A Night (or Several!) at the Movies: Virginia Film Festival Reviews

 

Virginia Film Festival

Photo courtesy of Morgan Steinfeld
The Paramount was one of many theaters in Charlottesville screening VFF films.

Introduction and reviews by: Olivia Knott

With 41 sold out shows, a record 28, 609 tickets issued, and a 46.1 percent increase in box office sales from its 2013 record, the 2014 Virginia Film Festival was undeniably a triumphant success.

The festival kicked off on Nov. 6 at the Jefferson Theater with an extravagant opening gala, complete with a live band, champagne and all the prosciutto a starving college student could ever dream of.

Luckily, I tore myself away from the cured meats table long enough to make a sweep around the theater, noting industry professionals, U.Va. intellectuals, and students clumped together, eyes darting across the room in search of Patrick Wilson (of “Girls” fame). I realized then that it is this combination that makes the Virginia Film Festival such a unique experience- a union of artistry, academic intellectualism and student curiosity.

Not many college towns have the privilege of hosting such an event, and the film festival is an important opportunity for students interested in the film industry to learn from the panels of directors, writers, producers and actors that follow many of the screenings.

If you made the mistake of not attending a single screening, don’t wallow in your regret- luckily the Iris team set out to view and review five films playing over the course of the weekend.

And while I had no luck meeting Patrick Wilson, I did discover a few movies, which of course, as Netflix so eloquently puts it, featured some seriously “strong female leads.”

 

Low Down

The tragedy of the tortured artist is often romanticized in film, yet Low Down shatters any such fantasy.

It is a story of Jazz pianist, Joe Albany, and his relationship with his daughter Amy Jo, who must come of age surrounded by her father’s addiction and unstable lifestyle. Albany’s mother, Gram, helps raise Amy Jo in his moments of absenteeism, and we are given a glimpse into the strife felt by a mother who is exhausted by her son’s addiction, yet unable to put her foot down to his destructive behavior.

I loved this movie because it made you feel the frustration of addiction in watching Albany grapple with his own selfishness and good intentions of a father desperately trying to guide his child. Meanwhile, it is just as frustrating to watch Amy Jo’s devotion to her father despite him raising her in such a toxic environment. It is clear that so much of Amy’s love of her father is tied to her love of his music, allowing her to idealize him as a child, yet as she grows older she becomes more acutely aware of his addiction.

The countless moments of innocence lost throughout the film made it almost impossible for me to wrap my mind around the fact that this story is based off of Amy Albany’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairytales from Childhood.

Undeniably, the music is one of the most amazing parts of this film, making it a must see for anyone who loves jazz.

 

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry embodies the artistic meets intellectual vision of the Virginia Film Festival.

Framed within the current context of controversy over women’s reproductive health, the documentary interviews the leaders of the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s, inserted between images and videos of media coverage from the time period. Some of the coverage was so shockingly sexist that it left the entire theater gasping out loud. I have not seen such a visceral crowd reaction to a film since my horror movie phase circa 8th grade, proving that sexism is pretty scary stuff.

I applaud the film for attempting to navigate the facets of the movement often overlooked in mainstream media- the black, lesbian, class conscious voices and their work within a movement that was voiced primarily though the concerns of the white middle-class woman.

The film was opened with an introduction from U.Va. professor of media studies, Andrea Press, and Marjorie Rosen, professor of journalism and film at Lehman College. Rosen spoke of the sexism she encountered in the beginning of her career, stating, “there was no vocabulary to be angry.”

The activists of the ’70s gave us the vocabulary to be angry, and this documentary was a reminder of our privilege to be a generation with the power and responsibility to use it.

As we walked out of the theater, several spirited viewers turned to us college age women and made this very, very clear!

 

Wild

One of the hottest tickets at the festival, the memoir-based film, Wild, follows Cheryl Strayed, who in the wake of her mother’s premature death falls into a lifestyle of drug use and sexual promiscuity that destroys her marriage.

This history unfolds through ingenious cuts between her present-day journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, three months of soul searching and coming to grips with her mother’s death, and her own resulting demons.

I most appreciated how Wild dealt with the way in which women often deal with pain through a negative relationship with their sexuality. Watching Strayed regain her respect for her body was one of the most important takeaways of the film.

However, despite beautiful cinematography, an awesome indie soundtrack and a gritty performance by Reese Witherspoon, a friend of mine described the movie best as a cross between “Eat Pray Love and Into the Wild,” a story of self-rediscovery in the wilderness, which some might love, but I found to be a little too preachy at times, culminating in a philosophical final monologue as she stared off far into the distance, of course.

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Virginia Film Festival logo

Reviews and photo by: Michelle Cho

Private Violence

This movie will truly shake you with the sheer terror that 1 in 4 women will experience during her lifetime, when partners they believed they knew well become unrecognizable vessels of physical, emotional and psychological violence.

Private Violence is a full-length documentary directed by Cynthia Hill on domestic violence in the United States. Hill is not just going for shock-value with this picture, but pushes the audience to get uncomfortable with an invisible reality that impact and even kills a number of women each day.

The film follows two women – Deanna Walters and Kit Gruelle, both survivors of physical, emotional and psychological abuse inflicted by an intimate partner. Walters tells the story of how her abusive relationship with her estranged ex-husband began and progressed, while Gruelle shares her advocacy work and motivations for restoring the safety and dignity of all survivors of domestic violence.

