What if the South had won the Civil War? What if marijuana had never been outlawed? What would you do if your nose disappeared? What’s the proper response when space aliens hovering around in large Midol tablets start killing off everyone you have sex with?
The 28th annual James River Film Festival, running March 31-April 2 in theater spaces across town, asks only the big questions.
“The director Wim Wenders once said that there are two movies. There’s the one you started out making and the one you actually make,” says Michael Jones, co-founder and director of the non-profit James River Film Society, which has presented the multi-day moviethon since 1994. “Film festivals are like that too. So much of this year’s schedule were movies we’d planned to show two years ago.” [Editor’s note: Style will be re-publishing several interviews that we did in 2020 with festival guests who were postponed by the pandemic until this year. We’ll post these in the lead-up week to the festival].
After the 2020 JRFF was cancelled due to coronavirus lockdowns, and last year’s paired-down installment went virtual-only, Richmond’s longest-running film showcase is back with a schedule of items we’ve been waiting to see — art films, documentaries, cult movies, landmark experimental shorts, even an Oscar-winner or two.
According to Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, which donates operational funds to the James River Film Society and its annual Short Film Showcase, the festival is special because it’s designed for film buffs. “James River is less about the Klieg lights and red carpet and more about getting down to the nuts and bolts and blood and sweat of bringing projects to the screen, and what’s best about movies,” he says. “Because of the expert curation of Michael Jones and the society, it also unearths older films that more people should see and know about.”
Some of this year’s archival finds hold special significance for Richmond audiences, like Russian director Slava Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky,” slated for April 1 at the Byrd Theatre, an intriguing cult sci-fi film that galvanized local moviegoers when it screened here in 1983.
“It’s kind of an allegory for the AIDS epidemic happening in America at the time,” says Coleman Jennings, James River Film Society board member. “It also has a unique take on gender identity that seems contemporary now.” Read Brent Baldwin’s 2020 interview with Tsukerman here.
“It sometimes takes an outsider to really see America,” Jones adds. “Tsukerman was a Russian emigre who made this huge underground hit with an androgynous star, Anne Carlisle, who became a cult icon. It was very popular here in Richmond when it was released, running for six weeks at the Biograph. And importantly it helped to jumpstart the whole New York City indie film scene of the ’80s, with people like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee.”
Speaking of Spike Lee, another of this year’s special guests will be director/writer Kevin Willmott, the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Lee’s “BlackkKlansman,” which tells the true story of an African-American policeman who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. Willmott will answer questions following a screening at the Byrd Theatre on April 3. This follows the Byrd showing of the filmmaker’s own provocative “Confederate States of America,” a what-if tale that Jones calls “ever timely. It’s a fake BBC documentary made in a world where the South won the war, a very dark satire.”
Canadian director Ron Mann will also be on hand for three of his acclaimed documentaries, “Grass,” about the politics of pot, paired with “Poetry in Motion,” which features the storied likes of Allen Ginsburg and Charles Bukowski and has been hailed as the “Woodstock” of poetry. That double feature is at the Byrd on April 2. Mann’s “Carmine Street Guitars,” the story of a most unusual New York instrument shop, will screen at Grace Street Theater the same day. Read Style Weekly’s 2020 interview with Mann here.
“Canada has always had a strong history in documentary and animation,” Jones says. “That’s because they are state funded by the country’s film board. In terms of reputation, Mann’s the non-fiction equivalent of Les Blank or Albert Maysles here in America.” The director has become a JRFF favorite – last year’s virtual festival featured his acclaimed documentary on the history of comic books, “Comic Book Confidential.”
Another festival fave from past years, pioneering African-American director Charles Burnett, the director of the landmark film “Killer of Sheep,” is represented by his “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property,” his 2003 docudrama on the infamous leader of a deadly 1831 slave revolt in Southhampton County, Virginia. “The genius of the film,” says Jones, “is how it shows the separation in how the Black and white community saw Turner, he was either murderer or savior.” This is the third time the little-screened public television production has been shown at the JRFF. The April 2 Byrd viewing will also feature a Q&A with two local actors who appeared in the film, Harry Kollatz and Mark Joy.
There’s also the April 3 screening at Grace St. Theater of the first feature film from another famous African-American director, Shirley Clarke, the only woman member of the hallowed New American Cinema Group, Long out of distribution, and recently restored, “The Connection” is a gritty, jazz-infused work about drug addiction and “waiting for the man” that was initially banned in the U.S.
For fans of innovative animation, the festival features the U.S. premiere of Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s “The Nose,” a surrealist fantasy that depicts composer Dmitry Shostakavich’s attempts to write an opera based on a state-banned short story (about a missing sniffer) by Ukrainian author, Nikola Gogol. “I swear this wasn’t meant to be so timely,” Jones says. “We booked the film months ago.” This Jan. 2 screening at the Byrd will also feature one of the Russian director’s acclaimed short films, an homage to Italian director Federico Fellini called “The Long Journey.”
For those attuned to the avant-garde, there will be a series of wild impressionistic shorts by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage at the Grace St. Theater on April 1 — each print is different and was hand-colored by Brakhage. Also screened will be works by Brakhage’s colleague, Phil Solomon, whose films are described in the notes as “visionary and multi-layered, a product of his fascination with the optical printer and the deterioration of the film’s surface.”
Festival viewings are $8 each, but there are two free events not to be missed. Things kick off with a pre-festival viewing this Sunday, March 20 of Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space ” at — where else — Plan 9 Music in Carytown. Katharine Coldiron, the author of a book on the infamous “worst movie ever made,” will speak.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Jean Coctau’s 1946 black and white fairytale, “Beauty and the Beast,” which has been hailed as a dream-like masterpiece, is slated for the Richmond Main Public Library on April 1.
“We try to show things that you can’t see everywhere else but we also try to have something for everyone,” says Jennings. “I would say that’s the cornerstone of being a community film festival.”
For more on the 2022 James River Film Festival, go to jamesriverfilm.org
Sunday, March 20
“Plan 9 from Outer Space” (dir: Ed Wood, 1959, 80 min.)
with critic and author Katharine Coldiron at Plan 9 Music in Carytown, 5:30 p.m. Free.
Thursday, March 31
“The Rumba Kings” (dir: Alan Brain, 2021, 94 min.) at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 6:30 p.m., $8 admission.
Friday, April 1
“Beauty & the Beast” (dir: Jean Cocteau, ’46, 93 min.) at Richmond Public Library Main Branch, 1:00 p.m. Free.
The Cult Films of Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon at Grace St. Theater,VCU at 7 p.m. $8
“Liquid Sky” (dir: Slava Tsukerman, 1983, 110 min.) at Grace St. Theater, VCU at 9 p.m. $8
Saturday, April 2
“Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” (dir: Charles Burnett, 2003) w/ actors Harry Kollatz and Mark Joy, at the Byrd Theatre, 10:30 a.m. $8
”Grass” (2000, 80 min.) / “Poetry in Motion” (’82, 90 min.) (dir: Ron Mann) w/ special guest Ron Mann! At the Byrd Theatre, 1 p.m. $8
”The Nose” (dir: Andrei Khrzhanovsky, 2020, 89 min.) w/ The Long Journey (dir: Khrzhanovsky, ’97, 21 min.) at the Byrd Theatre, 4:30 p.m. $8
“Carmine St. Guitars” (dir: Ron Mann, 2019, 80 min.) w/ special guest Ron Mann at Grace St. Theater at 8 p.m. $8
Sunday, April 3
“Confederate States of America (dir/scr: Kevin Willmott, 2004, 89 min.) w/ special guest Kevin Wilmott, at the Byrd Theatre, 1:30 p.m. $8
“BlackkKlansman (dir: Spike Lee, 2018, 135 min.) w/ special guest Kevin Wilmott at the Byrd Theatre, 4:00 p.m. $8
“The Connection” (dir: Shirley Clarke, 1961, 110 min.) at Grace St. Theater, 7:30 p.m. $8