Western Stars by Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars by Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen

The 32nd Annual Virginia Film Festival will feature more than 150 films, including independent films along with hotly anticipated titles including  Harriet, Just Mercy, Western Stars, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, The Report, Clemency, and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. This year’s lineup also includes award-winning actor, writer, and director Ethan Hawke, noted actor Ann Dowd, international bestselling author John Grisham, actor Dennis Christopher, acclaimed filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu – plus more than 100 filmmakers in all.

“We are thrilled to announce our 2019 program,” said Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival and Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Virginia, “We are particularly proud to continue our focus on important issues of social justice through high-profile screenings of Harriet, which was filmed here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Just Mercy, which tells the inspiring story of Bryan Stevenson and his ongoing crusade to right wrongs within the criminal justice system, and Clemency, featuring Alfre Woodard as a maximum security prison warden struggling with the burdens of her death row duties, among many others.

The 2019 Virginia Film Festival will open with Just Mercy, the powerful and thought-provoking true story of young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), and his history-making battle for justice. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of Stevenson’s first cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted of murdering an 18-year-old girl in a high-profile case marred by a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and tainted by the testimony of a deeply compromised witness. With the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson dives into a world of corruption, prejudice and political machinations to fight for McMillian and others like him, languishing on Death Row.

The documentary Western Stars co-directed by Bruce Springsteen along with Thom Zimny, which gives audiences an intimate look at the latest chapter in the career of one of music’s most iconic figures is the Gala Screening film.

Based on the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman, Harriet, filmed in Virginia, chronicles the American hero’s escape from slavery and transformation into a historic abolitionist. Tubman’s courage, ingenuity, and tenacity helped free hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad and changed the course of history. Harriet from acclaimed writer/director Kasi Lemmons, and starring Cynthia Erivo will be the Centerpiece Film on Saturday, October 26, 2019.

Closing night film is The Two Popes, directed by the Academy Award-nominated Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God). The film offers a surprisingly lighthearted look at the conversations between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) on the eve of Benedict’s shocking 2013 retirement, and Bergoglio’s ascension to the Papacy.

2019 Virginia Film Festival Lineup

Spotlight Films

Clemency – Alfre Woodard stars as Bernadine Williams, a prison warden at a maximum-security prison whose soul and spirit are challenged by the many executions she has carried out. The job leaves her with psychological and emotional demons that have taken a toll on her entire life, and that ultimately help bind her to an inmate whose death she is scheduled to oversee next.

Driveways – Director Andrew Ahn’s intimate drama revolves around the unlikely friendship formed between a lonely young boy and his new octogenarian neighbor (Brian Dennehy). As his mother (Hong Chau) looks on, the boy provides the widowed veteran with a youthful outlook and begins to discover a newfound maturity within himself.

Jojo Rabbit – This daring, touching, and comedic satire, winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is the story of a lonely German boy named Jojo whose world is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (director Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.

Marriage Story – Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach directs this incisive and compassionate portrait of a marriage breaking up and a family staying together – starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

Motherless Brooklyn – Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this tale of a restless private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome whose investigation of his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) sends him into the heart of 1950’s New York, from Harlem jazz joints all the way to the corruption-filled hallways of City Hall, to get answers.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire – One of the most popular films on the 2019 festival circuit, this is the story of a young painter in 18th century France Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowing. Therefore, Marianne must observe her model by day to paint her portrait at night. Day by day, the two women become closer as they share Héloïse’s last moments of freedom before the impending wedding.

The Report – Idealistic Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones leads an investigation into the CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program, and uncovers shocking secrets, in this riveting drama from writer/director Scott Z. Burns and starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening.

Race in America

– Presented with James Madison’s Montpelier

Always in Season – Jacqueline Olive’s documentary explores the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans and connects this form of historic racial terrorism to racial violence today.

Burning Cane – This extraordinary feature debut from 19-year-old director Phillip Youmans looks at faith, family, and violence among the cane fields of small-town Louisiana as an aging mother struggles between her religious convictions and the love of her son.

Pahokee – In a small agricultural town in the Florida Everglades, hopes for the future are concentrated on the youth. The documentary follows four teens as they face heartbreak and celebrate the rituals of an extraordinary senior year.

We are the Radical Monarchs – Follow the founding and growth of the Radical Monarchs, an Oakland-based alternative to the Girl Scouts for young women of color (ages 8-13) at the front lines of social justice and allyship.


2040 – Environmental concerns are addressed with the hope that the filmmaker’s daughter, 21 years old in the year 2040, will face a hopeful future. Investigations into the potential of innovations like renewable energy and alternative transportation infuse this documentary with optimism and a sense of determination to affect positive environmental change

Autonomy – Author Malcolm Gladwell leads the first comprehensive documentary look at the human side of the emerging technology that will power self-driving vehicles. The film focuses on the human side of innovation and the psychology of control, fear, and adapting to change.

