'Extraordinary' Film Festival Gets Enthusiastic Reception

November 04, 2008
November 4, 2008 — Though the real exit polls were a couple of days away, informal polls conducted throughout Charlottesville last weekend showed that the 21st Annual Virginia Film Festival's favorability ratings have never been higher.

"This was an extraordinary festival in so many ways," said Richard Herskowitz, the festival's artistic director. "From our opening-night packed house for 'Lake City' to the remarkable roster of guest filmmakers and actors with whom the community was able to interact, to our success in working with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to expand the reach of our festival to the next generation of film lovers, to the huge success of our McCormick Observatory series and more, it was a weekend that will long live in the memories of all involved."

Attendance at screenings this year declined about 21 percent from last year, with approximately 7,800 tickets sold.

"According to the Los Angeles Times, movie attendance was down 37 percent nationwide this year in relation to last, which may have something to do with the Halloween weekend and the scary economy," said Herskowitz, who is bidding farewell after 15 years at the festival's helm. "Of course, we also had U.Va.'s Homecoming to compete with, so I am pleased with what we were able to accomplish, and most of all, pleased with the experiences we were able to deliver to this community. "

Opening Night Lights

The festival's opening night was a big hit, with Culbreth Theatre packed tight for an evening that included an exciting new film with deep Virginia roots, and plenty of star power to go around. "Lake City," produced by University of Virginia alumnus and Virginia Film Festival board chairman Mark Johnson and co-directed by fellow alum Perry Moore, featured the film's stars Sissy Spacek and Troy Garity, who were joined by Garity's mother, Jane Fonda.

Fonda, when asked about whether she had been to Charlottesville before, waved her hand and said, "Oh, I came to football games here in the '50s!"

Filmmakers in the Spotlight

Once again, filmmakers starred at the festival, with an international roster of some of the most respected names in the business descending on Charlottesville.

More than 500 Paramount moviegoers on Saturday night cheered long and hard at the conclusion of Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plain," a powerful intersecting family tale that marked the famed screenwriter's directorial debut.

Arriaga, in a post-screening discussion with Virginia Film Festival Fellow Hamid Naficy, shared his experiences going behind the camera for the first time and working with the film's stars, Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.

Fellow Mexican filmmaker Gregory Nava presented a 25th-anniversary screening of his famed "El Norte," including leading a "Shot by Shot" workshop on the film on Sunday.

Rising star filmmaker Sean Baker shared his unique films "Prince of Broadway" and "Take Out," which capture life in New York by using real locations and non-professional actors to achieve a level of realism rarely found with such limited budgets.

Richmond-based filmmaker Megan Holley, a former winner of the festival's Virginia Governor's Screenwriter Award, was responsible for one of this year's biggest audience hits. Her "Sunshine Cleaning" was one of the weekend's hottest tickets, selling out its Saturday evening screening.

The 'Peter Riegert Film Festival?'

Actor, screenwriter and director Peter Riegert was another favorite of festivalgoers, making time for audience and community members alike throughout the weekend to discuss his insights into his films, the business of movies and nearly any other topic under the sun.

Noting that he was able to present not only his famed leading role in the 25th-anniversary screening of "Local Hero" but also his own directorial efforts, "King of the Corner" and "By Courier," and his star turn in "The Response," Riegert was asked if he had a good Charlottesville experience.

After raving about the place and its people, he said, "You practically gave me my own film festival," he said, "So how could I not?"

A Memorable 'Response'

On Saturday afternoon, a nearly full house at the Downtown Regal became one of only a handful of audiences to experience "The Response," a half-hour film by actor/writer Sig Libowitz and starring Riegert, Kate Mulgrew and "The Daily Show's" Aasif Mandvi. The film, inspired by literal transcripts from hearings at Guantanamo Bay, captures the moral and literal complexities of the way we are handling detainees.

It was followed by a fascinating panel discussion that was three times as long as the film itself. The panel, led by Slate and Newsweek correspondent Dahlia Lithwick, included attorneys David Dickman of Venable LLP and Agnieszka Fryszmen of Cohem Milsteien, both of whom have defended detainees there.

One highlight of the discussion came when Libowitz told the story of a recent screening in Baltimore that was attended by two U.S. Special Forces soldiers who later told him they had come to protest the film, assuming it would be anti-government and anti-military in its approach. Not only did they end up praising the film and Libowitz for the film's fairness and importance, they each sent him "talismans" which are given by the military only to those who go above and beyond in their service to the country.

Libowitz held up these talismans, a piece of barbed wire from Guantanamo Bay and a small stone that came from Tower 2 of the World Trade Center, for the audience to see.

Observatory Takes Festival to New Heights

The opening night rebroadcast of Orson Welles' famed "War of the Worlds" radio play was just the beginning of a fascinating weekend at the "McCormick Observatory Microcinema."

Audiences headed to the unique venue each day of the weekend to enjoy the work of groundbreaking experimental filmmakers and experts, including George and Mike Kuchar, Jeanne Liotta, Craig Baldwin and Ed Halter.

Back to Schools: Film Festival Earns Extra Credit

This year the festival went back to school in a big way by reaching out to local students in a way it never had before.

Thanks to a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, students from around the area were invited into the process through a number of events that included visits to schools by filmmakers and a special screening of "Bad Day at Black Rock" that drew more than 200 from Charlottesville High School.

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena, one of the festival's "Focus On" directors, wrote in: "An unexpected highlight for me was the Charlottesville High School English as a Second Language class. They'd seen 'My America' (or at least the G-rated parts). I was a bit worried — an older rather talky film for newly arrived teenagers from Burundi, Burma, Nicaragua, Russia, etc. But from the moment I walked in, they had rapid-fire questions and conversation. Remember Toni Cade Bambara's concept of the 'authenticating audience?' Sometimes they appear when you least expect it."

Adrenaline: Ready for Prime Time

This year, one of the festival's annual highlights made a move to prime time, and with outstanding results. The Adrenaline Film Project celebrated its fifth year of highly caffeinated filmmaking by moving from its traditional Sunday afternoon Newcomb Theater slot to a Saturday night screening at Culbreth.

The house was packed to the rafters, and enjoyed what many have called the best array yet of films, highlighted by jury award winner "They Will Come for You" (Brendon Marotta, David Webster and Una Webster), audience award winner "Girl-Powered" (Ashley Chipman, Alex Campbell and Jocelyn Spaar), and mentors award winner "Paper or Plastic" (Bernard Hankins, Conor Clark and Jonathan Sharp).

The Virginia Film Festival is hosted by the University of Virginia. For information on the Virginia Film Festival and the year-round activities and events of the Virginia Film Society, visit www.vafilm.com.