Virginia Film Festival is back in-person in its 34th year with a vibrant and diverse program of more than 85 films, including 60 features, and an outstanding lineup of special guests and discussions. The 2021 VAFF will feature theatrical presentations as well as reprise last year’s popular drive-in series at the picturesque Morven Farm in eastern Albemarle County.
The Festival will present an array of special guests, including a tribute to award-winning actor Martha Plimpton, who will also discuss her latest film, Mass; the 2021 American Perspectives Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema presented to Tony- nominated playwright and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris; and Danny Strong, writer and executive producer of the new Hulu limited series Dopesick.
“We are thrilled to announce this program, and to welcome back audiences this year both in theatres and at our stunning drive-in venue, Morven Farm in eastern Albemarle County,” said Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival and Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Virginia. “There is something truly special about a film festival environment, and about our Festival in particular, that goes beyond the films we show. It is about the community that is created through the sharing and celebration of this remarkable art form, and the chance to come together and experience such a diverse array of films on a wide variety of topics that run the gamut of our emotions and our experiences in the world today.”
Masks will be required for all VAFF events held at indoor venues, regardless of vaccination status. In compliance with The Paramount Theater’s policy, VAFF events at The Paramount will require proof of vaccination or proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours prior to the event, along with a photo ID.
Opening Night Film
The latest film from Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch, is a love letter to journalists that brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictional 20th Century French city. The film, which received a nine-minute standing ovation following its recent premiere at Cannes, features a star-studded cast including Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson.
Drawing from the stories of real cowboys, The Harder They Fall executes the classic hallmarks of the genre in a way that is both fun and refreshingly modern. When outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) discovers that Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the man who murdered his parents, is being released from prison, he rounds up a gang to track the man down and get his revenge. At the same time, Rufus assembles his own fearsome crew to confront Nat. Fueled by passion and bent on destruction, both gangs move toward a deadly face off in this action-packed revisionist Western.
From Pablo Larraín comes the highly-anticipated Spencer, a reimagining of the events that impelled Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) to end her marriage with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and leave the British royal family. This biographical psychological film, written by Steven Knight, and also featuring Timothy Spall and Jack Nielen, delves into the complex inner world of a woman who “decides, somehow, not to be the queen” over the course of three fateful days.
Fresh off of its recent world premiere at the 78th Venice Film Festival, where director Jane Campion won the Silver Lion for Best Direction, The Power of the Dog is a powerful exploration of masculinity and love in 1925 in the American West. The charismatic rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) inspires fear and awe in those around him. But when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, played by newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, Phil finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Benedict Cumberbatch, on the heels of an acclaimed performance in The Power of the Dog, is also earning raves for his portrayal of eccentric artist Louis Wain in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Wain’s highly creative and at times psychedelic paintings of cats helped transform the public’s perceptions of felines forever.
Closing Night Film
C’mon, C’mon, from writer-director Mike Mills, tells the story of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman), who forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in this delicate and deeply moving story about the connections between adults and children, and between the past and the future.
Belfast – Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh, and featuring Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, Belfast is a poignant story of love, laughter, and loss in one boy’s childhood, amid the music and social tumult of the late 1960’s.
Dopesick – Starring and executive produced by Michael Keaton, and filmed in Virginia, Dopesick examines how one company triggered the worst drug epidemic in American history. The series takes viewers to the epicenter of America’s struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of Big Pharma, to a distressed mining community, to the hallways of the DEA. The Hulu limited series was inspired by the bestselling book by Beth Macy, who will join writer and executive producer Danny Strong for a discussion after the screening of an upcoming episode.
Flee – This animated documentary from Executive Producer Riz Ahmed follows the story of Amin, an Afghan man who arrived alone in Denmark when he was 16. Now 36 and on the verge of marriage, a secret from his past threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself. This innovative documentary explores a harrowing immigrant experience that remains relevant to this day.
