A Deep Dive of the James River Film Festival 2024


The James River Film Festival, now in its 30th year, spanned two weekends in April 2024. It began with screenings at Studio Two Three, then moved to the Richmond Public Library, the Grace Street Theater, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and concluded with a full day at the Byrd Theatre. Over its storied three decades, the event has taken place in over 40 different spaces and places around the city; some of these venues have since closed, while others continue as screening rooms and gathering places for the festival.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

The festival’s mantra, slogan, and tagline, “Eclectic Celluloid for the Cinematic Soul,” resonates particularly as we delve further into corporate consolidation, franchise IP productions, vaulted movie archives, reboots and remakes, and the impending waves of AI content. Generally, the screenings center on the roots of handmade independent films, overlooked gems, historic academic investigations of Hollywood classics, important revival screenings, B-movie experiences, silent films with live music, local filmmakers, guest artist Q&As, and documentaries that are both small and intimate or sprawling and immersive. The work is always inspiring and rejuvenating for one’s love of filmmaking and enriching the cinema experience.

Each year since 1999, I have intended to attend at least one screening. This year, like in 2023, I participated in long sits and caught a multitude of programs. There were many I missed, although I would have loved to have seen those screenings as well. This after-screening report will highlight what I was able to attend.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

Starting Thursday, April 11th, at Studio Two Three, the James Rivers Filmmakers Forum showcased a redux where five Virginia filmmakers screened their works. The event highlighted a diverse range of styles and projects, creating a vibrant conversation and dialogue between these curated pieces. One of the greatest joys of attending film festivals and showcases is seeing unconnected creative works—sometimes made years apart—juxtaposed in a montage that highlights contrasts and similarities among the films.

The screenings began with Blackout by Will Sidaros, a 48-hour film project horror movie that importantly centers on a songwriter’s block and the desire to write songs again. This film interacted with the second film, Play Anyway by Ariel Unser, which delves into addiction cycles and relationship struggles resulting in the loss of a creative voice, featuring a different kind of singer struggling with their faults and lack of creative impulse. These two films showcased similar songwriter dilemmas but expressed through very different cinematic languages, from cinéma vérité docudrama to horror film visual effects symbolism.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

My animation, Temple of Doomscrolling by Todd Raviotta, preceded the intermission. It is a quarantine project that bridges my analog collage work with digital filmmaking, exploring animated possibilities while learning After Effects. The film expresses emotions around the reality of the summer of 2020 and beyond, highlighting our relationship with devices and the collective digital digestion of news and world events. During the intermission, we were treated to a music set by Eli Owens, a musician and visual storyteller, whose contributions beautifully enhanced the atmosphere of the room that night.

After the intermission, The Dirteater by Jim Stramel took the screen, telling an urban legend child’s story of imagination about the unseen. It took advantage of a unique location with fantastic cinematic opportunities while it was under renovation. Closing out the night, as David Ellsworth remarked, “There are 48-hour film projects and then there are 28-year film projects.” His film Of Time and the Town was shot on Super 8mm film featuring both color and black and white cinematography. It documents time in Farmville, from symbols of the Town Square to housing renovations, connecting the past with the present and demonstrating how film can document a changing world.

Jeff Roll’s welcome return from a hiatus to the Filmmakers Forum and his curation of the night was a great way to kick off this year’s festival. The Virginia filmmakers participated in Q&As after each film, played on a gigantic screening wall where the movies all looked great, thanks to Cinemaniche and Studio Two Three for hosting.

On Friday, April 12th, I was unable to attend the screenings of historic Hollywood movies presented at the Richmond Public Library and the documentary programs at the Grace Street Theater on VCU’s campus, one of my favorite screening venues in the city.

On Sunday, April 14th, presentations were held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I was able to see the morning screenings of three short films by filmmaker Yossera Bouchtia. The first film, Afri, The Coming of the Night (2021), is a timeless science fiction spiritual story centered around natural phenomena and otherworldly celestial events. The second film, I am Selma (2015), examined the strength and resilience of a person facing religious persecution and xenophobia, while committing to their strength of voice and purpose; it’s a recent past period piece. The closing film Into the Void (2021) told the story of pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who faced challenges from patriarchal institutions and the logistics of motherhood while diving into the secrets of the universe against the resistance of systems fostering galactic blossoming and self-determination.

