Virginia Film Festival Begins Oct. 30

October 29, 2008

October 30, 2008 — The aliens are landing!

The 21st annual  Virginia Film Festival, with the theme "Aliens!", opens tonight. The weekend-long event will feature 80 films and more than 100 guests covering the spectrum of the alien experience, from immigrants to outsiders to extra-terrestrials.

The guest list for the 21st annual event includes an international array of some of the most highly respected artists in the film industry today, including Mauritanian-French director Abderrahmane Sissako (screening "Waiting for Happiness" and "Life on Earth") and Mexican-American director Gregory Nava, here for the 25th anniversary presentation of "El Norte."

Also celebrating its 25th anniversary is Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero," presented by actor Peter Riegert, who plays an American alien in Scotland. Riegert will also accompany "The Response," a powerful new film dramatizing the legal proceedings against a Guantanamo detainee.

Charlottesville resident Sissy Spacek will also be a special guest, accompanying the film, "Lake City," to be screened tonight. Emmy-nominated actor David Morse will appear with his new film, "Passengers," Friday night.

For the updated schedule and ticket information, visit or call 800-UVA-FEST (800-882-3378).

For the second year, the festival will explore the work of several emerging and established filmmakers in depth, with multiple screenings of films by a group of "Focus On” directors headlined by Mexico's Guillermo Arriaga.

Arriaga will screen several of his filmed screenplays, including "Amores Perros," "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and "Babel," culminating with the Virginia premiere of his first feature as director, "The Burning Plain," starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.

Other "Focus On" directors include:
•    Director Sean Baker ("Prince of Broadway," "Take Out")
•    Screenwriter and director Megan Holley ("Sunshine Cleaning," "The Snowflake Crusade")
•    Underground film pioneers George and Mike Kuchar ("Secrets of the Shadow World," "Blips," "Ascension of the Demonoids," "Death Quest of the Ju-Ju Cults," "Sins of the Fleshapoids")
•    Feature director and media artist Alex Rivera ("Sleep Dealer," "The Sixth Section," "Why Cybraceros?," "The Borders Trilogy")
•    Documentarian Renee Tajima-Pena ("Calavera Highway," "Who Killed Vincent Chin?," "My America ... or Honk If You Love Buddha").

The program is packed with regional premieres of films that have been making waves on the international festival scene, including "Waltz with Bashir," "August Evening," "The Betrayal," "The Secret of the Grain," "The Exiles" and "A Jihad for Love."

Virginia Filmmaking: Natives, Emigres, and Immigrants

While the focus will be on the theme of outsiders, "Aliens!" will also feature a uniquely Virginian flavor. In the course of examining the concept of migration, festival director Richard Herskowitz discovered a wealth of riches in the work of Virginia emigres.

"We have a long history of featuring on opening night the work of filmmakers whose roots are in Virginia, and who have left but returned to make or show their films here," he said, citing Nicole Kassell's "The Woodsman," Derek Sieg's "Swedish Auto" and Jeff Wadlow's "Tower of Babble" as precedents.

"We are proud to continue this tradition with 'Lake City,' a wonderful film with a history rooted not only in Virginia, but in the festival itself."

The film's New York-based co-director, Perry Moore, first met its producer, Mark Johnson ("Diner," "Rain Man" and "The Chronicles of Narnia"), at the Virginia Film Festival in the early 1990s. The two U.Va. alumni were joined by a third, Weiman Seid, who became one of "Lake City's" executive producers.

Together, they decided to film the Southern gothic tale, about a buried family tragedy and its resonances in the relationship between a mother and her troubled son, in Richmond, Va.

The film's local roots run even deeper, thanks to the starring roles played by Charlottesvillians Spacek and Dave Matthews. Co-star Troy Garity, Moore, Johnson and Seid will attend the screening.

There is more work by artists with ties to Virginia:

•    The festival will present the regional premiere of the Sundance hit "Sunshine Cleaning," which producer Glenn Williamson, another U.Va. alumnus, discovered when its author, Richmond's Megan Holley, won the Governor's Screenwriting Award at the 2003 Virginia Film Festival.