The Film Festival screening included a panel with the Executive Director of the Shelter for Help in Emergency, Executive Director for the Action Alliance, and the Commonwealth Attorney for the Albermarle County area. These experts answered questions about how common domestic violence is in our area and how viewers can help the legal system by becoming educated bystanders and jurors. It was very evident during the panel that these leaders were passionate and deeply committed in both their personal and professional capacities to see this largely invisible act of violence eradicated.

Trigger warning: graphic images of abused woman, courtroom scenes showing abuser and an audio recording of outburst of domestic violence

 

Freedom Summer

When you traditionally think about the Civil Rights movement, the first figure that pops in your mind is a man faithfully loved and revered – Martin Luther King Jr. Yet in the new documentary directed by Stanley Nelson Freedom Summer, you will only see this historic leader once. Freedom Summer instead focuses on the journey of 1,000 young leaders who were part of a nationwide program to register as many black voters as possible in 1964 Mississippi.

Simply put, this film will stir you. It will anger you and inject a new dose of appreciation for the brave, bold and sometimes foolish leaders who have paved the arduous road to political equality in this nation.

Many of these leaders are bold young women, both black and white, who would have never had a voice in any other context. These women step up into the forefront of the movement’s leadership, refusing to acquiesce to the stereotypical roles that society expected of them in a way that is both inspirational and humbling.

This film will remind you that much, much progress continues to be made in terms of racial parity in the United States. This movie will enrich your understanding of a movement that has been largely silenced by mainstream narratives of American history and will also never allow you to take the right to vote for granted again.

 

Fifth Street

Fifth Street is a short film by Fourth-year student director Brendan Rijke.  For an amateur film, Fifth Street was filmed and produced very well. It has an impressive number of sweeping shots, including a number of moving captures as Alex bikes on eerily empty, but beautiful country roads and as Adele walks through a number of green pastures.

Although it felt a little bit cliché, it presented an interesting Segway into 5-7 and was well received by the audience. This year it premiered right before the film 5-7.

Fifth Street first and foremost is a love story between two young adults named Adele and Alex, a young couple that is wedged apart by dreams of desire and a need for Adele to leave the monotony of small-town life. Adele dreams of living in New York while Alex is set on building a life in their hometown. Without giving too much of the plot away, we can see the point of tension here.

 

5-7

If you love thick French accents and unrealistic, yet whimsical love stories, 5-7 directed by Victor Lenvin is just the flick for you.

The movie follows the journey of witty and slightly dweeby writer Brian Bloom who is suffering from writer’s block and has yet to see any of his works published. One day Brian is out for a stroll in the city when he meets a French woman named Arielle. Arielle embodies all of the qualities that Brian (and the audience) desires – she is gorgeous, intelligent, cultured, compassionate and confident. The only aspect of her that is not perfect is her marital status- Arielle shares an open relationship with her husband, a French diplomat who is OK with her having a boyfriend and has a mistress of his own.

Lenvin’s film has a very 500 Days of Summer-esque feel and is packed with unconventional dialogue and a string of all-star cast members including Glenn Close and Frank Langella. While ultimately pretty predictable, 5-7 flirts with the possibility of having a strong, empowered female lead that stands confidently on her own without being defined or demeaned by the relationships she is in.

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Virginia Film Festival Panel

An audience member participates in a panel discussion after a film showing.
Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

Review by Alaina Segura

How I Got Over

In her debut documentary, How I Got Over, Nicole Boxer seeks to answer one of humanity’s prevailing questions: can art save us?  The film, which was released in July 2014, follows fifteen previously homeless and/or incarcerated women in the D.C. area, as they create, rehearse, and perform an original play based upon their life experiences.  Over a twelve-week period, from the first day of recovery to the play’s opening day, the documentary chronicles the women (none of whom had ever acted before) as they struggle with their acts, become comfortable sharing their stories, and explore theater as a creative process and means of catharsis. The play, titled, “My Soul Look Back in Wonder,” showed to a sold-out theater at the Kennedy Center in April of 2012.

Like most films which ponder the success of curative arts, How I Got Over came to the conclusion that yes, art can, in fact, save us.  However, what makes this documentary successfully stand out amongst other films is the lens through which Boxer chooses to tell the story: the taboo socio-political issue of poverty and homelessness in the United States.  As common patterns and themes emerge in these different women’s stories, the audience becomes aware of the roots of homelessness and the unfortunate realities of poverty in our nation.

After the screening of the documentary at the Virginia Film Festival, director Nicole Boxer spoke on a panel, along with several of the women who were a part of the theater program.  Boxer discussed how directing this film was a dream come true for her. “We set out to answer this question, ‘can art change your life?’ and in documenting this story, I bared witness to the fact that, yes, it can, and I am forever changed by this experience.”

One of the women from the program explained how the experience truly helped her change for the better.  “Every time you speak of your pain, you heal.  I had fallen into a severe depression when I started recovery.  This play allowed me to sterilize my pain and to let it go.”

Another woman expressed her gratitude to the audience for coming to view the film.  “It is an honor that people want to hear our stories because this is really on our streets.  We wanted to tell our own stories to help someone else. We wanted to be an example and we wanted to help others experiencing the same hardships that we have.”

The positive outlook that these women have on life is without a doubt a testament to the therapeutic benefits of the arts and serves as an inspiration to us all.