After two years of limitations due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Virginia Film Festival is once again returning to Charlottesville to celebrate its 35th anniversary and provide local movie-goers a glimpse into what is currently happening in the world of cinema. Running from Nov. 2 through Nov. 6, the program will feature over 100 screenings — ranging from international films to documentaries to movies garnering award buzz — as well as a stellar roster of speakers.
Amongst the myriad of films being shown this year is “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the highly-anticipated sequel to the Oscar-nominated and wildly popular whodunnit “Knives Out.” Other notable hot titles include “Women Talking” and “Empire of Light,” as well as the animated family flick “My Father’s Dragon.” In addition to the touted productions from recognizable names working in the film industry today, the Festival also highlights exciting projects from new and emerging filmmakers.
Jody Kielbasa, VAFF director and vice provost for the arts, said the search for contemporary and new films to screen at the Festival each year begins in January at the Sundance Festival.
“We identify artists that we are particularly interested in honoring because of the scope of their career over the years,” Kielbasa said. “We also look for films that are relevant in this year’s festival season that are likely to be looked at as Oscar or Golden Globe contenders, or is a specific film that we just feel resonates strongly within the University and Charlottesville communities because of the subject matter.”
Beyond the screening experience, VAFF also brings compelling conversations around its films and insight into the filmmaking industry through its selected guest speakers. This year’s remarkable and acclaimed lineup includes Emmy-nominated actor Jonathan Majors, “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz and two-time Tony Award winner Judith Ivey.
Screenwriters Dustin Lance Black and Meg LeFauve will also be present. Black is an avid LGBTQ+ activist and Oscar winner for his documentary “Milk,” and LeFauve is a Golden Globe winning writer for Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
The 2020 program was completely virtual and the 2021 program was limited in its screening and guest speaker opportunities, so this year marks a return to the full unique experience the Festival has to offer — all screenings and guest speakers will be in-person. Kielbasa and VAFF senior programmer Ilya Tovbis said they’re excited to be able to showcase more films and talents.
“I think one of the ways the audience will experience a big difference this year is in the caliber and quality and quantity of major guests,” Tovbis said. “That just simply wasn’t possible during the height of the pandemic. We’ve been able to travel in some really incredible artists from throughout the world, as well as our own backyard.”
In addition to discourse and Q&As for their respective films, invited guests also participate in panels in which they share insights gained from their distinctive experiences as filmmakers. This year, topics of discussion for panels include the screenwriting process, the power of media and storytelling in Sesame Street — presented by Sesame Street Workshop President Sherrie Westin — and finding success in the film business.
Perhaps the most defining feature of VAFF, however, is its diversity — a quality of the selections for the program that is very apparent and deliberate, with Tovbis calling diversity “the DNA of the festival.” The program’s Series and Themes sidebar highlights various subject matters for which films are selected for, including Black Excellence, LGBTQIA+ Focus, International Oscar Contenders and Environmental Film Series amongst others.
“Balancing a series of stories from different communities — from halfway around the world or our own backyard, political tales, social tales, tales of racial justice — all of that links together in our Series and Themes,” Tovbis said. “The festival is much too large and enriched to have a single theme or series, so instead we have quite a number of them.”
For students, many tickets for the screenings and events are free through the arts department. Tickets for all events went on sale at noon Oct. 18th, and more information about the program can be found on the VAFF website.
“My hope has always been that the festival opens up minds to other cultures and other experiences and other stories — that people find similarities in their own lives and at the same time, recognize the differences and become more comfortable with those differences as well.” Kielbasa said.