For over 25 years, the Virginia Film Festival (VFF) has brought Central Virginia award-winning independent films and incredible documentaries, followed by in-depth panel discussions. There’s a undeniable attraction to watching a narrative unfold on the big screen. We’re hardwired to respond to storytelling in a shared space; it’s part of our collective history. For more insight into the VFF, we sat down with Jody Kielbasa, Director of the Virginia Film Festival and U.Va’s Vice Provost for the Arts. Our conversation covered his role as director, the importance of community and his favorite moments from previous Virginia Film Festivals.
What are your primary duties as the director of the festival?
I oversee the artistic arc of the Virginia Film Festival. I’m involved in the programming, identifying talent, and helping with bringing them in. I’m also involved in fundraising, programming, marketing, and management.
This is a position that requires you to wear many hats.
It does, but I’m so fortunate to have an incredible staff. It’s a very creative position and something that I truly enjoy. The festival is a great platform to represent the arts by the very nature of the 120+ films that we screen every year. There’s a tremendous amount of cross-discipline work that we do across departments and programs at the University of Virginia. More importantly, we are able to reach out for partnerships within the community of Charlottesville and beyond. It’s a great opportunity for community building and engagement with people.
There’s a strong sense of community surrounding the festival. What does community mean to you?
When I first moved to Charlottesville nearly six years ago I said to myself that if I’m going to be producing within this great community, I’m going to have to earn my place in it. This isn’t something that happens overnight. I’d like to think that after six years, I am a part of this community. Not only in the presentation of the film festival but because my family is here – my wife and three young children. The festival is involved in the community in a strong and dynamic way. We’ve worked very hard to forge partnerships with social service and cultural organizations. We have them involved on panels on films that vet what they are doing and to help raise awareness of issues that are important in our community. The festival is definitely a community builder and it’s very important that the festival continues to maintain and build upon those ties.
Just to backtrack a bit, you were appointed director of the VFF back in 2009. How have you seen the festival grow and change since then?
It’s a very different film festival from the one that I inherited several years ago. The festival is now in its 26th year. There used to be an overarching theme for the festival. The challenge of this is that the festival wasn’t entirely contemporary. I decided to drop the overarching theme after my first year because we found it to be somewhat inhibiting to exploring a wider variety of films. The result is that we’ve started expanding our options dramatically. During the last couple of years we’ve averaged 27,000 in attendance. The previous high before that had been around 17,000. We’re screening around 120+ films each year. So now the festival is little bigger and more robust.
That speaks volumes about the festival’s values. The VFF hasn’t lost the community aspect as the festival continues to grow, which is notable.
We really can’t. If we lose the community aspect, you lose what makes the VFF so special to this region.
You have an impressive track record of experience in film and the performing arts. You are a trained actor, established a small theater in Los Angeles, founded the Sarasota Film Festival, and now serve as director of the Virginia Film Festival. How did you begin on this path and how has each step influenced your career?
I actually started out as a history major and I began acting while I pursued my degree in history. I then decided that I wanted to receive formal training to become a professional actor. I went back to school and received my B.F.A. in theater and then received my M.F.A. from the FSU Asolo Conservatory for Actors Training. That led to a professional acting career and I did a fair amount of work.
I was on a soap opera for a while and then opened a 92-seat live professional theater in Los Angeles. I worked with incredible artists and then discovered that I had a real love and passion for producing other people’s work. I started to produce live theater and produced about 100 live plays, most of them were original. There were remarkable people coming in and out of this theater in Los Angeles. Colin Quinn came in and did a one man show. Ben Stiller directed a show before anyone knew who Ben Stiller was. Charles Nelson Reilly, a highly respected actor and acting and drama coach, taught a class there. Billy Cusack – John Cusack’s brother – did a play at the theater. Most of the crowd from Billy’s gang used to hangout there every night – John Cusack, Jeremy Piven and Billy Zane.
