The 33rd Annual Virginia Film Festival will present a program of more than 50 films, conversations, and special events that will include a series of virtual conversations and a series of Drive-In Movies presented in two safe and socially-distanced settings.
The program will include some of the most celebrated first-run features, documentaries, short films, and more on the 2020 film festival circuit as well as a stellar guest lineup headlined by Annette Bening; Leslie Odom, Jr.; Ethan Hawke; former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe; noted NPR host Diane Rehm; Obama White House photographer, author, and social media star Pete Souza; Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan; and many more.
This year, the VAFF has rededicated itself to its commitment to promoting equity and inclusion in its programming. “It is imperative to me,” Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival and Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Virginia said, “and to our entire staff at the Virginia Film Festival, that we represent and share the stories that reflect the entire spectrum of film artists who are doing so much to shine a light on the world we live in. I am especially proud to say that over 50% of the filmmakers included in our program and the artists, experts, and community members participating in our virtual discussions, are either women, or represent Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.”
The VAFF will partner with Dairy Market in Charlottesville and with the University of Virginia’s stunning Morven Farm in southeastern Albemarle county to bring audiences together for safe and socially-distanced drive-in movies. Each venue will host one drive-in screening each night of the Festival. Films at Morven Farm will begin at 7:30 PM and films at Dairy Market will start at 8:00 PM.
The 2020 Virginia Film Festival will open with the upcoming Amazon release One Night in Miami…, the powerful directorial debut of Academy Award-winning actor Regina King. Based on Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, One Night in Miami centers around a fictional meeting in February of 1964 between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Underdog Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, has just defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall and rallies his close friends together to memorialize the win. Over the course of the night, the four share the struggles they’ve endured as high-profile and influential Black men, and the roles they think they can and should play in the Civil Rights Movement.
Centerpiece Film is Ammonite, the highly-anticipated release from NEON featuring Kate Winslet as the noted 19th Century British paleontologist Mary Anning living in literal and emotional isolation on the rocky and forbidding English coast. When a visitor leaves his troubled wife (Saoirse Ronan) behind to work with Anning, the two form an awkward and uneasy alliance that blossoms into a powerful and unvarnished love story that changes both lives forever. Directed by Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), Ammonite is generating significant awards season buzz, with Winslet’s performance hailed as among the best of her illustrious career.
The Virginia Film Festival will present Searchlight’s Nomadland as its Closing Night Film. Perhaps the most acclaimed and discussed film on the 2020 film festival circuit, Nomadland is director Chloé Zhao’s intimate and thoughtful portrayal of life as a modern-day nomad. Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern, played by two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, takes off in a van and begins exploring life outside of conventional society in the vast landscape of the American West. Featuring first-time actors living the nomadic lifestyle who Zhao and McDormand encountered on the road, this film showcases individuals on the peripheries of our society who are redefining what the “American Dream” really looks like.
The VAFF Drive-In Movie series will also include Gunda, a beautiful documentary from Russian director Viktor Kosakovskiy that makes what Indiewire calls a “visionary case for veganism” by welcoming audiences into the world of farm animals who tell their own story without single human voice or note of music; MLK/FBI, an IFC documentary based on newly-declassified documents regarding the United States government’s relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr; S#!%house, a fun, funny and honest coming-of-age story that won the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Features at SXSW this year, this micro-budget film was written, by directed by, and stars Cooper Raiff as a college freshman dealing with the struggles of leaving home; and Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s sharp-witted debut about a directionless 22-year-old Jewish bisexual woman whose return home to participate in a shiva unleashes a torrent of secrets and awkwardness.
VIRTUAL SPECIAL PRESENTATION EVENTS
The VAFF will also offer three virtual Special Presentation Events as part of its 2020 program. Access to each event will be offered for free.
A Conversation with Leslie Odom, Jr. – The multi-talented actor Leslie Odom, Jr. joins the VAFF for a conversation about his role as the legendary Sam Cooke in our Opening Night Film One Night in Miami, about the remarkable career launched by his Tony Award-winning performance in Hamilton, and more. The event marks a return to the UVA community for the star, who performed in the 2017 Bicentennial Launch Celebration and headlined the UVA Speaker Series for the Arts in 2019.
A Tribute to Thomas Newman – 15-time Academy Award nominated film composer Thomas Newman will discuss his outstanding career with Benjamin Rous, director of the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia. Newman’s credits include The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, American Beauty, Finding Nemo, the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, and last year’s Golden Globe-winning film for Best Picture, 1917. This tribute, which will include clips from these movies and more, will also feature Newman’s frequent collaborator, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo, and Saving Mr. Banks).
