Local partnership to bring art house cinema to Charlottesville

VFF's new collaboration with Violet Crown promises return of year-round programming

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Jody Kielbasa, the face of the Virginia Film Festival organization, was a major player in creating this collaboration.

The Virginia Film Festival’s recently announced partnership with Violet Crown Cinema is set to expand the variety of films showcased in Charlottesville with one-off screenings. Films missing a standard release in Charlottesville should benefit from this new series. Arts & Entertainment was able to sit down with VFF Director and Vice Provost of the Arts Jody Kielbasa and Programming Director Wes Harris to discuss the new partnership.

Arts & Entertainment: The first question I wanted to ask about this partnership is, how did it come to be?

Jody Kielbasa: We're very fortunate that the Violet Crown opened last year just a handful of days before the advent of the festival. They reached out to us very early … to say that they wanted a partnership with the Virginia Film Festival, that they recognize that it was an important and beloved cultural event in Charlottesville and that it is in an important part of the University of Virginia, and they wanted very much to have it in residence at the Violet Crown. … The owner, Bill Benowsky, has a fondness for film festivals and a fondness for art house films, films of substance. So, it was a natural partnership.

Wes Harris: It’s a return to form for us. The opportunity to have year-round programming is something we haven’t had a perfect home for venue-wise for the last few years. Sometimes it really does come to down to very simple, black and white real estate and venue and business reasons. … We’re excited to come back and have a footprint during the entire year rather than being beholden to the four days of the festival proper in November.

A&E: Could you go a little further into how you see Violet Crown as an ideal partner?

JK: First of all, it’s an important hub on the Downtown Mall. When you think about it, when Regal left that Downtown Mall area, and the Downtown Mall was without a cinema, that’s important to economic well-being of the Downtown Mall. It brings people down.

WH: In terms of atmosphere, nothing approaches the experience that they offer an audience there in terms of the physical theater themselves. … But I’d say even more importantly there’s a natural hub and opportunity for discussion and conversation for any screening.

JK: The festival itself celebrates the discussion around film and the celebration of film. … This really supports that in this new venue. … There’s the opportunity for people to sit down and discuss the film before or afterwards, which is valuable. And that’s part of the reason why that experience of people congregating and watching films in a communal experience still exists today. It’s a different experience watching it at home — I’m not saying that’s not a valuable experience — but going out and watching it and sharing that kind of communal energy that’s in there, listening to other people make comments, talking to people before and after, I think, is something that we all appreciate.

A&E: About the types of films you plan on showcasing, if you had to simply state what kind of features you plan on showing, how would you describe that?

WH: I wouldn’t put an overarching label on it. It affords us such an exciting flexibility.

JK: We’ve announced the first three screenings but this is a continuous series, so in another 30 days, or a little bit longer than that, there’s the Cannes Film Festival. There are other film festivals that are happening out there. There will be new discoveries in the cinema world in the next few months, and that’s largely the way we program the film festival. A lot of that is informed by major film festivals around the world … and a lot of those films are still in the editing room or being shot. This gives us tremendous flexibility and I love that the fact that we’re not really pigeon holed by any time frame right now.

WH: That’s kind of what informs that purposeful decisions to only schedule and announce about half of this series so far. We could easily have pulled together the rest of this year’s worth of screenings right now. But then we’d be painting ourselves into a corner. … It just allows us to be much more responsive and current.

A&E: Along with the flexibility of the programing and seeking to extend the festival year-round, do you see this as a good opportunity to showcase local filmmakers from the state of Virginia?

JK: Yeah, from time to time, absolutely.

WH: The biggest thing is, they’re as beholden to the calendar as we are. They’re the ones down in the trenches doing that grunt work. They’re the boots on the ground, those creators, and they’re looking to do the same things that the “Birth of a Nations” of the world are doing. The director of “Green Room”… Jeremy Saulnier, a Virginia native, is now operating at the highest levels of the film industry.

A&E: Is there any reason you feel like “The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows” is the ideal kickoff?

WH: It’s a really fun way to start and bring an audience out that probably knows us some but also an audience that hasn’t dipped their toe into the festival yet. It’s a really unique semblance of some of the best short form animation being done in the world right now.

JK: We haven’t screened as much animation as I would like to during the festival proper, so I think it’s an opportunity. We’ve certainly heard people express interest in seeing more of that, so I think it’s an opportunity to answer that call as well.

WH: It’s only recently been publicly available, screened and toured in a theatrical way. ... One of the short films in the package we actually did screen at the Virginia Film Festival last year. It’s called “The Ballad of Holland Island House” and it’s this really sweet and lyrical short film about a house sinking into the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland, and it’s done with this painted clay. There’s some real neat behind the scenes treatment, and it’s truly exactly what it sounds like. It’s taking a brush and almost moving oil painting but with this very viscous clay that builds this texture that you’ve never seen before, really. That’s a neat example of something that hits something of a local or regional tie, something that’s played at the festival before, has found this critical mass and has a touring and curated programming and is now sort of coming home again to use in this year-round programming. Those are the little flourishes and moments that I like.

A&E: How do you plan on appealing to students specifically with the programming and the partnership in general?

JK: You know, we certainly welcome the students attending and I think we’re going to try and market this to them and make them [as] aware of it as we possibly can. I think anytime we can offer more sort of a broader experience in cinema to the students that’s valuable. … This is an opportunity for us to just have additional offerings during the year.

WH: And it’s hugely important for me — when I was a student at U.Va. I was the artistic director of the Off Screen Film Society, and we would show 35mm movies in the Newcomb Theater every week. … I’m excited about this as an opportunity to circle back to the kind of curation and screenings we did at Off Screen back in the day. … It is finding things like “The Animation Show of Shows,” like the documentary “Holy Hell,” which is our second screening that we’re going to be doing in April. In addition to the insane subject matter, of that Hollywood cult documentary, it’s fun for us to be able to take advantage of the calendar, which is the kind of theme of this thing, and having an April screening that is a pre-release, a preview screening before it’s released wide nationally.

A&E: Do you feel like this program could be a good way to promote interest in film and filmmaking among students year-round?

JK: Yes, I would hope so. I can’t honestly say that’s the only purpose of the program … but it’s our hope that anything we do opens some opportunity for students to just sort of making them more aware that there’s a vast array of different types of cinema out there rather than the commercial product which is more obvious and easier to consume on a regular basis.

WH: As long as it’s balanced by this. I have a ton of fun at the multiplex but I do miss this sort of thing if it’s not offered to me. So that’s what I’m trying to give to other people too… How do you become a better, stronger, more nuanced or more articulate artists or filmmaker? Watch more movies. Watch movies you might not find otherwise, or that might not find their way to you. Even in the age of Netflix and infinite streaming opportunities not everything gets everywhere. Those are the kinds of things we’re showing, those are the unique opportunities we’re building and offering students and the community.

The next installment in the series, “Holy Hell,” will be playing at the Violet Crown April 26.

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