29 years later, the theater still operates out of the same building and it has helped to revive a historic block in Hollywood. The theater did a lot to revitalize that area of Hollywood. 100 people or more pour into the local restaurants and bars during the night of a show. It’s now a vibrant area and I’m proud of that.
Managing and operating the theater started to inform my career. A few years later when I moved back to Florida, I was asked to found the Sarasota Film Festival by a group of community members who wanted to get a film festival started. This was the first time that I found myself enrolled in producing a major film festival. I’ve always loved film and I watch movies through the lens of an actor because that was my background and training.
Listening to you speak on your background, as well as your role as director now, there are two themes that emerge: you have a love of community and enriching where you are; and you are highly motivated to work, organize and collaborate with groups of people.
I think that’s accurate and that’s also the great thing about film. It’s a shared experience. Movies still work in a movie theater because people love the communal experience of sharing a new film that they’ve never seen before. This experience goes back a long way. It’s about shared storytelling and it’s something that’s in our blood.
Speaking of movies, you definitely view a significant amount of movies every year. Are there any particular films that you’re really into at the moment?
It’s not showing at the VFF, but this one has just received its wide release. I first saw Birdman at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado this past September. It stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. The film is just great. It’s funny but also introspective and has a lot to say.
As far as this year’s festival, are there any screenings that you’re looking forward to?
There are only a handful of films that will be screened that I haven’t already seen. In terms of attending screenings during the festival, I don’t get to sit down much. I will most likely get to see our opening night film, Big Stone Gap, for the second time. I first saw it, literally, the day after it was finished in a private screening in New York. To see it this time around in a large movie palace, like the Paramount Theater, with a full audience will be exciting. We have a really strong group of actors coming in for it: Ashley Judd, Jenna Elfman, Patrick Wilson, Academy Award-winning movie producer Donna Gigliotti, and of course, the writer and director, Adriana Trigiani. It’s going to be an exciting evening.
The film selection and discussions following screenings are defining characteristics of the festival. Is there a favorite moment from previous VFFs that stands out in your memory?
I mentioned earlier that I majored in history and I’m also a very big political junkie. When I was in high school, I read ‘All The Presidents Men’ and saw the film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as well. At the time, I followed all the Watergate proceedings on television and read about it in the newspaper. Two years ago, we screened All The President’s Men, marking the 40th anniversary of Watergate. We partnered with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia to launch the Presidency Film Series. This was the first film of the series and we brought in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for a moderated conversation with Governor Baliles immediately following the film. It was a transcending evening that was absolutely incredible. They were so personally revealing not only about the time, but also about themselves.
This year, we’re bringing in the Hal Holbrook, for a special live theatrical performance of Mark Twain Tonight! The next day, we’re screening Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a film that looks at 70 years of Holbrook portraying Mark Twain, through the eyes of filmmaker Scott Teems. No other film festival in the United States has that happening this year, and I doubt they will in the future.
That’s one thing that has distinguished the VFF over the last few years. We bring people in that are essentially living history. Four years ago we screened Freedom Riders and brought in three of the original freedom riders who were on those buses. We screened it in front of 1,000 high school students. After viewing the film, and then seeing the people 50 years after the events had happened, the audience understood of the impact of what they did far more than reading about it in a book could have ever done. For me, that’s the biggest thing that we can provide our community. To be able to do things like that and provide those moments where we actually have living history and transcend those moments from film and tell a powerful story.
That’s a very impactful experience. On a final note, what are your major goals for the festival moving forward?
We always kid around and say ‘World domination of film.’ Really, it’s not about growing the festival in size. It’s really about the festival becoming better and better each year. We try to present the strongest selection of films that we possibly can to the Charlottesville community and members of the Virginia commonwealth. To support those film screenings, we do events that are truly remarkable that distinguish the festival in a unique way.
The Virginia Film Festival takes place November 6th — 9th. For more information visit virginiafilmfestival.org.