UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 15 Winter 21 Library
Opening Night Audience at The French Dispatch at The Paramount Theater. Photo by Ézé Amos
Virginia Film Festival

Lights, Camera, Action! The Virginia Film Festival’s Celebrated Return to In-Person Venues

The French Dispatch @ The Paramount Theater Opening Night
(Photo: Ézé Amos)

On Wednesday, October 27th, UVA President Jim Ryan took the stage of The Paramount Theater to welcome the near-capacity crowd, all gathered to see Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch. The film was the first of many to be screened at the 34th Annual Virginia Film Festival. Ryan’s speech was not just any welcome, just as 2021 is not just any year. The night marked a return to live theatrical presentation for VAFF following a virtual and drive-in program in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Over the course of the next five days, the VAFF would present some 85 films in all at The Paramount, Violet Crown Cinema on the Downtown Mall, Culbreth Theatre on Grounds, and nightly drive-in presentations on Morven Farm in eastern Albemarle County. 

Virginia Film Festival Director and UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, who followed President Ryan with his own Opening Night remarks, took an extra moment to soak in the scene before opening with heartfelt and intentional understatement. “It is really good,” he said, “to be back!” 

Given the fluctuating pandemic numbers over the course of the past year and the difficulties of navigating an ever-shifting industry landscape, Kielbasa said that coming back was hardly an easy decision. Despite these looming challenges, Kielbasa and his team remained committed to returning in person. “The Virginia Film Festival is about so much more than the films we screen,” he said. “It is about the communal experience of experiencing film. Our community plays such an important role in what our Festival has become, and we felt it was very important to share the full experience with them this year.” 

The French Dispatch @ Morven Drive-In
(Photo: Jack Looney)

From the very beginning,” Kielbasa continued, “our focus, and the focus of the University was on how we could present a Festival that represented who we are and what we do, and how we could do it in the safest way possible for our audiences, our staff, our volunteers, and our guests.” 

Even in the best of times, putting on a film festival is taxing. This year’s circumstances added challenges that were exponential in nature. Yet at every turn, Kielbasa said, the VAFF staff answered the call. “Our Managing Director Jenny Mays did a truly remarkable job of leading our incredible staff along a road that had more twists and turns than even we could have imagined. Everyone stepped up at every turn, showing an unwavering passion and a shared dedication to delivering the kind of experiences we have become known for, not only with our patrons but across the industry.” That passion and dedication, Kielbasa added, was matched by over 100 of the Festival’s volunteers, who play a critical role each and every year as the front line ambassadors for the VAFF.

I could not be more proud of the work that went into this Festival and the experiences we were able to deliver for our audiences
Jody Kielbasa

While the scope of this year’s Festival was slightly smaller than traditional years, the overall experience was everything VAFF lovers have come to expect and cherish. Following the opening night festivities at the Paramount, Festival fans and supporters toasted the return of the Festival with an outdoor gala that marked the public debut of the new CODE Building. With the help of the AV Company and Harvest Moon Catering, the outdoor plaza was transformed into a mood-lit, vibrant space. The space was mere steps away from the Downtown Mall, but the staging made revelers feel like they were worlds away from Charlottesville. 

Martha Plimpton on the Paramount Stage after Mass screening.
(Photo: Ézé Amos)
Jeremy O. Harris, who recently earned a dozen Tony nominations for his Slave Play, accepted the Festival’s American Perspectives Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema and discussed the film Zola, which he co-wrote.
(Photo: Jack Looney)

The 2021 VAFF welcomed more than 75 guests, including Emmy Award-winning actor Martha Plimpton, who was on hand to discuss her powerful new film Mass. Proving just how much artists missed sharing their work in person, Plimpton became emotional when she noted that was the first time she had seen the film with a live audience, and what it meant to her to do so in a theatre as glorious as the Paramount. Noted screenwriter and actor Danny Strong was joined by Virginia author Beth Macy to discuss the Hulu limited series Dopesick, which tells the story of how one family and one company launched the worst opioid crisis in American history. Jeremy O. Harris, who recently earned a dozen Tony nominations for his Slave Play, accepted the Festival’s American Perspectives Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema and discussed the film Zola, which he co-wrote. And Bush administration officials Andy Card and Karl Rove appeared virtually for a conversation moderated by The Miller Center’s Bill Antholis and featuring longtime ABC White House Correspondent Ann Compton around the Apple documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. 

Charlottesville-based filmmaker Eric Hurt’s Machinery of Dreams took top honors for Best Narrative Feature. Best Documentary Feature went to the soul-stirring film Stay Prayed Up, which included a special guest appearance by its “star,” 85-year-old “Mother” Perry, the leader of The Branchettes gospel group on which the film is based. Perry delivered an impromptu performance that delighted the Culbreth Theatre crowd. 

Kielbasa reflected on what was his 13th Virginia Film Festival by saying, “I could not be more proud of the work that went into this Festival and the experiences we were able to deliver for our audiences.”

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