Light House Studio Shorts – Once again this year, the VAFF is proud to showcase the work of the students at Light House Studio in Charlottesville with a selection of short films.
The VAFF’s Virtual Program will include over 50 features, curated shorts packages, discussions, and panels.
Special Guest Conversations
A Conversation with Annette Bening – Four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening will participate in a conversation with author and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz about some of her many unforgettable performances.
A Conversation on Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird – Actor, writer, director and four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke will be joined by award-winning author James McBride for a conversation around The Good Lord Bird, the new Showtime series based on McBride’s book, in which Hawke portrays abolitionist John Brown. The conversation will also include Joshua Caleb Johnson, who co-stars in the series, executive producer and showrunner Mark Richard, and costume designer Amy Andrews Harrell.
A Conversation with Pete Souza and Chris Lu – Former Obama and Reagan White House photographer Pete Souza will discuss the new documentary The Way I See It, in which he shares iconic and behind-the-scenes photos, and remembrances from his time seeing, living and shooting history in the making, in a special conversation with former Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu.
A Conversation with Linda Hamilton – Groundbreaking actress Linda Hamilton gave us one of Hollywood’s most iconic action hero female characters as Sarah Connor in The Terminator Franchise. Following a long self-imposed hiatus from the big screen, Hamllton reprised the character last year at 62 years of age in Terminator: Dark Fate in all her badass glory. She will talk about the films and her career in a special conversation with University of Virginia President Jim Ryan.
A Conversation with Vince Gilligan and Mark Johnson – Vince Gilligan, the creator of Emmy Award-winning series Breaking Bad and its current sequel Better Call Saul, will come together with his producing partner on the two series Mark Johnson to discuss their record-breaking collaboration. It’s a collaboration that began at the inaugural Virginia Film Festival in 1989, where Johnson presented Gilligan with the Governor’s Screenwriting Award for his script for Home Fries, which went on to star Drew Barrymore. The conversation will be moderated by UVA English professor WIlliam Little, who teaches an annual course on Breaking Bad.
A Conversation with Nicole Kassell – VAFF Program Manager will moderate a conversation with award-winning filmmaker and Charlottesville native Nicole Kassell, who recently won an Emmy Award for Best Limited Series for HBO’s Watchmen. The series, which captured 11 Emmys overall,, is inspired by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ DC graphic novel and takes viewers into the 1921 Tulsa massacre, known as the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. “Watchmen is the rare television show to grow more relevant with time,” Ferrebee said, “ with its depiction of ordinary people and vigilantes in masks, its ties to Tulsa, and its depiction of race and law enforcement in America.”
Boys State – Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary takes us inside the Texas Boys State competition, which brings together more than 1,100 high school civics students for a mock government exercise each year. Recently called a “nerdier, less lethal Lord of the Flies” by The Atlantic, the film offers unavoidable parallels to our political present and future and highlights the effects of America’s current deep political divides. The film will be preceded by an introduction with U. S. Senator Tim Scott and will be the subject of a conversation moderated by Larry Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics, and including former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
When My Time Comes with a live conversation featuring Diane Rehm, Joe Fab, and Diane Naughton on Thursday, October 22 at 5:30 PM – Peabody-award winner Diane Rehm began to examine the option of medical aid in dying after losing her beloved husband John Rehm. This documentary feature interweaves the Rehms’ experience with those of other patients and families across the U.S., as well as the views of experts, on the issue of medical aid in dying.
Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story with a conversation featuring Doc Severinsen – After three decades as the colorful bandleader to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, master trumpeter Doc Severinsen defies nature with a relentless schedule of touring, teaching and performing into his nineties.
All In: The Fight for Democracy with an introduction by Stacey Abrams – This timely documentary traces the history of the right to vote, and investigates racist practices of voter suppression and how these barriers continue to disenfranchise predominantly non-white voters today.
The South on Screen: A Conversation with Ray McKinnon – Actor, writer, and director Ray McKinnon leads a conversation on what it means for a Southern artist to present his culture truthfully and with respect on screen, and the art of telling completely universal and human stories in a distinct and authentic Southern voice.
The Anti-Social Network – A Special 10th Anniversary screening of David Fincher’s The Social Network will be accompanied by a discussion of the social media giant’s impacts on our society featuring Roger McNamee, the high-profile Silicon Valley fund manager, venture capitalist, early Facebook investor and Mark Zuckerberg mentor who later wrote the book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. The discussion will be moderated by Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of Media Studies at UVA and a prominent cultural historian and author whose acclaimed works include Antisocial Media: How Facebook Undermines Democracy and The Googlization of Everything – And Why We Should Worry.
