Despite substantial changes at the last minute, the seventh edition of the James River Film Festival is set to roll on cue. Running for seven days beginning April 10, the festival will screen dozens of experimental shorts as well as more traditional feature-length films. As in years past, the Fest's slate celebrates an eclectic mix of styles, subjects and cinematics.
This year's trio of media artists is no less eclectic and includes veteran animator Karen Aqua; independent filmmaker and documentarist Alan Berliner; and '70s punker-turned-composer Tom Verlaine. Well-known documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, USA"), originally slated to headline this year's fest, fell victim to a rigid shooting schedule for her next project and could not commit to the weeklong series. Festival director Michael Jones immediately set to work finding a worthy replacement. Enter Alan Berliner. Though his work may not be as widely known as Kopple's, Berliner is a perfect complement to the festival's other guests. Recognized in film circles as one of the country's leading independent experimental filmmakers, Berliner tackles the one element shared by all people family. Using his own family as source material, Berliner's films are personal journeys that resonate with universal truths.
As fate or fortune would have it, Berliner's journey began with a "For Sale" notice on a downtown New York bulletin board. Offered for sale was a stash of home movies. "I had no idea how long that note had been there," says Berliner. "It could have been a minute, it could have been a year." It turned out that Berliner was the first person to call about the notice, and he was soon the owner of 30-40 hours of home movies.
"I felt it was an honor to own them, and I felt a responsibility to do something respectful with them," he says. That respectful treatment became "The Family Album," the first in a series of Berliner films that can be seen as something of a trilogy on family.
"In retrospect, I can see that they were leading me in a natural progression toward 'Nobody's Business,' but I had to get there in small steps," he says.
Set to be screened at the fest are Berliner's "The Family Album," "Intimate Stranger" and "Nobody's Business." His first hour-long experimental documentary, "The Family Album," uses the 16mm home movies of more than 75 different and anonymous families. Shot between the 1920s to the 1950s, "The Family Album" creates a compelling composite of the American family.
In "Intimate Stranger," Berliner explores the extraordinary life of his maternal grandfather. A Palestinian Jew reared in Egypt, Joseph Cassuto spent 11 months out of every year in Japan, despite a wife and family back in post-World War II Brooklyn. As Berliner tries to understand his grandfather's all-consuming passion for Japan, what emerges is an incredibly original film. Funny and unforgiving, "Intimate Stranger" proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
With "Nobody's Business," Berliner turns the focus of his insightful personal lens on his own father, Oscar Berliner. An unwilling interviewee, the somewhat irascible older Berliner tells his son early on, "My life is no different from who knows how many millions of people's. You're trying to make something from nothing." Unflinchingly honest, "Nobody's Business" may appear to be the story of just one father and son, but it is so very much more.
"The truth of the matter is that for better and for worse the most intense set of relationships we will ever have is our family," Berliner says. "'Nobody's Business' represents an emotional ground zero for me, revealing more of myself in my work."
Animator Karen Aqua's work also bears a strong personal bent. Throughout her animation career, Aqua has been interested and intrigued by ritual, symbols, and prehistoric and tribal cultures. Her latest piece, "Ground Zero/Sacred Ground," combines all of these elements in a moving, breathless vision. The nine-minute film explores the juxtaposition of a Native American rock-art site featuring ancient petraglyphs and the nearby site of the first atomic bomb test. Aqua will also present a series of her animated works for children, including some of the dozen segments she has created for "Sesame Street" over the past decade.
Composer and musician Tom Verlaine earns the "coolest" guest spot at this year's fest. The former guitarist and vocalist for the '70s punk band Television brings his "Music for Film" tour to Richmond for one performance on April 16 at 1 p.m. at The Byrd. Verlaine and longtime accompanist Jimmy Ripp will perform Verlaine's new scores for older classics by the likes of Man Ray, Fernand Léger and early American experimental filmmakers James Watson and Melville Webber. Tickets for Verlaine's landmark performance are $10 each, and will be available at The Byrd's box office only on April 16. So mark your calendars now.
In addition to the three special guests, the festival also offers a wide spectrum of film-based lectures and screenings as well as its biennial juried competition of short film and video. One highlight of these special discussions is an intimate look at the life and talent of Paul Robeson, "Here I Stand." Virginia Union University English professor Margaret Duckworth will introduce the piece and lead the discussion afterward. Another must-see event comes as part of the fest's recent transformation into the nonprofit Richmond Moving Image Co-op organization it will present Flicker's 2nd Anniversary Show highlighting the works of local
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