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'American Fiction' attracts audience — and an award — at Virginia Film Festival

Charlottesville is buzzing with moviegoers, moviemakers and behind-the-scenes movie magicians as the 36th annual Virginia Film Festival takes over downtown.

Due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strike, now in its third month, the stable of actors and actresses who typically attend has been smaller. Only independent actors and those who served in other capacities — writing, directing, producing — have been able to to attend. SAG-AFTRA has been at odds with major studios since mid-July over compensation and safeguards against artificial intelligence.

Even without the star-studded panels and parties, the festival has had brisk ticket sales.

Festival Director Jody Kielbasa told The Daily Progress that he expects ticket sales to top 20,000 this year, nearly at the 24,000-26,000 mark the festival hit before the pandemic shut down cinemas and festivals nationwide.

On opening night Wednesday, more than 1,000 people were seated in the Paramount Theater on the Downtown Mall.

The audience packed the flashy 1930s movie house for a sold-out showing of “Maestro,” starring Bradley Cooper as celebrated American composer Leonard Bernstein.

Introducing the film was University of Virginia President Jim Ryan, who told the audience he has been a fan of the film festival, a university program, since he attended UVa Law in the ‘90s.

Films, and all art, have the ability to pluck a chord that can resonate across political, racial, generational divides, Ryan said, and that’s a powerful tool in a time when so much divides the world, with wars raging in Europe and the Middle East, protests raging on UVa Grounds and Election Day in Virginia a little more than a week away.

“Art has capacity to remind us of our common humanity, and I can’t think of anything we need more in this moment,” Ryan said before the house lights dimmed and the film flickered to life.

The next day, the Paramount was packed again for a screening of “American Fiction,” starring Jeffrey Wright of “Westworld,” Adam Brody of “The O.C.” and Issa Rae of “Insecure.”

“American Fiction” is the first feature film directed by Cord Jefferson and is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure,” about a down-on-his-luck author and English teacher who writes a controversial manuscript as a prank on his publishers only to have it backfire and win him the respect he has long sought after.

Cord, who also wrote and produced the film, was in attendance Thursday to receive the film festival’s Breakthrough Director Award.

The honor “celebrates a director who have achieved excellence with their directorial debut,” according to a film festival statement.

“This is such a tremendous honor,” Jefferson said after he was presented the award. “After I had graduated, I was sort of adrift in trying to figure out my life as a writer. One of the things I had been missing in college is a creative output. I never thought of myself as an artist, and because of that, I never allowed myself to create anything. And I think it was a difficult time in my life, because I didn’t really feel like I had an outlook to express myself. Now I am 41-years-old and my first film is out, and it’s always been elusive to me, but I finally feel a little happy.”

The Virginia Film Festival will wrap Sunday with an “American Symphony” screening at 7:30 p.m. at the Paramount.

The documentary by Matthew Heineman captures the rise of Jon Batiste, the Grammy and Oscar-winning jazz and contemporary recording artist who served as bandleader on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” from 2015 until 2022.

Batiste is slated to provide a brief post-screening performance for those in attendance.

While tickets are much harder to come by so late in the festival, organizers have said there are still some available. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Violet Crown or Paramount theaters on the Downtown Mall; stand-by tickets are also available.


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