Virginia Film Festival to Celebrate 30th Anniversary With Star-Studded Lineup

Crowd listening to people talking on stage during the Virginia Film Festival

The Virginia Film Festival regularly draws capacity crowds to Charlottesville for film screenings, discussion sections and workshops. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

September 26, 2017

The Virginia Film Festival will celebrate its 30th year on Nov. 9-12 with a stellar lineup of more than 150 films and an array of special guests, including Academy Award-winning filmmakers Spike Lee and Ezra Edelman, Emmy Award-winning actor William H. Macy and noted author Margot Lee Shetterly.

The Virginia Film Festival is a program of the University of Virginia and its Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts.

In an announcement Tuesday night at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia Film Festival Director and UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa announced the first wave of programming and special guests for the 2017 festival.

“We are incredibly excited to share this first announcement regarding our 2017 program,” Kielbasa said, “which we believe captures the things that set us apart, and that contribute to our rising profile on the national and international festival scene.

“Once again, our audiences will be able to choose from a program of extraordinary depth and breadth, including some of the hottest titles on the current festival circuit, fascinating documentaries that address and comment on the most important topics of our time, the latest work from some of the newest and most exciting voices on the filmmaking scene and the best of filmmaking from around the world and right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

This year’s special guests will include the previously announced Spike Lee, who will be on hand as part of “Race in America,” a special series presented by the festival in partnership with James Madison’s Montpelier and its recent exhibition, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.”

Lee will present his Oscar-nominated documentary, “4 Little Girls,” about one of America’s most despicable hate crimes: the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama that took the lives of four African-American girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robinson, and Cynthia Wesley. He will also present “I Can’t Breathe,” a short video piece that combines footage of the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City Police Department with footage of the similar death of the Radio Raheem character in Lee’s iconic 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing.”

“We are honored to welcome Spike Lee back to Charlottesville and to the University of Virginia,” Kielbasa said. “His remarkable body of work and tireless pursuit of social justice make him an important presence for us any time, but we are particularly pleased to bring him here in the wake of recent events that have impacted us all so deeply and that continue to fuel a national conversation about issues that deeply divide us as a nation.”

William H. Macy comes to the festival for the first time to present a new film. “Krystal,” which Macy directed and stars in, is about a young man who, despite having never had a drink in his life, joins Alcoholics Anonymous in an attempt to woo the woman of his dreams, an ex-stripper who is dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction, played by Rosario Dawson.

“William H. Macy is quite simply one of the finest actors working today,” Kielbasa said. “He has such a unique ability to breathe life into characters in a way that makes them truly unforgettable, and we could not be more excited to bring him to the festival.”

Ezra Edelman’s landmark five-part documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” took a powerful look at the case of O.J. Simpson against the context of the powder keg of racial tension that helped vault this story from a celebrity-based murder case to a watershed moment in America’s ongoing struggle with race. The festival will present the series in its entirety, with a conversation with Edelman following the final episode.

“Particularly in this year,” Kielbasa said, “when we are partnering with Montpelier on the ‘Race in America’ series and when issues of race are sadly, but rightfully, in the forefront of our national conversation, Ezra Edelman is a tremendously important voice to share with our audiences, and we are proud to have him here to present and discuss a project that is groundbreaking in so many ways.”

The 2017 Virginia Film Festival guest list will include more than 100 filmmakers and more than 150 films, representing a diverse program illustrating the broad spectrum of cinema.

For a full schedule and complete information regarding the Virginia Film Festival, visit Tickets will go on sale online Friday at 12:01 a.m.; in-person at the UVA Arts Box Office in the lobby of the UVA Drama Building, open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m.; and via phone at 434-924-3376.

Among the festival’s highlights:

Opening Night Film

The festival will open with Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” a science fiction “dramedy” about a group of people exploring the possibility of dramatically reducing their footprints on the world through miniaturization. The film stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau.

“This is the third time we have opened the festival with a film by Alexander Payne, following up on ‘Nebraska’ in 2013 and ‘The Descendants’ in 2011,” Kielbasa said. “’Downsizing’ was one of the highlights of my recent Telluride Film Festival experience and embraces so many themes that are central to all of our lives today, including acceptance and environmental awareness.”

The screening will be followed by a conversation with the film’s Academy Award-winning producer Mark Johnson, who chairs the festival’s board of directors..

