UVA Ties Run Deep for These Filmmakers

November 1, 2022 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

It’s no secret that many people affiliated with the University of Virginia have behind-the-scenes roles in the annual Virginia Film Festival. It is a UVA-sponsored program, after all.

This year’s festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sunday, features several directorial debuts and films made by UVA alumni, faculty and staff.

The alumni credit their educations at the University for much of their successes in the film industry. More than 50 faculty members are participating in events as moderators and panelists, with almost all film screenings followed by discussions.

“One of the things that truly sets the Virginia Film Festival apart is its deep connections to the University of Virginia, which serve to inform and enrich so much of what we do each and every year,” UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, who directs the film festival, said. “The Virginia Film Festival is immeasurably better for these connections and we are proud to showcase them once again this year.”

The full 2022 program includes dozens of films shown at various locations. Here are several selections with UVA connections:

Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, who met at UVA, produced and directed “Refuge,” about Clarkston, Georgia, where refugees have built a peaceful community.

“Refuge,” Saturday, 5 p.m., Vinegar Hill Theatre

Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, who produced and directed the film, met at UVA more than 15 years ago and began working on the documentary after their paths crossed in Atlanta. When well-known journalist and UVA alumna Katie Couric found out about the project, she decided to support it as executive producer.

Bernhardt said Couric has been a role model for her since she was young.

“It’s been wonderful having her be part of this journey,” said Bernhardt, who is looking forward to meeting Couric in person for the first time when the three of them discuss the film after the screening.

Bernhardt, a 2007 history and government double major, was working at the Atlanta nonprofit Points of Light when she saw television coverage of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and on the Grounds on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Shortly after, she quit her job.

“I decided I wanted to make a film about the opposite of hate,” said Bernhardt, a former Peace Corps worker. When a UVA friend, Din Blankenship, had moved to Atlanta, Bernhardt enlisted her help. Blankenship, an architect-turned-filmmaker, had designed transitional shelters for refugees. She, too, felt called to action, she said.

Bernhardt decided to focus their film on the Georgia town of Clarkston.

“We set out to capture a story that could help us understand the roots of hate, specifically American white nationalism,” Blankenship added. “The story that we captured … also shows us what a path toward healing looks like.”

Bernhardt said they’re coming full circle. “This started because of Charlottesville, and now, to be showing it in Charlottesville – that’s pretty amazing. We hope to awaken people’s empathy and open their hearts and minds to people who are different from them.”

The film will be released nationwide in theaters and streaming services in spring 2023.

“Headwaters Down,” Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Culbreth Theatre

The film’s three directors – Will Gemma, Justin Black and Dietrich Teschner – “met and started creating together during their time at UVA,” Gemma said. The strong bonds they formed helped them on this project, in which “three Hoos paddle the James, make a movie,” as the tagline for one of the posters says.

It’s not just an adventure or environmental film, however.

It’s also about friendship, according to Gemma, who lives in Richmond. “My time at UVA was more than just an influence on ‘Headwaters Down’ – the film wouldn’t exist without it,” he said of the trio who graduated in 2011.

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“Those were special years [at UVA], when we had the time and flexibility to build our friendship while learning how to work together creatively – a priceless dynamic in any long-term project,” Gemma said recently.

“A decade later, the foundation we built was strong enough to support the highs and lows of making our first film with no budget and no filmmaking experience.”

The James, once known as one of most polluted American rivers, now is considered one of the most resilient, the filmmakers say, but its health is still in jeopardy. Paddling their canoes for 250 miles over 13 days, the three alums and two other friends from Richmond show “how much fun and beauty can be found on the James River,” Gemma said.

“While educating about the river is important, what we show and say hits most powerfully through the lens of just being out there.”

Two people sitting on couches across from each other not talking with balloons around them
UVA alumnus Jamie Sisley brings his first feature-length film, “Stay Awake,” and two of its stars, Chrissy Metz and Wyatt Oleff, to the festival.

“Stay Awake,” Friday, 8 p.m., Paramount Theater

Another alumnus and Virginia native, Jamie Sisley, wrote and directed his first feature film, about two sons dealing with their mother’s pill addiction.

Studying business at the McIntire School of Commerce taught him about leadership, “a cornerstone for being a director,” he said.

“The ability to motivate large groups of people with varying needs that oftentimes conflict with each other – those are leadership practices that I first started exploring while at McIntire.”

He said he learned from his professors and staff, who were not only great teachers, but also strong leaders. “I feel like leadership is often taught by example, and they all set wonderful examples that left an impression on me,” Sisley said.

“The Virginia Film Festival was instrumental in opening my eyes to how diverse cinema and cinematic voices can be,” he said. He’ll have a discussion about the film afterward with two of the film’s stars, Chrissy Metz and Wyatt Oleff, moderated by USA Today critic Brian Truitt.

Sisley also will be presented the Gov. Gerald L. Baliles Founder’s Award, which recognizes filmmaking and filmmakers with roots in Virginia.

“The Lives Between the Lines” documentary presents the making of UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

“The Lives Between the Lines,” Sunday, 2 p.m., Vinegar Hill Theatre

Created by video producers Erik Duda and Vinny Varsalona, the documentary tells how the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA came to be, and what it means for some of the Black residents and descendants who are still part of the University community. The memorial honors those who helped build and operate the University in its early days.

Discussion after the documentary will include film subjects Cauline Yates, DeTeasa Gathers and Mike Spence. The discussion will be moderated by Kirt von Daacke, UVA professor of history and American studies, who served as co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and is now director of the Gibbons Project, which continues that work.

“Dani’s Twins,” Thursday, 5 p.m., Culbreth Theatre

This documentary tells the remarkable story of Virginia resident Dani Izzie, who, in 2020 at UVA Medical Center, became one of the first quadriplegics to give birth to twins. The film aims to show the challenges she and her husband, Rudy, faced that people with disabilities, and especially wheelchair users, try to overcome.

animation dinosaur and boy looking at each other
Produced by UVA alumna Julie Lynn, “My Father’s Dragon” was co-written by Meg LeFauve, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of the Pixar hit “Inside/Out.”

Family Fun: “My Father’s Dragon,” Saturday, 10 a.m., Paramount Theater

This animated feature is based on the fantastical 1948 children’s book; the screenplay was co-written by Meg LeFauve, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of the Pixar hit “Inside/Out.” UVA alumna and producer Julie Lynn, a VAFF Advisory Board member, will be on hand with LeFauve, director Nora Twomey and others for a discussion after the screening. Along with this film, Lynn has produced more than a dozen films that have appeared in the festival. The Advisory Board also will present the Screenwriting Achievement Award to LeFauve.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications