Encouraging Projections 

From a whisper to a screen, the James River Film Festival returns with the best batch yet.

click to enlarge Smoke rings: Ross McElwee's documentary "Bright Leaves" is one the standout films slated for the 19th James River Film Festival.
  • Smoke rings: Ross McElwee's documentary "Bright Leaves" is one the standout films slated for the 19th James River Film Festival.

The James River Film Festival returns for its 19th season with an exciting lineup of phantasmagorias, groundbreaking documentaries, classic blaxploitation, first outings by famous directors and new work by up-and-coming Richmond filmmakers you need to know about.

True to the vision of co-founder and organizer James Parrish, the festival, held April 12-18, attempts to inspire filmmaking as much as film watching with its eclectic selection of vibrant work from national, international, regional and local artists, screened at a variety of locales with the filmmakers present whenever possible.

This guide is an overview — not the entire festival but notable selections — which will be served in the best way possible: on big screens with other people watching in the dark.

Local Talent:

According to the makers of "Gentle Woman of a Dangerous Kind," it took 20 years to reconstruct on film the life of human-rights activist Marii Hasegawa. But Hasegawa has been involved in her work for more than twice as many decades, her education and notions on war going back to her internment as a Japanese-American during World War II, which led to her involvement in the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament and gay and lesbian rights. This festival screening is a documentary remix, according to filmmakers Lynda Fleet Perry, Janet Scagnelli and Pat Tashjian, of its 1996 premiere, and will be followed by a question session with the filmmakers. 30 minutes on Sunday, 1 p.m., at the Visual Arts Center. Free.

Is "The Comedy" (2011) a comedy? That's the difficult question regarding this often abrasive urban picaresque tale about privileged hipsters run amok, starring a variety of names from the indie-media world, including Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Gregg Turkington (best known as stand-up comic Neil Hamburger). Richmond director Rick Alverson will answer questions after the film. There's also a screening of co-Sundance 2012 entrant "Henley" (2011), a short about a little boy (Richmond native Hale Lytle) who earns his allowance collecting road kill. "Henley" writer Clay McLeod Chapman will attend, along with producer Almitra Corey and star Lytle. "The Comedy": 96 minutes; "Henley": 12 minutes. Saturday, 8 p.m., at Virginia Commonwealth University's Grace Street Theater. $5 ($3 film JRFS members).

Special Guests:

Fans of animation and abstract and experimental cinema won't want to miss the special program featuring Jodie Mack, assistant professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College. Mack's films combine rapid montage of vibrant colors and patterns with soundtracks that have a lullaby quality to them, exemplified by "Posthaste Perennial Pattern" (2010), a combination of floral prints with bird song, and "The Future Is Bright" (2011), which unspools Mark Rothko-like blocks of color in concert with an a cappella tune about rainbows that has a choral quality. The event will be introduced by Pamela Turner, chair of the VCU kinetic imaging department, and followed by a question session with director Mack. Sunday, 9 p.m., at the Grace Street Theater. $5 ($3 JRFS members).

Roger Ebert says "Bright Leaves" is "a meandering visit by a curious man with a quiet sense of humor, who pokes here and there in his family history, and the history of tobacco." Except for the "and the history of tobacco" part, that pretty much describes any documentary by Ross McElwee, who's followed such classic, introspective docs as "Sherman's March" with this 2003 look at the alleged theft of the Bull Durham tobacco formula from his great-grandfather by Washington Duke, whose family went on to found Duke University. McElwee also explores the possibility that this saga was the basis for the 1950 Gary Cooper film, "Bright Leaf," along with many unusual and usual characters typical to a McElwee film, which define the autobiographical documentary. In this one he manages to get to the center of his family's unusual history, and tobacco, by sifting through everything around it. McElwee will introduce the film and participate in a question session following. 105 min. Monday, 7 p.m. at the Grace Street Theater. $5 ($3 JRFS members).

Don't Forget:

Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," Saturday, 3:30 p.m., at the Byrd Theatre; David Lynch's "Eraserhead," Saturday, midnight, at the Byrd; "Occupy Media," a collection of films about the international occupy movement, Tuesday, 9 p.m., at the Visual Arts Center; Blaxploitation classic "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," Wednesday, 7 p.m., at the Grace Street Theater; Two film shorts series with film critic Scott MacDonald: Friday, 7 p.m., at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Saturday, 1 p.m., at the Grace Street Theater. S

The James River Film Festival runs April 12-18. Its opening reception is Friday, April 13, 5:30 p.m. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Free. See jamesriverfilm.org for complete film schedule and ticket information.

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