Dancers swayed, their arms and legs undulating against a backdrop of sand and water. A white door to nowhere stood upright on a sandy beach. A woman in a long dress suddenly dropped to the floor in the middle of a dust-filled attic room. This is Experimental Film Virginia—or rather, a short trailer for the event providing a peek at what the filmmakers in this two-week-long artist residency and film festival might produce this summer.
Now in its sixth year, Experimental Film Virginia invites visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, actors, and creatives of all varieties to the sandy shores of Cape Charles for a marathon filmmaking festival inspired by the environment of the Eastern Shore. “It’s a hybrid artist residency and festival, so we are trying to pioneer a new way to offer spaces for artists to go in depth in creative and artistic processes to make something that is interactive, appealing, and accessible to the public,” explained Renata Sheppard, the festival’s Founder and Artistic Director. I spoke to her as she and her small team were preparing to welcome more than 50 filmmakers and performers, including at least a dozen short film directors, to this year’s festivities. “My approach is always to bite off a little bit more than you can chew,” she said wryly. “It means you’re not going to do everything perfectly, but it means that you’re going to learn and grow a lot faster.” That idea of diving into one’s work at a breakneck pace and creating something beautiful through that learning process speaks to the central ethos of Experimental Film Virginia.
“I grew up in Virginia,” Sheppard reminisced, “and of course, like many young people who grew up in Virginia, I was like, ‘I’m getting out of here!” And she did—Sheppard’s work as a dancer, visual artist, scholar, and entrepreneur took her all over the world, from Italy to Taiwan, England to Korea, and other foreign locales. But the more she lived in other places, the more she began to appreciate the unique beauty of her home state, realizing “what we’ve got in Cape Charles is pretty on par with all these amazing places that I’m going.” And so, with the backdrop of Cape Charles and its small-town community as a focal point, she began conceptualizing what would become Experimental Film Virginia. She reflected, “It’s been very exciting for me to realize and kind of tap into the potential of the arts to really become a vehicle for making a city a home, giving it that identity that really touches your soul.”
Connecting filmmaking, artistry, and tourism as conduits for economic development is vital to the mission of Experimental Film Virginia. “It’s a vehicle for putting Virginia on the map,” Sheppard said. “I think this idea of an art town and destination art spots and making tourism and the arts work hand-in-hand makes so much sense economically.” The festival is all about drawing visitors to the Cape Charles community, both to take part in the festival as performers and filmmakers, and to enjoy the work that those artists produce. Sheppard said that the film festival artist residency “is the only one of its kind,” referring to the fact that participants make their films over the course of two weeks in Cape Charles, then screen them for the very community that inspired their vision at the end of the program. “I don’t think there’s any other film festival that makes the film on site and in situ and then screens them right away,” she said.
Although Coastal Virginia is currently the site of the festival, the event is designed to be developed beyond the borders of the Eastern Shore. “We have full plans to expand and to grow it to be Experimental Film Anywhere-In-The-World,” she said, explaining her vision for global expansion. “We wanted this to be a program that could represent the state. And because we designed it to be expandable, we could change that Virginia to any other state or country.”
At its core, though, Experimental Film Virginia is about making connections. “It’s designed to be an idea collaborator,” Sheppard said, emphasizing the importance of creating exchange both between artists and their communities. “In a place like Coastal Virginia that’s all water, we need to build bridges,” she said. The friendships and connections born out of the festival and residency are impactful and lasting. “I see the collaborations that have begun at Experimental Film Virginia and continue out into the ‘real world,’” Sheppard said. “Knowing that that hard work and stress and dedication pays off for somebody to say, ‘This changed my life, this was the best experience I’ve ever had, I will never forget this!’” Pausing to collect her thoughts, she continued, “When I see those friendships and artistic collaborations flourish outside of Experimental Film Virginia, then I know that this is worth it.”
Experimental Film Virginia is hosting artist residencies throughout the month. Events include the preview party Art in the Barn on July 7 and the Reel & Raw 2018 film premiere on July 14. Full schedule and tickets available at experimentalfilmvirginia.com.
Photos provided by Experimental Film Virginia