As Bouchtia mentioned in her aftertalk, these three films were stories of self-affirming belief and the assuredness of women in transformative moments coming into their power and convictions. They were beautiful character studies and biopics set in intimate and academic communities. As an associate professor at VCU Cinema, this was an amazing platform for a working academic, mentor, and artist to screen their works in the wider independent filmmaking community at the museum institution.

Following this screening, I regretfully had to miss the live accompaniment of the cult film Vampyr by musicians Cast Shadows with Sbowe, which I had eagerly wanted to catch.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

After cramming some midday errands, I was able to re-sync with the festival, returning to Studio Two Three for the long-running Richmond film screening community’s mainstay event, Silent/Music Revival, where Jameson Price pairs a silent film with a musical group or artist. That Sunday night, Cassidy Snider and the Wranglers played East Coast river rock-infused ballads and love songs to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Remarkable synchronistic moments and contrasting ironies played out through the iconic imagery of the Little Tramp and the supporting gold prospecting community’s characters, exploring the greed, attractions, and conflicts—both emotional and physical—around the pursuit of riches in hidden earthly ore, alongside Cassidy Snider’s lyrics and voice and the Wranglers’ appropriate country rock sounds. Presented on a storied 16 mm print threaded by Mike Jones, the festival’s central force, the flickering images and soulful songs created special, unique occurrences out of the music and timeless visuals of Silent Cinema. It was during this watching that I was able to see so much impact on Paul Thomas Anderson, expressing clearly in Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood—films I had not appreciated before.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

On Saturday, April 20th, the festival program continued at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown. I missed the first program of the day, two short documentaries: Hisham Mayet’s African Guerrilla Ethnologies: The Divine River: Ceremonial Pageantry in the Sahel (2007-12) and Oulaya’s Wedding (2017).

The primary film for this year’s program that I wanted most to catch was Wild Creation: Mardi Gras Women, a documentary about New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, specifically highlighting the impact and role of creative women in the modern era, pre-Covid carnival season of 2019. Directed by Michele Poulos and produced by Greg Donovan, the film is an immersive and thoroughly documented comprehensive work, with many threads around different women-led parade groups and other creative collectives of the Mardi Gras experience.

The film dives into each group’s historic tradition, craft creativity, controversies, and celebratory intent. Emotional portraits of modern holders of centuries-rich tradition, the revelatory changes in the 20th and 21st century evolution following Katrina, and a widening participatory embrace of women’s contributions into the previously exclusionary practice of male-only parade Krewes, directly address parts of the classist, racist, and sexist origins. It was exciting that the parade my mother rode in, Cleopatra, had a central notation as a long-standing women’s parade. I wish I could have shared the film with her.

This film was personally gripping and emotionally moving as a participant in the film dedicated her creative act to her own recently passed mother. An informative and beautiful documentary, an example of filmmaking as a truthful and rich storytelling mode, which contrasts with the disposable luxury worship programming of reality television and some streaming shows. Documentary, when done right, is for the soul and history of humanity, and not solely for the advertisements in the ad breaks or paid sponsorship on the digital feed full of spam-bot comments.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

In the evening was Bava-Fest, a micro festival within the overarching James River Film Festival, featuring two works of Mario Bava, the Italian master cinematographer turned director. His films are characterized by carriages, cobwebs, candles, and castles—iconic elements of Gothic Italian horror films complete with witches, secret passages, and family curses. These proto-Giallo films are outgrowths of the Universal horror movie traditions, redefined by international and Italian-centric viewpoints, creatively dubbed in English with many languages spoken on set during production.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

Black Sunday is presented in glorious black and white, featuring wonderful, mysterious, ghostly moving dolly shots, while Kill, Baby, Kill offers a vibrant psychedelic color, creating a dreamy, hallucinatory atmosphere in a small village mystery. These films are exceptional examples of an auteur’s cinematic voice working on a tight budget with a total understanding of the camera and film itself. It was a great fortune to see these on the big screen; having read about their reputation and work for decades in my film studies, I can see their influence on directors like Lynch and Coppola, among many others.