•    The festival slate will also feature the American premiere of "Little White Feather and The Hunter," a film on Pocahantas and the English constructed from verbal accounts gathered by British artist Anna Lucas from people in Harwich and Essex in the U.K, and Jamestown. "Little White Feather" will be accompanied by the latest film by Derek Sieg , "Wasteland," a contemporary tale of whites and Native Americans in commercial conflict.

•    Charlottesville audiences will get a chance to see on screen the controversial animated film about a former U.Va. mascot, "The Great Seal of Virginia," by alumni Irwin Berman, Michael Wartella and Sam Retzer.

•    The spotlight will shine on "Moviemaking in Virginia" in the Virginia Film Office's special presentation of Robert Griffith's new documentary on the film scene in the Commonwealth, accompanied by winning shorts from the Virginia Independent Film Festival.

'Aliens!': The Immigration Axis

"As I started thinking about the 'Aliens!' theme, I was struck by the different meanings of this word," Herskowitz said. "What ended up evolving was a two-pronged approach, with one axis covering the extraterrestrial visitor and another looking at issues related to the 'illegal immigrant.'

"The latter kind of alien is certainly playing an outsized role in the current political season, and it seemed worth finding films that will allow audiences to question and debate the use of the term in defining Mexican, Arab and other immigrant populations."

The festival's "immigration axis" will be highlighted by:

•    Gregory Nava presenting a 25th anniversary screening of his groundbreaking work "El Norte," which he will also explore in depth in the annual Regal Cinema shot-by-shot workshop. Nava's work will be complemented by a series of new films about Mexican undocumented workers, including "My Life Inside," Lucia Gaja's scathing look at the railroading of a Latino immigrant woman by the Texas judicial system, and "August Evening," Chris Eska's Cassavetes Award-winning indie feature on generational ties and tensions within an immigrant family. Also, "Focus On" director Alex Rivera will screen his futuristic sci-fi films about Mexican immigrant labor, Sundance hit "Sleep Dealer" and his short video pieces, "The Sixth Section," "Why Cybraceros?," and "The Border Trilogy."

•    Abderrahmane Sissako, the Mauritanian director living in Paris, whose work reflects the insights and challenges of a life lived in exile. Sissako will present his films "Life on Earth" and "Waiting for Happiness."

•    Peter Riegert, celebrating a 25th anniversary of his own with "Local Hero," in which Riegert played an American business representative adrift in Scotland. Riegert will also accompany writer Sig Libowitz with "The Response," a new film in which he co-stars with Kate Mulgrew. The film follows the hearings against an Arab detainee using actual transcripts from the Guantanamo proceedings, and will be followed by a panel discussion on the Guantanamo tribunals led by Slate legal writer Dahlia Lithwick. Riegert will also present two films that he directed, "King of the Corner" and "By Courier."

•    Ghazel, a noted Iranian-French video and performance artist, will appear at the festival via Skype hookup. Ghazel became even more relevant to the theme when she encountered what she deemed to be humiliating and unreasonable visa roadblocks from U.S. immigration personnel due to her Iranian heritage and canceled her festival visit.

•    Two "Focus On" directors explore contemporary immigrant life and struggles in the U.S: Renee Tajima-Pena examines Asian-American identity in "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" and "My America ... Honk if You Love Buddha" and the cross-border family tensions of her Mexican husband in "Calavera Highway." Sean Baker creates semi-documentary fictions about New York immigrant life with non-professional actors in "Prince of Broadway" and "Take Out."

•    Classic films about outsiders by immigrant directors include two films made by Spanish director Luis Bunuel in Mexico, "Los Olvidados" and "Nazarin," and Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's "Cat People," a horror classic about a Serbian immigrant with a secret. Other immigrant-themed classics include Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," "West Side Story" and "Bad Day at Black Rock" (presented by director John Sturges' son, Charlottesville resident Michael Sturges).

