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Calling Film Junkies 

The James River Film Festival is returning with a free virtual event over four days, though donations are needed.

click to enlarge Charles Burnett’s classic “Killer of Sheep” screens on April 25.

Charles Burnett’s classic “Killer of Sheep” screens on April 25.

Last year, the James River Film Festival was one of the first local arts casualties of the pandemic. The event known for presenting eclectic independent and underground films was canceled the week that Style Weekly’s cover story previewing it appeared on newsstands.

“We had everything, programs printed, flights booked,” recalls the festival’s president and programmer, Mike Jones. “I think we lost about $4,500 and we didn’t get a chance to make any money back.”

But the James River Film Society, which helps organize the event, has not rested on its laurels. Over the past year it has hosted nearly 11 online programs including eight silent music revivals, where a classic film is projected while local musicians provide the soundtrack, arranged by Jameson Price, communications and programs director. Those are still streaming from the society’s website and Instagram.

Now festival organizers are hoping to get back on track with the 27th annual James River (Virtual) Film Fest from April 22 to 25, featuring nine programs in four days that will be watchable for free online, including several films canceled from last year, as well as some new titles and former fest repeats. There are no live guests this year or Zoom sessions, though some artists will record introductions for their works.

“We’re kind of billing this as a virtual fundraiser with each film up for the day its scheduled and they’re all free. We’re asking, if you watch the film, to hit the PayPal donation button,” explains Jones, whose 16-year-old daughter Vilma designed the pink-and-lime festival T-shirt which you can order. “The shirt logo is a reworking of a former design featuring the Biograph projector. The whole festival kind of grew out of that old theater [at 814 W. Grace St.] and from people trying to re-create something that was gone.”

Price says that this year’s festival is a suggested donation of $5 per film.

“We hope that by keeping the virtual fest financially accessible that more folks will stream and follow us into the future as we begin our societal journey back into in-person events,” he says.

Among the films from last year that will be playing: Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann’s documentary “Comic Book Confidential” on the art of the comic book (April 24); “Other Music,” a documentary about the once popular, now defunct East Village record store (April 25); director Jessica Orek’s “One Man Dies a Million Times,” a mixture of history and sci-fi (April 22); and “True Uncut Tales from Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory: How Andy Invented a Superstar and How Andy Discovered Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and Nico.” (April 23).

There will be local filmmakers’ work screening at the festival: On April 25, Richmonder Patrick Gregory will show a two-minute excerpt from “The Trouble I See,” co-directed with Sally O’Grady, about a father-daughter dance held at the Richmond City Jail, part of project documenting the lives of three incarcerated men shot over seven years. Also his “China Series: Pt. 1 ‘One Morning’/pt. II ‘At the Farm” (2021) features an hour of the filmmaker exploring a village near Shanghai and its daily harvest.

On April 24, Richmond native Kevin McNeer will introduce his 2008 documentary “Stalin Thought of You” about Russia’s greatest political cartoonist, Boris Efimov, shown at the festival nearly a decade ago; plus a more recent excerpt from his “On One Day of the Day of Gods,” a documentary work-in-progress set off the coast of Yemen in an area that has been called a second Galapagos Islands. The latter offers portraits of the inhabitants, who speak an ancient Semitic language, on an island under threat as “developers eye the pristine beaches and visitors enthusiastically introduce the Internet, plastics, English, and other double-edged gifts of globalization that have begun to unravel the ecology and identity of the islands,” according to program notes.

click to enlarge Richmond native Kevin McNeer will introduce his 2008 documentary “Stalin Thought of You” about Russia’s greatest political cartoonist, Boris Efimov.
  • Richmond native Kevin McNeer will introduce his 2008 documentary “Stalin Thought of You” about Russia’s greatest political cartoonist, Boris Efimov.

Other screenings include “Akran/37-73” (1969/1974) by Richard Myers, considered one of America’s most important avant-garde filmmakers (April 23) as well as Charles Burnett’s classic “Killer of Sheep” (April 25), his UCLA thesis, which is now considered a landmark of Black cinema. His debut feature is a realistic, slice-of-life drama centered on a Black man working in a slaughterhouse in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Shot on location in 1972 and ’73 with nonprofessional actors, the film “evokes the Italian Neorealist films ‘Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Shoeshine.’”

Jones says the society hopes to mount another version of the Borderless Film Festival, films about people moving across borders, in the fall if a venue can be found.

“Our film society has always been live screenings and performance based,” Price says. “So this era of distancing and quarantining has really allowed us to focus on our online presence and programming. And the plan is to remain active through our website and socials.”

The festival’s organizers had been receiving a small amount of annual money from the Virginia Film Office: “They used to give us $5,000,” Jones says, “with $2,000 going to award money for the [short film] showcase while $3,000 went to the festival.” Now the film office is basing any money it gives per the event, he says.

“That’s why we count on small donors. I don’t want to go to a big bank – we’ve been able to do what we do, close to 650 programs over the years, because we don’t do that. We do have small local advertisers, many in Carytown, and they support us.”

The 27th annual James River Film Fest takes place April 22 through 25 online. It’s free but $5 or more donations are encouraged. For information and to check the schedule, which may change, go to jamesriverfilm.org.

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