The sanctuary of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church -- now the non-profit Music Resource Center -- in downtown Charlottesville was the setting on Wednesday morning for a news conference announcing the line-up for this year's Virginia Film Festival. Appropriately so, since the theme of the 2006 festival is Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.
Festival director Richard Herskowitz revealed that the Virginia Film Award will be presented on Friday, October 27, to Oscar recipient (and Virginia resident) Robert Duvall, who will also be on hand to discuss his triple-threat 1997 movie (actor, director, screenwriter) The Apostle with film critic David Edelstein, after the film is screened at The Paramount.
The festival will also be the venue for the premiere of a new documentary by Charlottesville's own Oscar- and Emmy-winning director, Paul Wagner, called God of a Second Chance. Wagner and his crew "spent years getting to know the churches and ministries" in South East Washington, D.C., the poorest neighborhood in the Nation's Capital. (It has, Wagner told me, 65,000 residents, one sit-down restaurant, and 300 churches.) "It took a year to shoot," he said, but "while the film is a finished product, the project is still in process."
Herskowitz credited Wagner with stimulating the idea for the 2006 festival's theme, but Wagner modestly demurred. "If this doesn't work as a theme, I'm not responsible," he said with a smile, adding that "there are a lot of filmmakers noting the importance of religion and spirituality" in the contemporary world.
"What is stimulating to filmmakers," said Herskowitz, "is the growing tensions between religion and secular society." What the festival aims to do, he said, is to "use film as a springboard for discussion and debate," giving the audience an opportunity to "interact with filmmakers." To that end, he said later, "almost every film is accompanied by a speaker. I think we're the only film festival with more speakers than films."
Besides Duvall, whose film debut came in one of the hits of last year's festival, the 1962 version of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the festival will provide a platform for Tony-winning actor Liev Schreiber to screen his directoral debut, Everything Is Illuminated (2005), starring Elijah Wood and based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
One of last year's biggest box-office successes, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, will also be featured at the festival, with producer Mark Johnson and actor William Moseley ("Peter Pevensie"). That epic will be screened at the same time as Ingmar Bergman's classic, The Seventh Seal, one of four Scandinavian films in the program.
Herskowitz said that, in programming the festival, there was an attempt to be "as ecumenical and multifaith as possible." There will be films exploring Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as some "irreverent" entries, including Monty Python's The Life of Brian and the 2005 parody of a 1922 Mormonsploitation film, the silent Trapped by the Mormons.
There will also be several films with gay themes, including Keep Not Silent (about Orthodox Jewish lesbians in Israel) and In My Father's Church (in which a lesbian wants to have a church wedding -- and her father is the pastor of the local United Methodist Church). Another gay-themed film is Camp Out, a documentary about ten teenagers attending the first overnight camp for gay Christian youth. That film's director, Larry Grimaldi, will present the film.
Besides the unconventional Trapped by the Mormons, there will be other silent films as well, including Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings and the 1925 His People (about Jews on the Lower East Side), both with live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton.
One of the most anticipated programs in the Virginia Film Festival, the Adrenaline Film Project, will be back this year for the third time, with young filmmakers mentored by Jeff Wadlow and Beau Bauman. The object is to make a movie from scratch within 72 hours. This year the Adrenaline Film Project is sponsored by Volvo. (No relation to the opening night screening at the Paramount of Swedish Auto, which was filmed in Charlottesville last year, with director Derek Sieg and actress January Jones.) The Adrenaline Film Project provides a unique opportunity for aspiring directors, producers, and screenwriters -- most of whom are either Charlottesville residents or University of Virginia students -- and represents the film festival's commitment to nurturing local talent.
In addition to Swedish Auto (directed and produced by UVa alumni) and Paul Wagner's new documentary, there will be several other features on the VFF schedule with Charlottesville ties, including Live from the Hook, a documentary about local musicians Bob Girard and Charlie Pastorfield.
While there are still some "TBAs" on the schedule, I was surprised by a few omissions. Where are the classic Catholic films of the 1940s, like Going My Way and The Song of Bernadette? How about The Exorcist or The Shoes of the Fisherman? A focus on the tension between traditional Jewish culture and modernity could include Hester Street, any of the versions of The Jazz Singer (Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neil Diamond), or even Norman Jewison's ponderous Fiddler on the Roof. And speaking of Norman Jewison musicals, how about Jesus Christ Superstar -- or, for that matter, Godspell or The Sound of Music? (I now feel guilty for not making more suggestions on Richard Herskowitz's film festival blog.)
Later this week, the full schedule of the 2006 Virginia Film Festival should be posted on line. In the meantime, the Daily Progress, WINA-AM, The Hook, and WVIR-TV also have reports. For more information, visit the Virginia Film Festival at www.vafilm.com.
And, for my blog coverage of the 2005 Virginia Film Festival, see these articles: Fever and You Ought to Be in Pictures.