wonderfully wacky story told by A24 and Director Nicolas Cage. The story follows a woefully ‘directionless and middling’ professor who has mysteriously began appearing in countless peoples’ dreams, exploring the bizarre world of someone experiencing their “fifteen minutes of fame” in a continuously unpredictable manner. The audience was roaring with laughter and excitement throughout most of the film, making it a truly engaging cinematic experience.
War Pony, screened the following Saturday at the Paramount, followed the story of two Oglala Lakota boys living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, showcasing their ingenuity, resilience, and humor in the face of serious adversity and poverty.
I saw Four Daughters at the Violet Crown the same day, and it was the only documentary I was able to attend at the festival. The harrowing documentary follows the story of Olfa and the two of her four daughters left following the older daughters’ radicalization into ISIS, making a plan to escape from their Tunisian home to join the extremist group’s ranks in Syria. The film tells the story of the family’s troubles and triumphs, critically examining the process of radicalization and why it happens.
On Sunday, the final day of the festival, I had the chance to see two features: May December and Fancy Dance, two incredible yet dramatically different stories. May December, a Netflix drama starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, had myself and the entire audience on our toes, with the tension in the theater escalating throughout the sordid tale. Elizabeth, a famous actor portrayed by Natalie Portman, is shadowing the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her husband, having been cast as Gracie in an upcoming film about the couple’s whirlwind, tabloid romance. The catch? Joe was 13, a seventh grader, when Gracie assaulted him, was jailed, and eventually became impregnated. The film is an examination of the morally-gray aspects of the responsibilities of an actor in telling a true story, and a biting critique of the way we treat male victims of sexual abuse.
Last, on Sunday evening, I saw Fancy Dance, a heartfelt, tear-inducing story that combined themes of generational trauma, cultural erasure of Native American communities. This story is centered on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation (in my home state of Oklahoma) and sheds light on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), including the lack of care and attention their cases are often afforded. The story follows Jax (Lily Gladstone) as she seeks the truth about the disappearance of her sister, and tries to maintain custody over her niece, Roki, culminating in their journey to the annual “Fancy Dance” powwow held in Oklahoma City. It was personally awe-inspiring to watch something in Charlottesville that had been largely filmed in my home town of Tulsa, just a week after watching Killers of the Flower Moon in the same theater. I got a satisfying sense of movie deja vu as I settled into the seats Sunday night and realized that not only did the two films follow stories of indigenous communities transcending violence in Oklahoma, but they both starred Lily Gladstone, a powerhouse in Native cinema who also starred in Reservation Dogs.
The Virginia Film Festival provides a unique platform every year to share diverse stories and to create a space for dialogue, reflection, and cultural exchange, improving the programming selection every year. We should all be grateful as students and residents of Charlottesville for this incredible opportunity to engage with the arts world and the community around us while watching some incredible stories. As the festival wrapped up, attendees left with their hearts filled with cinematic magic and a sense of community. For those interested in future editions of the festival and events like it, attending events through UVa Arts, the Paramount Theater, and countless other Charlottesville community arts organizations is highly recommended. Also, remember to keep an eye out for the films described above in the following year!