The Cave – The war in Syria has brought death to millions. Civilians live in constant fear of attacks, and for many, safety is found in an underground hospital known as The Cave. In these hidden tunnels, female doctors serve alongside men in roles that would be unthinkable in the sexist culture that exists above. The Cave, from National Geographic films, received the 2019 Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Ernie & Joe – In an intimate portrait that illustrates progressive methods of policing by following two police officers specializing in the San Antonio Police Department mental health unit, this documentary reflects the best of public servants, one 911 call at a time.

It Started as a Joke – Comedian Eugene Mirman’s offhand joke of creating a comedy festival making fun of other comedy festivals, became the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. Featuring a star-studded lineup including Kumail Nanjiani and Mike Birbiglia, this documentary pays homage to what comedy is, is not, and everything in-between.

Kifaru – The northern white rhino species has long been in danger of extinction. With the number of surviving rhinos diminishing, a conservancy in central Kenya was established to breed and protect what remained of the species. Following two rangers for over four years, this film documents the joys and disappointments of conservation in this touching documentary.

Midnight Family – With a population of almost 9 million, Mexico City only operates 45 government emergency ambulances. Private EMTs step in to serve as a lifeline to those needing medical attention. The Ochoa family operates a for-profit ambulance; however, the lack of financial gain and local corruption often throw them into a moral and ethical gray area.

Varda by Agnes – From Agnès Varda, the “Queen of French Cinema” herself, this heartwarming piece combs through the artist’s remarkable life and career while allowing the filmmaker to have the final word on her films.

We Believe in Dinosaurs – In rural Kentucky, all eyes are on a life-size model of Noah’s Ark being built to prove the accuracy of the Bible. A creationist, a former creationist, and a pro-science activist become the main characters in an examination of the controversy encompassing evolution denial and the separation of church and state.

When All is Ruin Once Again – This poetic, meditative, beautifully shot black-and-white film is an ode to close-knit rural Irish communities, introducing us to the people who live on the borders of the counties of Galway and Clare in the west of Ireland.

You Don’t Nomi – The release of Showgirls in 1995 was met with ridicule from both critics and audiences. Following the journey of the film from initial flop to cult classic, this documentary provides a thought-provoking and entertaining window into American pop culture and the ways in which film can connect communities.

Other documentaries include Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, Forman vs. Forman, General Magic, Human Nature, The Kingmaker, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, and When All is Ruin Once Again, among others.

Spotlight on Virginia Filmmaking

The Festival will shine a spotlight on an impressive collection of films that were made in Virginia or have roots in the Commonwealth. Titles include:

Afrikana Film Festival – The VAFF is proud to partner with the Richmond-based Afrikana Film Festival for a special program of films dedicated to showcasing cinematic works by people of color from around the world, with a special focus on the global Black narrative.

Fishing with Dynamite – Director Paul Wagner examines how corporations and Wall Street and their obsession with short term profits are negatively impacting the foundations of American Capitalism in his newest documentary, presented in partnership with the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

Best of Film at UVA, Best of VCUarts, and Best of Film at Mason – As the official film festival of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the VAFF will salute some of Virginia’s finest young filmmakers from the University of Virginia, George Mason University, and Virginia Commonwealth University in a special program that captures and celebrates the diversity of cinematic storytelling found at these institutions.

Southern Journey (Revisited) – In 1959, Alan Lomax set out on a road trip through the south to collect traditional American roots music. The recordings that Lomax made serve as both a collection of traditional music and a social document of the times. This film follows the route that Lomax previously traversed and takes the pulse of a nation, surveying what has and has not changed in the 6 decades since Lomax first made his trip.

Other Virginia films include Harriet, Inn at Little Washington, Queen of the Capital, and a short film showcase of work by UVA professor Kevin Everson.

International Films

Continuing its strong track record of showcasing the very best in cinema from around the world, the VAFF will spotlight a selection of some of the most acclaimed films in foreign cinema this year.

Atlantics (France) – In Senegal, workers attempt to make the journey across the sea in search of a better life. After their abrupt disappearance, a strange fever begins to spread in this supernatural romance that won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Parasite (Korea) – The Park Family is the picture of aspirational wealth. The Kim Family is rich in street smarts but not much else. In a chance opportunity, the Kim children become tutors to the Parks, and a symbiosis forms between the families. Darkly hilarious and heart-wrenching, this 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or-winner showcases director Bong Joon-ho at the top of his game.