Centerpiece Film – “Hostiles” (Featuring Director Scott Cooper)

In 1892, U.S. Army Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (played by Christian Bale) is ordered to escort an ailing long-time prisoner, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family across hostile territory back to his Cheyenne homeland to die in this gritty and powerful new Western from director Scott Cooper that also stars Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster and Jesse Plemons. Fresh from a world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, the film is a powerful meditation on hatred and the common bonds that can bring together even the staunchest of foes. Cooper, a Virginia native and Independent Spirit Award winner for his film, “Crazy Heart,” will be on hand for a discussion of the film on the Paramount Theater stage.

Race In America - Presented with James Madison’s Montpelier

This year, the festival will partner with James Madison’s Montpelier for “Race in America,” a series of films and discussions inspired by and built around Montpelier’s acclaimed “Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibition and its ongoing commitment to exploring its own legacy of slavery, including the recreation of slave dwellings on its historic property. In addition to “4 Little Girls,” the films in the series will include:

“An Outrage” – This documentary by Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren about lynching in the American South was filmed on location at lynching sites in six states and is bolstered by the memories and perspectives of descendants, community activists and scholars, creating a hub for action to remember and reflect upon a long-hidden past.

“Birth of a Movement”This story is based on William Monroe Trotter, the nearly forgotten editor of a Black Boston newspaper and his 1915 campaign to ban D.W. Griffith’s deeply divisive “Birth of a Nation” – highlighting the early stages of still-raging battles over media representation, freedom of speech and the influence of Hollywood.

Confession Tapes” – The festival will present an episode from Netflix’s true crime documentary series called “8th and H” about a notorious 1984 murder case in Washington, D.C., in which a group of eight teens were unjustly convicted and remain in prison to this day largely due to a connection to a “gang” that never actually existed.

“Hidden Figures” – Noted author and UVA alumna Margot Lee Shetterly will be at the festival to present the Oscar-nominated 2016 film based on her celebrated book about three brilliant African-American women at NASA – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit.

“O.J.: Made in America” – Ezra Edelman’s Emmy- and Academy Award-winning, five-part documentary chronicles the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, whose high-profile murder trial exposed the extent of American racial tensions, revealing a fractured and divided nation.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” – Co-directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams, this film examines the impact historically black colleges and universities have had on American history, culture and national identity. The screening will be followed by a conversation with Williams, the film’s producer and co-director.

The Miller Center

This year, the Virginia Film Festival is again partnering with the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of UVA that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history, and strives to apply the lessons of history and civil discourse to the nation’s most pressing contemporary governance challenges.

The series will include a 30th anniversary screening of “Broadcast News,” the 1987 romantic comedy that took a clear-eyed, satirical look at the concept of “fake news” long before the phrase was vaulted into the American lexicon in the 2016 election. The screening will be followed by a conversation with retired news reporter and anchor Jim Lehrer and longtime CBS News correspondent and current UVA media studies professor Wyatt Andrews about the concepts of truth and veracity in our rapidly changing news landscape.

This year’s Miller Center series will also feature a screening of an episode from “The Vietnam War,” the 18-part PBS documentary series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial eras in American history. Novick will take part in a post-screening discussion with Marc Selverstone, associate professor and chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program.


The Virginia Film Office recently added another title to its growing résumé when Showtime announced that its award-winning series, “Homeland,” would film its upcoming seventh season in the commonwealth. The festival will give its audience a sneak peek at an upcoming episode of the show, followed by a conversation with its director, Lesli Linka Glatter.

Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership

The festival and UVA’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership are launching a new partnership this year with a special screening of the 1972 Michael Ritchie film “The Candidate,” starring Robert Redford. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion that will include political consultant and longtime CNN contributor Paul Begala, who returns to the festival after his 2016 post-screening discussion of the D.A. Pennebaker classic documentary, “The War Room.

“Charlottesville: Our Streets”

The tragic events surrounding the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 captured the world’s attention. In the course of the ongoing national discussion, “Charlottesville” has become a national flashpoint and springboard for conversation and contentious debate across the nation and in the highest levels of government.

Sometimes lost in the ensuing and ongoing controversy is the fact that these events happened to a community and its people. With that in mind, the festival reached out to a variety of local filmmakers and concerned citizens who put themselves on the front lines throughout that weekend, and encouraged them to create a documentary that captures the harrowing events that happened here in Charlottesville. The result is “Charlottesville: Our Streets,” directed by Brian Wimer and written by Jackson Landers. The film features the brave and unflinching eyes and impressive talents of many members of a Charlottesville filmmaking community that has come together to tell their city’s stories through its own eyes.