Also key to this sub-theme will be a keynote talk today by the first Virginia Film Festival Fellow, Hamid Naficy, an internationally acclaimed film scholar and the John Evans, a communications professor at Northwestern University.

"We are thrilled to have one of the world's foremost experts on exilic, diasporic and ethnic filmmaking joining us this year to illuminate the festival theme for students and our broader audience," Herskowitz said.

'Aliens!': The Extra-Terrestrial Axis

The festival invites visitors to comb the skies for alien invaders at its created-for-the-festival "McCormick Observatory Cinema," which will play the Orson Welles/H.G. Wells radio play "War of the Worlds" on Thursday -- its 70th anniversary..

The 1950s George Pal film of the same name will be shown later that night in Culbreth Theatre, introduced by Pal biographer Justin Humphreys.

The McCormick Observatory Cinema series will continue with sci-fi and space films by George and Mike Kuchar and Jeanne Liottta and programs curated by Ed Halter of Light Industry/New York and Craig Baldwin of Other Cinema in San Francisco.

No look at aliens would be complete without "Aliens," and the acclaimed 1986 film heads the list of classic sci-fi favorites to be offered throughout the weekend.

"Aliens" will join the superb "Star Trek" sendup "Galaxy Quest" as the festival's two-part tribute to the late Stan Winston, the special effects master and Virginia Film Festival board member who died earlier this year.

Also on the sci-fi classics list will be "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," screening in the theater of the new Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va.

Bring the Family

After a wildly successful debut in 2007, the Virginia Film Festival will bring back "Family Day" on Saturday. Presented in conjunction with the Virginia Discovery Museum, the event will feature a pair of programs at The Paramount Theater with a budget-friendly rate of $1 per ticket for children under 12.

Also, the Discovery Museum will offer free admission for children (ages 1-12) from 2:30 to 5 p.m. and sponsor a 10:30 a.m. free screening of the animated "Zula Patrol" at Cityspace.

Festival favorites Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton will be joined by Paul Reisler, Terri Allard and the students of Kid Pan Alley to accompany silent films with live music, including songs by Charlottesville schoolchildren. This year's program, titled "Strangers in Strange Lands," will feature fantasy films by Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter and Charlie Chaplin.

Director Meni Tsirbas will introduce the 4 p.m. regional premiere of "Terra," the spectacular new CGI animated feature about a lush, peace-loving planet whose world is shattered by an invading armada of humans. The film includes the voices of Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson and Dennis Quaid.

The festival continues another favorite tradition of silent films at Scottsville's Victory Theatre with "The Mark of Zorro," accompanied by Matt Marshall.

Panels and Classes

•    Adrenaline Film Project: The high-energy, 72-hour film school goes "after dark" for the first time as Jeff Wadlow and Beau Bauman present the fruits of three days of non-stop writing, shooting and editing by 12 talented and thoroughly exhausted filmmaking teams. (Saturday, 10 p.m., Culbreth Theatre).

•    Darden Producers Forum: This annual festival highlight will feature Temple Fennell, co-founder of ATO Pictures, who will discuss independent film financing and take questions. ( today, 1:20 p.m., Darden School of Business).

•    "Gender, Race and Film": Naficy and Andrea Press, Film Festival executive director and chairwoman of U.Va.'s Media Studies Program, lead a discussion with guest speakers from the festival program. (Friday, 3 p.m., Campbell Hall 160).

•    Regal Shot by Shot Workshop conducted by director Gregory Nava on his film, "El Norte." (Sunday, 10 a.m., Regal Downtown 4).

•    New Media and New Immigrants: A demonstration and panel on two new media productions exploring the current immigration debate. "ICED" is Breakthrough TV's online video game recreating the experience of surviving as an immigrant to the U.S., and "9500 Liberty" is a YouTube, MySpace and upcoming feature documentary on the immigration clashes in Prince William County, Va. (Saturday, 10 a.m., Vinegar Hill Theatre; free.).

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