The Hand of God – Academy Award-winning writer and director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty, The Young Pope) delivers his most personal story yet. The story of a young boy, Fabietto Schisa, in the tumultuous Naples of the 1980s. It’s a story full of unexpected joys, like the arrival of football legend Diego Maradona, and an equally unexpected tragedy, as fate, joy, and tragedy intertwine to set Fabietto’s future in motion.
Last Night in Soho – From acclaimed director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shaun of the Dead) comes a stylish and ambitious psychological horror film. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer, is mysteriously able to travel back to the 1960s where she meets a dazzling wannabe singer, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.
Parallel Mothers – In Pedro Almodóvar’s highly-anticipated film, two single women, Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), meet in a hospital room where they are going to give birth. While middle-aged Janis is thrilled with her impending delivery, the adolescent Ana is traumatized. The few words the two share in the hospital hallways forge a bond that complicates and changes their lives in decisive ways.
Petite Maman – In director Céline Sciamma’s follow up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her beloved grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods where her mom, Marion, used to play and built the treehouse she’s heard so much about. One day her mother abruptly leaves. That’s when Nelly meets a girl (Gabrielle Sanz) her own age in the woods building a treehouse. Her name is Marion.
The Speech – Based on Fabrice Caro’s bestselling novel The Speech, director Laurent Tirard’s 2020 Cannes Official Selection comedy makes its U.S. premiere. Adrien (Benjamin Lavernhe), recently dumped at thirty-five, awaits a reconciliation text message from his ex during a seemingly never-ending family dinner. This film is a warm and hilarious study of character and family.
The Worst Person in the World – The final film in acclaimed director Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy” follows Julie (Renate Reinsve), who is turning thirty. Her older, successful graphic novelist boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is looking to settle down, but when she gatecrashes a party and meets the young and charming Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), Julie dives headlong into yet another new relationship that she hopes will offer her perspective—only to find some life choices are already behind her.
Jockey – An aging horse jockey attempts to win one last title on a championship horse, but past injuries and age make him question his ability to ride. His goals are further complicated by the arrival of a rookie rider claiming to be his son. Jockey tells the tale of a man coming to grips with the perils of aging against the exciting backdrop of horse racing.
Socks on Fire – Documentary filmmaker Bo McGuire returns to his hometown of Hokes Bluff, Alabama to find that his Aunt Sharon—his favorite childhood relative—had locked her gay, drag-queen brother, Uncle John, out of the family home. Through a series of stylized reenactments spun in with family VHS footage, this documentary illustrates the fluidity of identity, personality, and performance present in McGuire’s own hometown, among his kin, and among the many women who’ve been a force in Bo’s life.
Storm Lake – Jerry Risius and Beth Levison’s documentary takes audiences inside the Storm Lake Times, a family-run newspaper serving an Iowa town that has seen its share of changes in the 40 years since Big Agriculture came to the area. Pulitzer-winning editor Art Cullen and his team dedicate themselves to keeping the paper alive as local journalism dies out.
Try Harder! – At Lowell High School where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the students are Asian-American, the things that make a person stand out can feel commonplace. Debbie Lum’s humorous and heart-filled documentary sheds light on the American college application process and the often paralyzing reality that the most diverse American generation faces as they try to navigate it.
Red Rocket – Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), aka “Mikey Saber”, is a washed-up porn star, forced to move back to the small Texas hometown he thought he’d escaped for good. The newest film from Sean Baker, director of Tangerine and The Florida Project, is a darkly funny, raw, and humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him.
We Burn Like This – When 22-year-old Rae, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, is targeted by Neo-Nazis, her ancestors’ trauma becomes real. Shortly afterwards, she returns home to her mother and uncovers the truth about a childhood accident. This coming-of-age story follows Rae on her journey to forgive herself, her mother, and the broken world while showing the inherited effects of historical trauma and the strength of survival and healing.