The Festival and the Library of Congress Celebrate the National Film Registry

The festival continues its partnership with the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, presenting a series of films that celebrate the National Film Registry and the campus’ dedication to film preservation. This year’s lineup will include the Mike Nichols 1967 coming-of-age classic, “The Graduate”; Hal Ashby’s 1971 romantic black comedy, “Harold and Maude”; and Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 silent film, “The Immigrant.”

Silent Films

The festival will revisit its longstanding tradition of presenting silent films with live musical accompaniment with a pair of programs featuring the music of Matthew Marshall and the Reel Music Trio. A special 100th anniversary screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” features Chaplin in one of his most famous roles – as an immigrant who endures a challenging voyage, only to face even more trouble when he gets to America.

This program will also feature two more of Chaplin’s most beloved two-reelers, “Easy Street” and “The Adventurer,” also celebrating their 100th anniversaries.

Additionally, the festival will present a rare treat with a late-night Paramount Theater screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film, “The Lodger,” about a Jack The Ripper-style killing spree in London with a chilling original score performed by Marshall.

Ben Mankiewicz

Longtime Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz returns to the festival to host discussions around a number of screenings, including “The Graduate,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Immigrant,” “The Lodger” and more.

“The Rookie” (with John Lee Hancock)

The festival will present a 15th anniversary screening of “The Rookie,” al true story starring Dennis Quaid as a high school baseball coach whose career and life takes an improbable turn when he promises his team that if they make the playoffs, he will attend a major league tryout. The screening will be followed by a conversation with the film’s director, John Lee Hancock, who directed “The Blind Side” and “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and screenwriter Mike Rich, who worked on “Finding Forrester” and “Secretariat.”

Shot-by-Shot Workshop

For this 30th anniversary year, the festival is reviving its Shot-by-Shot Workshop. Created and presented for many years by the late Roger Ebert, the workshop offers movie lovers a rare chance to enjoy live commentary on classic films by leading film experts. This year’s presentation will be “Harold and Maude,” presented by Nick Dawson, biographer of the film’s legendary director, Hal Ashby.

Honoring Veterans

As the nation marks Veterans Day weekend, the festival will host a series of military-themed presentations. In addition to “The Vietnam War,” the series will include “Last Flag Flying,” Richard Linklater’s latest film, which stars Steve Carrell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston as a trio of Vietnam vets who reunite to bury one of their sons, who was killed in action in Iraq. The friends accompany the young man’s casket on a trip through coastal New Hampshire, reminiscing about and coming to terms with the shared memories of a war that continues to shape their lives.

The festival will also present “American Veteran,” a new documentary from director Julie Cohen about U.S. Army Sgt. Nick Mendes, who was paralyzed from the neck down by a massive improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011, when he was only 21 years old. The film follows Mendes from the earliest days of his recovery, as he learns to eat and breathe on his own, to his life today with wife Mandy, whom he met when she worked as one of his caregivers. The film shows a nuanced portrait of a quadriplegic soldier’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes romantic, and often surprisingly funny life.

Spotlight Screenings

  • The Ballad of Lefty Brown” – Director Jared Moshe’s American Western tells the story of Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman), a 65-year-old cowboy who, after a lifetime of riding in the shadows of Western legend Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), is forced by tragedy to emerge from the shadows and face the harsh realities of frontier justice.
  • Breath” – Set on the coast of Australia in the mid-1970’s, Simon Baker’s directorial debut tells the story of two teenage boys who forge a friendship with an older, elusive pro surfer who introduces them to the thrill of riding the waves and living in the moment.
  • Call Me by Your Name” – Based on the acclaimed novel by André Aciman, Luca Guadagnino’s transcendent coming-of-age film follows two young men who fall for each other in northern Italy during the early 1980s. With a screenplay by James Ivory, the film features a masterful turn by actor Armie Hammer.


  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” – From award-winning director Steve James comes this saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family, owners of the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
  • The Challenge” – Desert landscapes dotted with private jets, pet cheetahs and souped-up Ferraris provide the backdrop of Italian visual artist Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the surreal world of wealthy Qatari sheikhs with a passion for amateur falconry.
  • “Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies” – Amanda Ladd Jones presents the untold story of her father, Alan Ladd Jr., the former 20th Century Fox chairman who green-lit “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and many more of the biggest films in movie history. It features interviews with Mel Brooks, Ben Affleck, Richard Donner, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott and numerous others.
  • “Word is Bond” – Director Sacha Jenkins will present his documentary that tells the never-before-told story about the writers and journalists who created and shaped the language for hip-hop culture.