In between the two presented films, there was a videotaped master class by film critic Tim Lucas, who wrote the definitive book on Mario Bava and published the Video Watchdog zine for decades. His immersive, in-depth perspective on how these low-budget technical marvels and ghost story tales came to be highlighted their enduring appeal. As Mike Jones said, “if you were 13, they would have scared the pants off of you.” But in the heritage of filmmaking, the appreciation for the effortful color play of light and shadow, committed character performances, and twists and turns elevate these international B Movie classics, which in some cases outlive prestige films that fall out of interest after the spectacle of the day ends.

James River Film Festival Deep Dive written by and photos by Todd Raviotta RVA Magazine 2024-01
Photo by Todd Raviotta @naturalsciencetrav, RVA Magazine 2024

The closing event of the festival this year was Volume 2 of the Richmond Music Video Showcase, curated by Laney Sullivan, part of the Holy River music duo. The remarkable thing about music videos is the harmony between creative musical acts and creative video artists, mutually creating motion audio artwork. With contributions from Good Day RVA, Hourglass Sessions, and other talented production crews, we witnessed incredible video accompaniments to great musical acts (see program list below) spanning many genres and styles.

At some point, we all drew youthful inspiration from the days of MTV/VH1/Much Music and now YouTube Music Visual archives with billions of views showcasing the form. These videos originate from experimental film techniques adapted through new wave era video syntax and flourish from digital processes and accessible editing tools.

Laney’s sequencing—from the silly to the serious, the stark to the joyful, to the surreal and the impressive—showcased the talent in the region and reminded us that musicians, poets, MCs, and songwriters can still be the most important emotional journalists we have. Laney’s closing thought was poignant: “It is an honor to see the scene and everyone’s work and contributions,” making a community that exemplifies what the institution of Rock n’ Roll or Moviemaking Crews can be when not strictly driven by the influencer industry for passive consumers.

It was also delightful to see this work, which I usually watch on my phone, projected on the big screen of a movie palace. It warmed my heart to see folks live stream their video’s moment, and I hope it happens again next year for a third volume. It is auspicious that Gondry is filming in the region; his influence here is evident in this showcase.

Thoughtful, contemplative sittings at the festival in this modern era evoke visions and echoes of Plato’s Cave, pondering reality outside of the screening rooms where world politics and conflict exist in shocking, corrupt brutality. How do we function in the world surrounding such a wonderful art form, where so many technical breakthroughs came from war propaganda? These thoughts lead me to open up my editing software and get back to work, now refilled in the spiritual center of the soul of cinema in this old East Coast city.

As festival guest Michele Poulos said, “The James River Film Festival really is one of the best-curated festivals in the country.”

Thanks to the festival Committee, programmers, filmmakers, volunteers, venues, and local sponsors.

To Donate via Venmo or PayPal go to admin@jamesriverfilm.org
Follow and support @jamesriverfilmsociety
JRFS is a 501c3 nonprofit and funds will go towards the 31st festival next year. 

Amazing Ghost – “I Getuppa” (4:42)
Paint on It – “Be the Turtle” (5:38)
Ant the Symbol – “Pride Like a Pendant” (5:13)
Camp Howard – “Juice” (2:28)
Chevaux – “17 Visions” (3:14)
McKinley Dixon – “Run Run Run” (3:11)
Angelica Garcia – “Color de Dolor” (3:36)
Photosynthesizers – “Terms and Agreements” (2:40)
Joshua Milowe & Zakaria Kronemer – “This Is Not a Pipe” (Trailer) (0:53)
Holy River – “Spirit Riot” (4:05)
Rumput – “Silver Dagger” (Cut at 4:40)
Dumb Waiter – “Working for the Federal Reserve” (2:50)
Mackenzie Roark – “Killin Time” (4:43)
No BS Brass – “Bad News” (6:03)
Good Day RVA Presents Benjamin Shepherd – “Money or Time” “Friday Fantasy” (7:16)
Hourglass Sessions – “Bohemian Rhapsody” (6:21)
Kenneka Cook – “My Universe” (3:52)
Angelica Garcia – “Karma the Knife” (3:37)

Todd Raviotta

Todd Raviotta

Artist in many forms. Sharing love for cutting things up as editor and fine art collage media mixer, love of music as a DJ, and love of light in photography and video. Educator of Film Studies and Video Production for over two decades. Long time RVAmag contributor and collaborator.

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