Zola – Inspired by a real-life, 148-tweet viral thread, Zola follows a waitress and dancer, Zola (Taylour Paige), who gets pulled into a wild ride of a road trip with customer and fellow exotic dancer Stefani (Riley Keough), hitting clubs in Tampa with a plan to make as much money as possible. Zola soon realizes the plan is far more nefarious than it seemed.
Women in Film
Hive – Based on a true story, writer-director Blerta Basholli’s feature debut delves into the life of Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi). After her husband’s disappearance during the Kosovo War, Hoti decides to make and sell ajvar, a red pepper spread, with the other women of the town as a means of survival, but Hoti’s actions are viewed by many as a revolt. Facing both verbal and physical attacks by the town and her own family, Hoti is determined to persevere.
Julia – Oscar-nominated RBG filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West combine never-before-seen archival footage, personal photos, and first-person narratives to offer new perspectives on overseas spy turned legendary cookbook author and television superstar Julia Child, who changed the way Americans think about food, television, and even women.
The Meaning of Hitler – Shot in nine countries and taking inspiration from the 1978 Sebastian Haffner book of the same name, this documentary explores what Hitler means amidst current waves of white supremacy, antisemitism, and the weaponization of history.
Mothering Sunday – From screenwriter Alice Birch (Normal People, Lady Macbeth) and director Eva Husson (Bang Gang, Girls of the Sun) comes a richly sensual adaptation of Graham Swift’s award-winning novel starring recent Emmy Award winner Josh O’Connor (The Crown) and Odessa Young. The film follows a young maid whose memories of a forbidden dalliance return ten years later when she is trying to make sense of a novel she is writing. The film also features Colin Firth and Olivia Colman.
Other films include Aloners, Beans, End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, Monkey Beach, Nudo Mixteco, Storm Lake, Try Harder!, and Zola.
VAFF and VPM
Once again this year, the Festival partners with VPM to present films offering unique perspectives on issues of great importance to Virginia and Virginians. This year’s films are:
Mending Walls – Artist Hamilton Glass challenges 30 artists from different cultural backgrounds to collaborate on 16 murals in Richmond, VA about race, status, and experiences. The film shows how the artists got to know each other through difficult conversations, how working together ultimately opened their eyes and hearts to the differences between all of us, and how these murals became a symbol of hope.
How the Monuments Came Down – In the summer of 2020, demonstrators filled the streets to protest against systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd. How the Monuments Came Down reveals the historic roots of white supremacy and Black resistance in Richmond since the end of the Civil War. Through personal stories from descendants and history-makers, the film uncovers how Confederate monuments came to shape Richmond’s landscape and why protestors demanded they come down. The screening will be followed by a discussion, moderated by Angie Miles and featuring directors Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, along with Joe Rogers, civic activist and education programs manager at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond.
A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks – This documentary explores the power of images in advancing racial, economic, and social equality as seen through the lens of Gordon Parks, one of America’s most trailblazing artists, and the generation of young photographers, filmmakers, and activists he inspired.
Citizen Ashe – This documentary, a partnership between CNN Films and HBO Max, tells the story of sports legend, social activist, and Richmond, Virginia native Arthur Ashe. Known to most by a stellar tennis career culminating in triumphs at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, in addition to being the first black player ever selected to the US Davis Cup Team, the film uncovers how Ashe’s personal evolution made him a leader in the Civil Rights movement and an advocate for all oppressed peoples around the world prior to his death from AIDS-related complications in 1993.
The First Step – Director Brandon Kramer follows political commentator and author Van Jones as he works across party lines in a deeply divided America on landmark criminal justice reform and for a more humane response to the addiction crisis.
The Kids – Twenty-six years ago, Larry Clark’s gritty shoestring-budget movie Kids, featuring unknown and amateur actors, became an unlikely hit and shocked audiences with its frank sexuality. Now this documentary goes back and examines the many lives that were upended by the film, which also launched the careers of Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny.
