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Virginia Film Festival -- Stronger Than Ever?

One hundred films in four days.  For 27 years, the Virginia Film Festival has provided an annual showcase of movies.


Everything from independent films to classics to documentaries, along with panel discussions and other special events.  Not to mention an opportunity for local folks to rub elbows with some big names in film.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner has a preview of this year’s event.

In this era of smartphones and streaming, when you can pretty much watch whatever whenever from the comfort of wherever, do movie theaters matter anymore? Jody Kielbasa thinks so.

JODY KIELBASA: I think film is a communal experience that’s shared in movie theaters, and that’s what’s exciting about a film festival. It’s very much about community, it’s about bringing people together, and then bringing the artists in to share their work.

That’s about to happen in a big way in Charlottesville, where Kielbasa directs the Virginia Film Festival, which opens on Thursday. And even in this age of Netflix, the event’s getting bigger, having set attendance records in each of the past five years. Kielbasa, also the vice-provost for the arts at the University of Virginia, expects another record this week, on the strength of the program and the guest filmmakers and actors who will come interact with the audiences.

KIELBASA: It’s an extraordinary year for us, with probably the largest assembly of remarkable guest artists that we’ve ever had at the Virginia Film Festival, starting with our opening night film, which is a world premiere of Big Stone Gap, and we have the celebrated author, Adriana Tragiani, who is coming in, of course she wrote the best-selling novels about Big Stone Gap and has gone on to direct this feature film. We have Donna Gigliotti joining her, who produced it, has won an Academy Award before for Shakespeare in Love and was nominated for Silver Linings Playbook. Also joining her is Ashley Judd, Jenna Elfman, Jasmine Guy and Patrick Wilson. And that’s just all the first night. It’s just an extraordinary lineup.

Part of the festival’s mission is to support Virginia films and filmmakers. Big Stone Gap could hardly fit the bill better: the drama is set in the southwest Virginia town of Big Stone Gap, it was filmed there, and it’s where writer and director Adriana Tragiani grew up. Advance tickets have already sold out, though a very limited number will be for sale at the door. But if you don’t make it to that one, don’t worry. There’s plenty more to watch.

KIELBASA: The festival can appear overwhelming to a lot of people, with over 125 films, and it’s like, ‘Where do I get started?’ We like to stress to people that the real fun of the festival is discovery.

Pick a film, any film, a documentary, a comedy, a drama, a short, whatever – you won’t go wrong. That said, here are two recommendations from festival programmer Wesley Harris.

WESLEY HARRIS: One that I might suggest, that I’m personally excited about, is a film called Buzzard for which we’re bringing in the director, Joel Potrykus. He already is a director to watch, and he’s going to be a director who’s known even more, I would think, in the next few years. And then we’re showing a film called Mommy that was one of two films to share the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. That is one that I would really direct people toward as well. It’s a film that I think a lot of people will know about pretty soon.

For the four-day festival’s full lineup, schedule, tickets and other information, check out virginiafilmfestival.org.

KIELBASA: We truly have just this incredible assembly of guest artists, many of whom are truly legends in the film world. It’s a really great opportunity to see these people, and to listen to them in a very accessible manner. So I hope everyone takes advantage of it. And, you know, at the end of the day, they’re films and they’re fun, and the festival is open to everybody, so we invite everybody to come on down.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.