Bacurau (Brazil) – The village of Bacurau is in dire condition. Basic supplies are running low, access to the outside world is fading, and the government begins to deny its existence, wiping it from all maps. As the outside world begins to close in, the villagers stand their ground with a secret weapon. The film won the 2019 Jury Prize at Cannes.

Frankie (France) – Iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert plays the title role of Frankie, a well-known movie star struggling with terminal illness and her own mortality, Frankie invites her extended family on a vacation to a picturesque village in Portugal. Although the entirety of the film occurs over one day, the family’s dynamics are quickly made known and deeply explored.

I Lost My Body (France) – In a desperate attempt to get back to its body, an amputated hand journeys across Paris. Flashbacks to the hand’s life show his body growing up and falling in love, slowly giving answers to the cause of the separation. This animated film, which won top honors at Cannes Critics Week and the Annecy Animation Festival, is captivating and poetic, providing a touching account of loss.

Pain and Glory (Spain) – The latest film from legendary filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar portrays a director (Antonio Banderas) facing the decline of his career. As he looks back on his life, he questions whether or not there is a life beyond his art. Memories of first love, childhood joys, and painful loss all flood back as he attempts to fill the void that brought his filmmaking to a halt.

The Song of Names (Hungary) – Centering on a young violin prodigy at the start of World War II who mysteriously vanishes without a trace before his debut performance, and his brother who tries to find him, this unwavering drama about friendship, betrayal, and reconciliation illustrates both the horrors of war and sibling rivalry with musical revelations.

Synonyms (Israel) – An Israeli twenty-something moves to Paris and intends to rid himself of his nationality. Synonyms, which won the Golden Bear at the 2019 Berlin Film Festivalexplores the complexities of cultural identities and the challenges of putting roots down in a new place.

The Traitor (Italy) – In the early 1980’s, a war rages between Sicilian mafia bosses over the heroin trade. Tommaso Buscetta flees to hide out in Brazil. Arrested and extradited to Italy, Buscetta makes a decision that will change everything for the Mafia: he decides to betray the eternal vow he made to the Cosa Nostra.

Other films include Beanpole (Russia), Default (Korea), The Father (Bulgaria), Ghost Town Anthology (Canada), Grass (Korea), Oh Mercy! (France), Song Without a Name (Peru), and The Wild Goose Lake (China), among others.


Queer Love on Television – The search for love and connection between people of color in the queer community is explored in two episodes of television, both written by UVA alum, Steven Kung. In Dear White People Volume 3 episode “Chapter VII,” shy reporter Lionel begins to explore his Ivy League university’s queer spaces. In Falling for Angels episode “Koreatown,” two Asian men, one Korean American and the other Taiwanese American, explore their respective relationships to their cultures, and to each other, over 24-hours in Los Angeles’s Koreatown.

Changing the Game – High school athlete Mack Beggs made headlines when he became the Texas girls wrestling state champion for the second time. Despite his desire to wrestle against his fellow male opponents, Texas athletic rules force him to compete with young women. This film follows Beggs’ story along with two other transgender high school athletes to highlight the struggles of the fight for trans rights in high school athletic programs across the United States.

Gay Chorus Deep South – In response to a wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws and the divisive 2016 presidential election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus embarks on a tour of the American South. The conversations and connections that emerge offer a glimpse of a less divided America, where the things that separate us are set aside by the power of music, humanity, and a little drag.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France) – In eighteenth century France, Héloïse has rejected her mother’s attempts to commission a portrait which will lead to marriage. As a result, her newest painter, Marianne, must masquerade as a lady’s maid during the day to paint her subject by night. As the portrait materializes, an unlikely relationship blossoms between the two women as Héloïse enjoys her last moments of untethered bliss.

Queen of the Capital – Muffy Blake Stephyns and her everyday persona, Daniel, must navigate her bureaucratic day job in the Department of Labor in Washington D.C., all while balancing her role in the Imperial Court of Washington D.C., a philanthropic organization full of drag queens, drag kings, and other vibrant performers. This documentary illuminates the thriving D.C. drag scene and explores the story of an individual on a crusade for the community.

To the Stars – In a small town in 1960s Oklahoma, reclusive teen Iris forges a friendship with Maggie, the worldly but reckless new girl, who homes in on Iris’s untapped potential and coaxes her out of her shell. This subtle black-and-white film about friendship, growth and hope reveals the courage of individuals forced to take drastic measures when they’re made to stand up for themselves.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts – As the charming drag persona of Milwaukee-raised Brian Firkus, Trixie Mattel does it all; filming Drag Race All Stars, managing personal projects, recording a new album, and navigating relationships including an unexpected fallout with close friend and web series co-star Katya ZamolodchikovaThis documentary is a raw and deeply personal portrait of the pitfalls of success and the endless churn of being a professional performer, singer, and comedian.

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