A Conversation on Netflix’s Athlete A – Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk will discuss their process in creating Athlete A, a thorough investigation of decades-long systemic abuse and institutionalized corruption within the world of gymnastics. This harrowing documentary from Netflix sheds light on the horrific sexual abuse of hundreds of young athletes by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and the team of tireless investigative journalists at The Indianapolis Star who worked to hold USAG and Larry Nassar accountable. The discussion will be moderated by UVA Assistant Professor Bonnie Hagerman, who teaches Women, Gender, and Sport: A History of American Female Athletes.
A Conversation on Netflix’s Giving Voice – Directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena discuss their new documentary Giving Voice, an emotional journey centered around six students competing in the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition. Students perform one of famed playwright August Wilson’s monologues from his century cycle of ten plays focused on the African American experience, allowing a new generation to find their own voice through his work in their increasingly complicated world. The discussion will be moderated by Jenny Wales, ;UVA Drama Associate Professor and Heritage Theatre Festival Artistic Director.
American Perspectives Series
The Evening Hour – Filmmaker Braden King’s poetically atmospheric film tells the story of Cole Freeman, who maintains an uneasy equilibrium in his rural Appalachian town, looking after the old and infirm whale selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. His fragile balance is upended with the arrival of an old friend who forces Cole to take action in this beautifully shot and acted film featuring Philip Ettingdr, Michazel Trotter, Emmy-nominee Lili Taylor and Oscar nominee Tess Harper.
Gather – Gather, from director Sanjay Rawal, is an intimate portrait of the growing movement amongst Native Americans to reclaim their spiritual, political, and cultural identities through food sovereignty, while battling the trauma of centuries of genocide.
The Giverny Document (Single Channel) – Filmmaker and artist Ja’Tovia Gary uses a variety of experimental filmmaking techniques to craft a poetic, multi-textured cinematic meditation on the safety and bodily autonomy of Black women.
Good Ol Girl – Good Ol Girl follows three young Texas cowgirls tasked with carrying on their families’ legacies amidst a volatile landscape and industry. The film explores the modern West: a place where the male cowboy mythology must answer to a new, honest, and some would say subversive, female story.
Hamtramck, USA – Once a city that was 90% Polish, Hamtramck, Michigan became the first Muslim majority city in America. Following the campaigns of individuals seeking to gain representation in city hall, this inspiring documentary wrestles with identity politics, power dynamics, and the immigrant experience in America.
Heard – Heard captures the inspiring stories of four people who grew up in “the projects,” surviving and thriving in spite of and often because of the challenges they’ve had to overcome. Now they’re giving back to their home communities and trying to make a better life for those who come behind.
Women in Film
Aggie – Emmy-nominated director Catherine Gund delivers an affectionate tribute with a powerful message in this story of how her mother, renowned art collector and philanthropist Agnes “Aggie Gund,” put her money where her passion was by using proceeds from the $165 million 2017 sale of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Masterpiece” to start the Art for Justice Fund, which works to reform the American criminal system and end mass incarceration.
Coded Bias – Coded Bias explores the threat artificial intelligence poses to civil rights and democracy by telling the story of fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s startling discovery that facial recognition does not see dark-skinned faces accurately, and her subsequent journey to push for the first-ever US legislation to govern against bias in artificial intelligence.
Freeland – Devi is a fiercely independent woman in her sixties whose toughness, ingenuity, and boundless energy have served her well in running her successful black market pot farm in California, but even she cannot prepare for the ultimate disruption of capitalism to her business and world.
Women in Blue – Filmed from 2017-2020, Women in Blue follows Minneapolis’ first female police chief Janeé Harteau, as she works to reform the Minneapolis Police Department by diversifying the ranks and promoting women into every rank of leadership. When she is forced to resign in the wake of a high-profile officer-involved shooting, the new chief selects only men as his top brass, and the women left behind are left to grapple with the consequences.
Statecraft: The Bush 41 Team – Directed by Charlottesville-based filmmaker Lori Shinseki, and presented by The Miller Center at the University of Virginia, Statecraft follows the foreign policy team of President George H.W. Bush as they navigated the challenges that came with transitioning from a Cold War to a post-Cold War world at a time when heightened U.S.-Soviet tensions gave way to delicate negotiations between the two former adversaries.
Fish & Men – Facing the dire consequences of a demand-driven seafood economy, pioneering fishermen and celebrated chefs are championing a new movement to return sustainability to both fish and fishermen. Fish & Men showcases a revolutionary new supply-based model focusing on local, seasonal, sustainable fish–where consumers can discover new varieties of storied seafood and reconnect once again to those who risk their lives to harvest from the sea for us.
