November 5, 2008 — The Virginia Film Festival, a feast for movie lovers, has always included a healthy intellectual meal, too, with speakers, panel discussions and interviews with filmmakers and actors.
Still, when Andrea Press arrived in 2006 to take over the University of Virginia's Media Studies Program, she thought more could be done to strengthen the academic link between the University and the festival.
This year, thanks to a major gift, there was funding to bring in the inaugural Virginia Film Festival Fellow — an expert on the festival's theme who would moderate, teach and participate throughout the festival, which concluded Sunday.
Hamid Naficy, one of the most renowned scholars in the field of immigrant cinema, illuminated the festival's theme, "Aliens!," through talks and a special one-credit class.
The theme came from festival artistic director Richard Herskowitz, who was fascinated with the idea and the political consequences of the term "alien" as referring to immigrants and newcomers to America.
Herskowitz and Naficy, John Evans Professor of Communication at Northwestern University and author of "An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking," worked together to find films that would show how alien and immigrant filmmaking looks at issues of nostalgia, homesickness, loneliness and alienation in a strange new place.
"It had to do with questioning the term 'aliens' as applied to immigrants. It has connotations of being an invader rather than a new arrival, a future contributor," Herskowitz said.
"The term had potential to be both serious and playful, which is a prescription for a really good festival," he said. "People come to a festival not just to see movies, but to talk about the reasons behind making them. At the same time, people do want to have fun."
Over the course of the fall, Naficy and Herskowitz worked with Press to create a schedule for the festival and a one-week course around the "Aliens!" theme.
"For a long time, we've wanted to connect the film festival more closely to academic offerings, and I was charged with developing a curriculum for classes around the festival," Press said.
Out of that process came a short course, offered jointly by the Virginia Film Festival and the Department of Media Studies, called "Accented Cinema." The one-credit course, taught over five days, featured lectures, panel discussions and four film screenings.
Accented cinema, Naficy said, is the notion that immigrant and diaspora filmmakers make films that show who they are and where they came from, much as people's accents suggest their geographic origins.
Herskowitz described "filmmakers who cross borders, and what it means for the country, the national cinemas that they visit and inhabit. They make films in the nations they live in, but with an accent — traces of their homeland come through too."
Students' interest in the topic impressed and excited Press. "We had an amazing enrollment of 24 students, which for a night class with only one credit is really very high," she said.
After each film was screened, Naficy interviewed its creator. Among others, there was an interview with Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter of "Babel," a 2006 film starring Brad Pitt.
Filmmaker Ghazel, whose film "Home (Stories)" was screened at the festival, wasn't able to secure a visa to attend the festival because she is Iranian — a point not lost on Naficy.
"It's ironic, really, that a person cannot get to the United States for a festival about immigrant filmmakers," he said.
Instead, a post-screening interview was conducted over the Internet via a Skype video conference.
Many of the students who took the course were excited about the the subject.
"It was great to have an opportunity to study films that we would not be able to see," said Anne Larimer Hart, a third-year student in the media studies program. "It was a really short course, but it made me see the films and filmmakers in such a different way. Seeing that nostalgia for the life and country of the filmmakers was really interesting, and definitely changed how I see movies like that. … I will absolutely take the short course again next year."
Festival fellows are already being sought for the next two years. The academic opportunity the festival presents is unique, and one Herskowitz is excited to see develop.
"There are incredible faculty here at the University. But for the space of a week every year, U.Va and the film festival can import someone of international renown to teach a weeklong course, and the screenings can be done on the big screen of the festival. It's really going to enhance film studies at the University," he said.