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Virginia Film Festival's virtual approach brings the power of cinema home

Virginia Film Festival's virtual approach brings the power of cinema home

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How do you attend a film festival in the grip of a pandemic? For fans of the Virginia Film Festival, it’s time to skip the red carpet and paparazzi, and make sure the popcorn’s hot and crispy when the screenings begin.

The 33rd annual Virginia Film Festival, which takes place Wednesday through Oct. 25, is moving its screenings and discussions with stars and industry professionals online, so start your cinematic celebration by heading to virginiafilmfestival.org to browse the offerings and sign up for events.

Dress to the nines and spread a buffet table with appetizers and bubbly, if you like, even though Annette Bening, Ethan Hawke, Pete Souza, Vince Gilligan and other high-profile guests aren’t likely to see you. If you’d rather reach for a cozy sweater and slippers and curl up on the couch with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn, no one will be the wiser.

At a time when attendance restrictions, event cancellations and sheer pandemic fatigue are taking a toll on cooped-up audiences, the virtual festival is giving fans the opportunity to customize individual experiences. The virtual format also beckons folks who ordinarily might pass on attending events in person by eliminating parking issues, erasing mobility concerns about safely navigating the path from parking deck to theater and allowing parents the chance to create sensory-friendly showings at home with comfortable lighting and sound levels.

Its inaugural Drive-In Movies series at Morven Farm and Dairy Central gives film fans a chance to gather — albeit at a polite distance, staying safe within their vehicles for a 2020-style shared experience. The series begins Wednesday with the festival’s Opening Night Film, “One Night in Miami ...,” the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning actress Regina King.

“I thought it was really important at this time, when people are really missing those shared experiences,” said Jody Kielbasa, the festival’s director. As soon as festival organizers announced this year’s drive-in offerings, “the response was overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

Next at Morven Farm will be screenings of “MLK/FBI” on Thursday; “Gunda” on Thursday; the festival’s Centerpiece Film, “Ammonite,” on Saturday; and the Closing Night Film, “Nomadland,” on Sunday. All screenings begin at 7:30 p.m.

Dairy Market will screen “One Night in Miami ...” on Wednesday, “MLK/FBI” on Thursday, “S—house” on Friday, “Ammonite” on Saturday and “Shiva Baby” on Sunday — all starting at 8 p.m.

Tickets, $25, are sold by vehicle, rather than by per person, and there’s a limit of five people per vehicle. To maintain proper social distancing, attendance is limited for each screening — 105 attendees for Morven Farm and 75 at Dairy Central. Be sure to bring your printed or electronic tickets with you — and your masks, which are required during the check-in process.

And you’ll want to make those purchases soon, as remaining tickets are getting snapped up quickly. As of press time, most of the screenings were sold out, or close to it.

The rest of this season’s films and discussions will be online experiences. The easy way to dive into more than 70 virtual offerings is to get an All-Access Pass, which is $65. The student version for grade-school and college students is $45. (Keep in mind that the Special Presentation events and the Drive-In Movies aren’t part of the All-Access Pass.)

Once you buy your All-Access Pass, act quickly to reserve your seat at each film that catches your fancy by unlocking the virtual screenings through your VAFF Eventive account. The unlocking period begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday, so you’ll want to be prompt before your selections begin to fill up. About two dozen come with limits on the number of viewers who can unlock them or offer shorter windows for seeing the films.

The virtual nature of this year’s festival means that film fans across the country and around the world can attend, but some of the films arrived with restrictions in place. The following films, for instance, are accessible only to viewers in Virginia: “Army of Lovers in the Holy Land,” “Coded Bias,” “Gather,” “Jumbo,” “Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story,” “One of These Days,” “Overland,” “PVT Chat,” “The Evening Hour,” “The Passengers,” “The Woman Who Ran,” “They Ain’t Ready for Me” and “Women in Blue.”

Festival organizers made sure to keep prices low; some events that would have cost $13 last year are $8 this time. And some events are free, including Special Presentation events. Those include “A Conversation with Leslie Odom Jr.,” the actor who performed in the University of Virginia’s 2017 Bicentennial Launch Celebration; Odom plays singer Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami ...”; “A Tribute to Thomas Newman, in which the 15-time Academy award nominee talks about his storied career of composing music for films with Benjamin Rous, music director of the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia; and “Light House Studio Shorts,” which gives audiences a chance to see what young local filmmakers are creating.

Solitary screenings are fine, but there’s no reason not to watch with family members and others you’ve quarantined with as long as you’re taking proper pandemic precautions.

“You can make the popcorn, share the film, join the discussions and then discuss among yourselves,” Kielbasa said.

Technology also makes it possible for people to attend more events in a virtual festival than in one in which you’d need to keep driving between venues, parking and getting in line. All those binge-watching muscles you’ve bulked up during the pandemic months may come in handy, but longer viewing windows afforded by technology will make seeing your selections a more, well, comfortable experience.

With more than 60 films to take in, “you’re not going to see all those films in five days,” Kielbasa said with a chuckle. “Scientifically, you could, but that wouldn’t allow for a lot of sleep or bathroom visits.”

Festival organizers have made a commitment in recent years to bring in as many different voices and viewpoints as possible. This year’s representation of films by and about women and Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities exceeds 50%; last year’s program was about 40%. Kielbasa said the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans this year made the staff more determined to achieve not only representation of minorities, but more well-rounded depictions of lives, achievements and dreams.

“One Night in Miami...,” for instance, “is a rare circumstance where a film concentrates on four Black men talking about how they are going to participate in the Civil Rights Movement,” Kielbasa said.

“Moving forward, we’ll continue to do more,” he said. “It’s a step forward. You can plan the perfect festival on paper and the best-laid plans can go awry, but we’re going to continue with that. I’m really proud of our staff and the time they put in so we can present this to the community.”

The Virginia Film Festival is a program of UVa and the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts. For tickets, pandemic safety precautions and other information, head to virginiafilmfestival.org. And if you end up needing a hand getting your virtual offerings on your screen at home, help is available at virginiafilmfestival.org/technical-support.

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