The Last Out – Three young Cuban baseball players leave their families and risk exile to train in Central America and chase their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. Told with rawness and urgency, this documentary feature reveals the very human story of people caught between countries who want nothing more than a better life for their families.
Feels Good Man – Artist Matt Furie had no idea when he was creating Pepe the Frog, an innocuous laid-back humanoid amphibian cartoon, that Pepe would transform into a symbol for the hate of the alt-right. This documentary explores an unexpected cultural rift, offering a vivid, moving portrait of an artist battling to regain control of his vandalized creation set in the very strange reality we’ve all found ourselves living in.
Federico Cuatlacuatl – Transborder Blackness & Indigeneity (Indigenidad y Negritud Transfronteriza) Series – Born in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico, Federico Cuatlacuatl, is an Cholula, Puebla, Mexico-born indigenous artist and Assistant Professor of Studio Art at the University of Virginia whose work focuses heavily on disseminating topics of Latinx immigration, social art practice, and cultural sustainability.
Joe Fab – Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Fab returns with the VAFF Shorts Program, an annual Festival favorite. Joe is an accomplished producer, writer and director whose work includes When My Time Comes, a documentary about the right-to-die movement featuring famed NPR host Diane Rehm, part of this year’s VAFF program, and the highly-acclaimed 2004 release Paper Clips, which he co-directed.
Samhita Sunya – Middle Eastern & South Asian Film Series – Samhita Sunya is an Assistant Professor of Cinema in the University of Virginia’s Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Language and Cultures. Her interests span world film history, South and West Asian cinemas, intersections of audio-visual media and literature, and sound studies. She also has a curatorial background in the collaborative administration of film series and festivals.
Ilya Tobvis – Jewish & Israeli Film Series – Ilya Tobvis, director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which each year presents some 70 international films, including documentaries and narratives, from emerging and established directors, that relate to the Jewish experience.
Test Pattern – National discussions around inequities in our health system, the #metoo movement, and the state of race relations in America come together in this debut feature from director Shatara Michelle Ford. An Austin, Texas couple’s relationship is put to the test when the girlfriend is sexually assaulted and her boyfriend drives her from hospital to hospital in search of a rape kit.
Jumbo – A seductive and poetic adventure based on strong colorful visuals, this striking narrative feature from director Zoé Wittock follows a shy young woman working in an amusement park who finds love in the most unexpected of places.
Monsoon – Starring Crazy Rich Asians lead Henry Golding, Cambodian-born Chinese director Hong Khaou’s followup to his acclaimed 2014 debut film Lilting is an intimate, fascinating, and thoughtful look at the complex intersections between culture and identity through the eyes of a Vietnamese-born, British-raised gay man.
Twilight’s Kiss – Set against a backdrop of modern life in Hong Kong, this quiet, introspective feature presents the struggle between conventional morals and personal desires as two married men in their twilight years fall in love and contemplate a possible future together.
Electric Jesus – While supergroup Stryper found fame outside of Evangelical circles, dozens of “white metal” bands thrived within the wholesome Christian youth group culture of sprawling suburban America. Electric Jesus is about one of those bands, and features actors Judd Nelson and Brian Baumgartner, known to millions as Kevin in NBC’s The Office.
Dinner in America – An off-the-wall, daring comedy, Dinner in America follows unconventional couple Simon and Patty as they embark on a series of misadventures in a dreary Midwestern suburb. Set to the beat of brilliant original songs, this feature film offers a wild ride through the places and people of suburbia—in all their peculiar forms.
Spotlight on Virginia Filmmaking
Alice – Charlottesville filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley sits down with composer, conductor, and teacher of choral music, Alice Parker, in this intimate portrait of a true musical pioneer and her lasting impact on choral music and all those who experience it. Parker shares stories of her remarkable 70-year career, clearly demonstrating her boundless passion for music, for life, and for kindness.
The Reunited States – Ben Rekhi offers a window into four Americans working to re-inject the nation with one of its fastest-diminishing resources – civility. From Charlottesville’s own Susan Bro and her efforts to honor her daughter Heather Heyer’s memory by inspiring others to stand for what they believe in to David and Erin Leaverton, a Republican couple who travel to all fifty states in an RV to learn firsthand what divides us, the film illustrates the power we all have to bring our country back together.
The Judge – Character, Cases, Courage – presided over several landmark cases – most famously his ruling in favor of public schools’ desegregation in Richmond, VA, a decision met with the extreme public backlash and even threats to his life. This biographical documentary examines one man’s love for the law, great personal courage, and unfailing fair-mindedness that allowed him to do what he simply referred to as “his job.”