Health and Wellbeing Documentaries

“Ask the Sexpert” - Director Vishali Sinha presents a story of popular 93-year-old Mumbai sex-ed columnist Dr. Watsa, whose brand of non-moralistic advice and humor has emboldened many to write in questions against the backdrop of a sex education ban in schools that has been adopted by one-third of India’s states.

  • “Bending the Arc” – An team of doctors and activists work to save lives in a rural Haitian village. Through interviews and on-the-ground footage shot in the midst of a deadly epidemic, directors Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos are immersed in the 30-year struggle of these fiercely dedicated people as they fight ancient diseases.
  • “My Kid is Not Crazy” – Depicting a medical system heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, this documentary unpacks the fierce disagreement that occurs among families in addressing youth mental illness. Treated with antipsychotic medication, behavioral therapy and even hospitalization, years of misdiagnosis leave these children with irrecoverable consequences for the rest of their lives.
  • “Starfish” – Writer Tom Ray’s picture-perfect life falls apart in a single moment when he succumbs to a devastating illness and loses his hands, lower legs and part of his face after contracting septicemia. This true story chronicles Tom and his wife Nicola’s efforts to keep their family together against long odds. The film will include a conversation with Nick Springer, a quadruple amputee who has gone on to star as a paralympic rugby player.

Spotlight on Virginia Filmmaking

The festival will shine a spotlight on a collection of films that were made in Virginia or have roots in the commonwealth. Titles include:

  • “Afrikana Film Festival” – The festival is proud to partner with the Richmond-based Afrikana Film Festival for a program of films dedicated to showcasing cinematic works of people of color from around the world, with a special focus on the global black narrative.
  • “Best of Film at Mason/Best of VCU Arts” – As the state’s official film festival, the Virginia Film Festival will salute some of Virginia’s finest young filmmakers from George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University.
  • “Double Dummy” – Producer and bridge enthusiast John McAllister offers a behind-the-scenes look at the competitive world of youth bridge and the relationships forged by the game around the world.
  • “The Ruination of Lovell Coleman” – This short documentary from Ross McDermott tells the story of a 93-year-old fiddle player from Charlottesville. Combining footage of his performances with animation and interviews about his unique musical career, the film focuses on his many years of playing at local nursing homes.
  • “Scenes with Ivan” – Local filmmakers Doug and Judy Bari chronicle their son Ivan’s life from his birth in 1985 to the present. They spent two years sifting through hundreds of hours of footage they had shot, but never before looked at. In the process, they discovered forgotten moments of what makes a life, and how things come full circle.

International Films

Continuing its track record of showcasing top cinema from around the world, the festival will spotlight nine films recently submitted by their countries for consideration in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category at the 2018 Academy Awards.

  • “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile) – Director Sebastián Lelio’s portrait of grief about a young transgender waitress who faces scorn and discrimination after the sudden death of her older boyfriend.
  • “Happy End” (Austria) – The latest from noted Austrian director and two-time Palme D’Or-winner Michael Haneke highlights the cultural blindness and savage indifference of a bourgeois European family in Calais consumed by its own “struggles” as the migrant crisis rages around them.
  • (Russia) – A couple in the midst of a vicious divorce must come together to lead the search for their missing son in this eerie thriller from Andre Zviagintsev (“Leviathan”) that highlights a single harrowing story as well as the corruption and moral desolation of modern-day Russia.
  • (Estonia) – A mixture of magic, black humor and romantic love, “November” is the story of pagan villagers raging against bitter winter, werewolves, the plague and evil spirits.
  • “Song of Granite” (Ireland) – This life story of renowned traditional Irish folk singer Joe Heaney from director Pat Collins combines documentary footage of the singer with masterful performances and gorgeous cinematography that highlights the Irish countryside to tell a story that celebrates cultural diversity.
  • “Summer 1993” (Spain) – Director Carla Simon’s feature debut is a poignant look at a 6-year-old girl who has to leave all she knows behind following her mother’s death as she moves to the countryside and struggles to adjust to a new life with her uncle and his family.
  • “Tom of Finland” (Finland) – Director Dome Karukoski brings to life the story of Touko Laaksonen, a decorated World War II officer who returns home after serving his country only to find that country rife with homophobic persecution. He finds refuge in liberating and inhibition-free art that makes him one of the most celebrated and influential figures in 20th-century gay culture.
  • “White Sun” (Nepal) – This gripping portrait of post-civil war Nepal during the fragile deadlocked peace process follows an anti-regime partisan who confronts physical, social and political obstacles related to his father’s funeral. His search for solutions takes him to neighboring mountain villages and results in encounters with police and rebel guerrillas.
  • (Dominican Republic)Julián finds love and a purpose to living in the last place he imagined: Najayo prison in the Dominican Republic. Through sign languages from one prison to another, he encounters Yanelly, separated by 150 meters and dozens of guards, and has to win her love while keeping it a secret.