Medicine Man: The Stan Brock Story – This documentary adventure recounts the incredible life story of British-born Amazonian cowboy turned U.S. TV star, Stan Brock, who sacrificed everything for his unwavering mission to unite a nation.
Not Going Quietly – When tireless social and political advocate Ady Barkan was diagnosed with ALS in 2015, he did not let it cool his passion for change-making. Director Nicholas Bruckman follows the journey in this powerful and surprisingly uplifting film.
Stay Prayed Up – Stay Prayed Up is a foot-stomping, soul-stirring documentary that follows the Branchettes, a legendary North Carolina gospel group led by the force of nature that is Lena Mae “Mother” Perry. Now in her 50th year as bandleader, Perry and her group have packed churches and lifted hearts throughout the South and as far away as Ireland. The film follows the Branchettes as they record their first, fully live album, a hallmark in the canon of Black gospel groups. Stay Prayed Up is a testament to the fact that music, and faith, are nothing without the fire that fuels them.
Other documentaries include End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, How the Monuments Came Down, Julia, Love and Fury, Mayor Pete, The Meaning of Hitler, Mending Walls, Socks on Fire, Storm Lake, Truth Tellers, and Try Harder!
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.
Machinery of Dreams – After her mother is hospitalized due to a car crash, eight-year-old Lily goes to stay with her aunt and grandmother, who suffers from dementia in this fantastical tale from Charlottesville filmmaker Eric Hurt. When her grandmother tells Lily a fairy tale to pass the time, it becomes clear that it is not a fairytale at all, and the girl ventures into the story in search of a talisman to save her mother.
Truth Tellers – Truth Tellers is a new documentary film chronicling the lives of courageous Americans fighting for racial equity, environmental justice, and indigenous rights through the eyes of Robert Shetterly, the longtime activist and artist whose portrait series Americans Who Tell The Truth has traveled the country for the past two decades.
Other Virginia films include Dopesick, Mending Walls, and How the Monuments Came Down.
Jump, Darling – Russell, an actor turned drag queen, escapes to his grandmother’s house in the country, only to find that his grandmother, Margaret (Cloris Leachman), is in steep decline. He decides to move in with her, and begins to perform drag at the local college bar as his alter ego “Fishy Falters.”A vibrant portrayal of a family in transition, Jump Darling is an exploration of familial bonds and the formation of queer identity.
Mayor Pete – Mayor Pete follows the first openly gay presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, as he runs for president, into the pandemic, and finally to his appointment as Cabinet member to the Biden administration. A powerful look into one of the most tense campaigns of our time, this is a story of perseverance and politics.
Other LGBTQIA+ Focus films include Flee and Socks on Fire.
Korean Film Series
Aloners – Jin-ah (Gong Seung-yeon) prefers to be alone, blocking out the world at any given moment, but when a neighbor dies alone in his apartment, Jin-ah must face the root of her desire for solitude. In a time when isolation has become the world’s normal, director Hong Seong-eun’s drama unpacks the difficult yet rewarding experience of human connection.
Fighter – In order to bring her father to South Korea, Jina, a North Korean refugee, takes a job as a cleaner at a boxing gym. Inspired by the other female boxers, Jina falls into the world of boxing herself. Portraying the physical and mental fight of a woman in the face of discrimination, Jero Yun’s second film is realistic and emotionally raw.
I Don’t Fire Myself – When technical administrator Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in) is suddenly dispatched to a subcontracting company in Nowheresville, pushed by her chauvinistic bosses, she is in no mood to make friends. Yet as she sees her new co-workers’ diligence in the face of demanding conditions and impossibly low pay, she experiences a change in heart. Lee Tae-gyeom’s first feature is an impassioned plea against workplace discrimination and the exploitation of the weak.
In Front of Your Face – A middle-aged actress is re-adjusting to life in Korea after moving back in with her sister, in auteur director Hong Sang-soo’s latest feature Meanwhile, a certain director has asked her to join his latest film, and at first, she refuses. She eventually decides to meet him in Seoul to discuss the project, but as rain begins to fall in the city, the night takes an unexpected turn.
