One of the highlights of autumn in Charlottesville is the Virginia Film Festival (VFF). Each year, it attracts a host of talented filmmakers and actors for four days of back-to-back screenings. Thousands of fans queue up for tickets to see new work by old favorites as well as debut releases by up-and-coming stars, classic films from the archives of the Library of Congress, and a wealth of independent films and kid-friendly flicks. In recent years, the festival program has also included a “Spotlight on Virginia Filmmaking” series, featuring films made by homegrown talent or shot within the Commonwealth.
Festival Programmer and Operations Manager Wesley Harris plays a significant role in curating the films each year, alongside Festival Director Jody Kielbasa and an extensive team of staff, interns, and volunteers. “What’s exciting is to see films from Virginia stand toe-to-toe with some of the biggest new Hollywood and international releases. This year, our Virginia programming will include everything from intensely experimental art films, to social justice documentaries, to Meg Ryan’s directorial debut that was shot here in the state,” said Harris.
One Virginia filmmaker who will be featured in the series is Lydia Moyer, an associate professor at UVa who, in fact, won the VFF Programmer’s Choice Award for Best Short Doc in 2012. She has shown her films around the world and will present her new, feature-length documentary, titled Paradise, this month at VFF. Created over the course of eight years, the film is an amalgamation of some of Moyer’s shorter works, combined as a means of considering the concepts of home and memory. Harris said, “We’ve shown some of these individual pieces on their own at the VFF in recent years, so it’s really exciting to see her work coalesce and culminate in this way. While I’d known that she was working toward this goal of having her series of videos come together into this standalone piece, I didn’t know she had actually finished it until the submission came in one day, which was a lovely surprise.”
About the film, Moyer said, “I took a cultural geography course looking at the treatment of the sites of tragedies as a means of gaining insight into dominant society. Paradise began in response to a 2006 shooting in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA. The Amish community chose to tear down the schoolhouse a few days after the shooting. To me, that they tore that building down when it was still physically sound was a kind of insight into the pain and loss the community was experiencing, no matter how much they chose to speak publicly about forgiveness.” The film peregrinates between the smoldering mines of Centralia, Pennsylvania; Guyana; Wounded Knee; and other sites of loss and tragedy, examining the afterlife of abandonment.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner’s new documentary, Boom and Bust: America’s Journey on the Erie Canal, is another Virginia Filmmaking standout that examines themes similar to those in Moyer’s work. The film is a collaboration between Wagner and his friend and fellow filmmaker, Steve Zeitlin. “Steve is a folklorist who did research and oral histories with workers along the canal,” said Wagner. “The film includes portraits of African-American steelworkers in Lackawanna, grain scoopers in Buffalo, women textile workers in Seneca Falls, and tugboat workers on the canal.” All are united by the thread of domination and loss.
The film took several years to make for reasons both financial and artistic. Ultimately, said Wagner, “It took some thinking and experimenting to figure out how to shape [these oral histories] into a coherent and compelling film storyline.” The result? Wagner and Zeitlin have created a haunting film that examines the American Dream and the effects of globalization on the people who perhaps most need to believe in that dream. “Boom and Bust is an elegy to the working men and women who watched whole industries disappear from the region of upstate New York along the canal in the final decades of the 20th century,” Wagner said.
Equally focused on the unheard stories within our midst, Charlottesville filmmaker Betsy Cox’s Southeast 67 tells the story of the Dreamers, a group of students from Washington, D.C. Amidst the city’s crack epidemic in 1988, a foundation promised each student a scholarship so that they could pursue their dream of going to college. Cox’s film reconnects with them as adults to bear witness to the impact of the program. Cox explains, “It’s such a rarity to be able to follow up with kids from communities like Anacostia twenty years later. I knew it was a story that deserved a larger platform.” Since the film premiered in January, it’s been screened in eight festivals and many more schools. While Southeast 67 marks her debut appearance at VFF, Cox isn’t a newcomer to socially-engaged filmmaking. For years, she has worked with nonprofits to tell their stories through film and video.
Finally, tackling a uniquely Virginia-related subject matter, Eduardo Montes-Bradley’s Monroe Hill will add a historical perspective to the spotlight series at VFF this year. Through extensive research by the filmmaker and UVa students, the film explores the context of James Monroe’s farm in Albemarle County, known as—you guessed it—Monroe Hill. Located on present-day UVa Grounds, Monroe Hill harbors a history of its own and sits in opposition to the dominating Jeffersonian architecture. Though Montes-Bradley has screened some of his other documentaries at VFF and other festivals, he said, “I don’t enjoy film festivals as much as I did when I was younger. VFF is an exception because I take it as an opportunity to share the experience with my community, with the university, with friends and neighbors.” Thanks to the “Spotlight on Virginia Filmmaking” series, the Virginia Film Festival makes that opportunity more accessible than ever.
The 2015 Virginia Film Festival will be held on November 5-8. For full schedule and tickets, visit virginiafilmfestival.org.