Emerging Artist Series

With support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the festival will continue its focus on highlighting and sharing e talented new voices on the filmmaking scene.

In addition to “Confession Tapes,” “Double Dummy” and “The Ruination of Lovell Coleman,” the series will include producer Han West’s “Oh Lucy!,” a charming character study following an emotionally unfulfilled woman as she tentatively emerges from her shell; and director and UVA alumnus Kevin Elliott's first feature, “Magnum Opus,” a timely conspiracy thriller centered around a principled Desert Storm vet turned reclusive artist.


The Lavender Scare” – The first documentary to tell the little-known story of “the longest witch hunt in American history,” a federal campaign launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual because they were deemed to be a threat to national security.

“Rebels on Pointe” – Award-winning filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart presents the first-ever behind-the-scenes look at Les Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male drag ballet company founded 40 years after the Stonewall riots.

Other LGBTQIA+ films include “Call Me by Your Name,” “A Fantastic Woman” and “Tom of Finland.”

Jewish and Israeli Series

The festival will once again partner with Congregation Beth Israel to present a series of acclaimed Jewish and Israeli films, including:

  • “In Between” – Three Palestinian women attempt to balance faith and tradition with their modern lives while living in the heart of Tel Aviv.
  • “Shelter” – When Naomi Rimon, a Mossad agent, is sent on a mission to protect Mona, a Lebanese collaborator, the two women find themselves in a compromised safehouse in Hamburg. In this suspense-laden psychological thriller, beliefs are questioned and devastating decisions are forced. 
  • “Surviving Skokie” – An intensely personal documentary that explores the effects of a late-1970s threatened neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois on its large Holocaust survivor population, following producer Eli Adler on a moving trip with his father to his ancestral home in Poland.

Family Day

The festival will again present one of its most popular offerings with the return of Family Day on Nov. 11 on the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds at UVA. In addition to a screening of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will be the premiere of films made by more than 600 local students as part of the festival’s Young Filmmakers Academy.

The day will also include interactive arts workshops led by UVA and community-based arts professionals, such as “Joey Stories,” by Meghan Smith, Lauren Maupin and Fenella Belle of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum; “The Magical World of Ballet,” by Sara Clayborne of Charlottesville Ballet; “Movin’ and Groovin,’” by Ike Anderson of the Music Resource Center; “Five Ways to Begin a Screenplay,” by Denise Stewart of the UVA Drama Department and Arvold Education; and “How Theater Works: Behind the Scenes Tour,” by Steven Warner.

Family Day events are free and open to the public and feature complimentary parking at the Culbreth Road Garage.

The Virtual Reality Lab

Hosted in the Light House Studio’s Vinegar Hill Theatre Library, the festival will offer visitors a choice of interactive experiences using virtual reality and immersive film technologies. The lab will feature the latest head-mounted displays from the Open-Source Virtual Reality consortium, donated by Razer, and mobile VR applications that work with everyday mobile phones.

Parties and Events

Opening Night Gala – Nov. 9, 9:30 p.m., Jefferson Theater (21 and over event)

Celebrate the excitement of the festival’s opening night following the screening of “Downsizing” with beverages, heavy hors d’oeuvres and live big band music while mixing and mingling with special guests and festival friends and supporters. Tickets are $75.

Late Night Wrap Party – Nov. 11, 10 p.m., Kardinal Hall (21 and over event)

Close the 2017 festival in style at this annual highlight event. Connect with filmmakers, special guests and fellow film fans in a fun and festive atmosphere. Tickets are $45.

The 2017 Virginia Film Festival is presented by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation (Richard M. Adler and Joseph Erdman, Trustees). The 2017 Virginia Film Festival is generously supported by the following Premiere Sponsors: The AV Company, Bank of America, CFA Institute, Harvest Moon Catering, James Madison’s Montpelier, Violet Crown Charlottesville, and the Virginia Film Office.

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