Indigenous Americans in Film
Beans – Director Tracey Deer’s debut feature recounts the coming-of-age of a young Mohawk girl (Kiawenti:io Tarbell), nicknamed Beans, during the Oka Crisis, a 78-day land dispute between the indigenous Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada.
End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock – A group of indigenous women risk their lives to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline construction that desecrated their ancient burial and prayer sites and threatens their land, water, and very existence. In the process, they must face the personal costs of leadership, even as their own lives and identities are transformed by one of the great political and cultural events of the early 21st century.
Love and Fury – Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo follows Native artists as they navigate their careers in the US and abroad. The film explores the immense complexities each artist faces of their own identity as Native artists, as well as advancing Native art into a post-colonial world.
Monkey Beach – Lisa (Grace Dove) returns to her hometown in Kitamaat Village to save her brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette), who is lost at sea, from a fate she has foreseen since childhood. Over the course of her journey, she encounters ghosts, Sasquatches, and figures from Haisla stories, all while coming to terms with her past, her identity, and her dysfunctional family.
Jewish and Israeli Film Series
Neighbours – In a village on the Syrian-Turkish border in the early 80s, six-year-old Sero experiences his first year at an Arab school. Sero struggles to reconcile what he knows of his long-time neighbors, a loving Jewish family, with his teacher’s vilifying teachings of the Jewish enemy. With comedy and satire, this film depicts a childhood that manages to find light moments between dictatorship and dark drama, connecting his memories of the Syrian tragedy to the present.
Persian Lessons – Giles, a Jewish man from Belgium, pretends to be half-Iranian in order to avoid persecution at a concentration camp. However, his freedom hinges on his ability to teach one of the Nazi officials Farsi, a language he does not speak.
The Raft – Four teens, all die hard soccer fans, construct a raft to sail from Israel to Cyprus to watch the World Cup. When the normal perils of being a teenager are combined with the very real danger of sailing a handmade float across the Mediterranean, the relationships within the group are put to the test.
Indigeneity In Mexico
Nudo Mixteco – Set against the backdrop of the annual Festival of San Mateo, writer-director Ángeles Cruz weaves a rich tapestry of three Indigenous women navigating love, sex, and desire within the often-crushing strictures of customs and traditions.
La Utopía de la Mariposa – Lucas Avendaño is one of the most important artists in the Muxe community and a stage dancer whose skill has taken him all over the world. On May 10th, 2018, his brother, Bruno Alonso Avendaño, disappeared with little explanation from the Secretary of the Navy, where he worked. Since then, Lucas has used his art in the performing and digital theatre scene to search for his missing brother and denounce the injustices of the state.
Middle Eastern and South Asian Sidebar
Dachra – Tunisia’s first horror movie, Dachra follows three young journalism students who venture to an isolated village in order to solve a gruesome criminal case that has gone cold. Over the course of their stay, they become trapped in the village and discover something far more sinister than they could have ever imagined.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom – Pawo Choyning Dorji’s directorial debut follows Ugyen Dorji, an aspiring singer who dreams of moving to Australia, but is instead forced to teach in “the world’s most remote school.” The children of the school try to give him a warm welcome, and through their innocent efforts, they show Dorji what impact he can make on their lives—as well as on his own—through teaching.
Sudanese Film Group Shorts – During the 1970s and 1980s, as a myriad religious and political factions waged an endless civil war in Sudan, a group of filmmakers banded together to make a series of compelling short films. This program of eight shorts shines a light on a forgotten chapter of film history.
VAFF will present two thematic shorts packages in 2021: Facing Reality and Being Human, featuring eight short films including Calf Rope; Feeling Through; Full Picture; “Hello,” We Lied; Saving Juliette; Still Home; Weep Not; and When We Were Bullies.