RVA Mag #24: With its largest film lineup to date, Richmond International Film Festival proves to be a mainstay on the East Coast festival circuit

by | Apr 25, 2016

Over the past five years, the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) has brought a wealth of art, media and collective community action to our city.

Over the past five years, the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) has brought a wealth of art, media and collective community action to our city. What started as a showcase of short films in 2011 has evolved into a brimming extravaganza of cinema, music, educational forums, and vibrant social festivities across town. The festival has attracted substantial attention from the international independent film community. Their 2016 call for entries accrued more than 1,000 films representing over 40 countries—with participants ranging from Academy Award winner Terrence Malick to up-and-coming local filmmakers, producers, and actors. As one of the largest international film competitions in the Mid-Atlantic, this young festival has distinguished itself as a premier innovative cultural nexus for Richmond and abroad.

This article was featured in RVAMag #24: Spring 2016. You can read all of issue #24 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.

Countless rounds of judging distinguished the 125 Official Selection films screened at the festival between March 3-6th of this year. Submissions are divided into eight categories: Narrative Feature & Short, Documentary Feature & Short, Experimental Short, Animated Short, Music Video, and Web Series. With more than $20,000 awarded in cash and prizes, these Official Selection films compete in overall main categories for film and screenplays—the Best of Festival awards and Grand Juried awards—as well as Outstanding Merit Awards, Best Actress/Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Music/Score. Festival founder and producer, Heather Waters, notes that “the majority of these films have never been seen in a theatre, so Richmonders are given the first chance to view and weigh in – in a setting that’s up close and personal with the filmmakers and artists who have traveled here from across the world.”

When asked what inspired her initial vision for the festival, Waters points out, “Richmond didn’t have a film festival working towards the likes of a Sundance or Tribeca.” In five years time, RIFF has matured into an international forum with a tight program, and is proving itself as an up-and-coming mainstay on the east coast’s festival circuit. “RIFF’s platform prizes idea exchange over competition,” Waters says.

One distinguishing characteristic of the festival’s program that she values is that “the larger events always seem to become more political.” She explains, “Our judging is not political, which puts all entries on equal footing with one another.” To understand what is meant by “politics” here, consider this explanation from Raindance Festival founder, Elliot Grove: “If a film screens at Edinburgh, it is ineligible for the London Film Festival – which only screens UK or world premieres. If it screens in Edinburgh, it can screen at Raindance. A film premiering at Raindance is not eligible for Berlin because Berlin specialises in European premieres…” By avoiding all of this, RIFF can focus on its crowning attribute: its great diversity of contestants—“from emerging artists to winning films”—which provides a space for filmmakers to see how their work compares alongside heavy-hitters of the international indie community.


We have selected a Five-Title sampling of the 2016 competition through synopsis and interview—featuring both RIFF winners and other international highlights.


The 2016 Grand Jury Prize winner for Best Feature Film went to Spanish thriller Day Release, also known as Tercer Grado. On his first weekend of parole after serving 5 years in prison, Mark Rodriguez (Jesus Lloveras) witnesses the armed robbery of a security van. His brother´s critical situation and his feelings of remorse for his own crimes lead him to take desperate measures, with only the help of a young, sexy stripper he met the night before. Where seamless quality meets a bloodied, jarring edge, you can tell there is more going on here than just another anti-hero redemption flick.

This artful blockbuster is the first feature length film from the production team of director Geoffrey Cowper and lead actor Jesus Lloveras, who share a decade partnership of making films. Inspired by a real event that took place at a movie theatre where Cowper worked, the pair built a fictional story around a car heist to challenge themselves as director and actor. The film provides a window into Spain’s law enforcement/inmate culture, where men with wives and families are allotted weekend release after showing good behavior some time into their sentence. Day Release also stands as visual commentary for Spain’s present economic strife, which has caused families to lose homes and property due to the current banking system.

Interview with Geoffrey Cowper

I can’t help but admire the creative, working relationship and friendship you and Jesus have built over the last decade. Could you give a few comments on your process?

We met while I was studying film and he was studying acting. We got along from the first moment, and we’ve worked together in several short films before. We even shot an extremely low-budget one in New York! So by the time we did Day Release, we had built up a lot of trust, and that I think is very important. Since we both wrote the script we “argued” a lot before shooting the film, so once we were filming, with only a look Jesus knew if I needed another take.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your film?

Well, we’re very happy to have won the Grand Jury Prize and we hope that the audience also enjoyed our movie–especially since Day Release is our first feature film, and a very independent one. Jesus’s grandfather (Jesus Mora) became a film producer at age 85 and was our main investor. Without him this movie wouldn’t exist. Also it was great that my parents (Conxita Sal·lari and Richard Cowper) were able to do the catering for the whole cast and crew. It’s crucial that the cast and crew on a movie set eat well. And I’m sure that if they hadn’t put all their love and effort into the making of our movie, we wouldn’t have won the award. I really hope I can come to the Richmond International Film Festival, sooner rather than later, with my next film.


The 2016 Best of Festival Feature Documentary went to India’s Daughter, directed by Leslee Udwin. One of the most poignant and serious social commentary pieces in the festival, India’s Daughter shares the story of 23-year-old medical student, Jyoti Singh, who was gang raped and beaten to death on a Delhi bus in 2012. These events inevitably sparked protests and heated conversations surrounding gender inequality across India, and at large. Viewers are addressed through interviews by Singh’s family and friends, victims’ rights advocates; as well as by the assailants, their lawyers, and their families.

Director Leslee Udwin explains, “When the news of the ‘India’s Daughter’ gang-rape hit our TV screens around the world in December 2012, I was shocked and upset, as we all are when faced with such brazen abandon of the norms of ‘civilised’ society. But what moved and compelled me to commit to the harrowing and difficult journey of making this film was… the optimism occasioned by the events that followed it. It was the ordinary men and women of India, in unprecedented numbers, who poured out onto the streets, and withstood the onslaught of teargas shells, lathi charges and water cannons to make their cry of ‘enough is enough’ heard with extraordinary forbearance, commitment and passion.” India’s Daughter has won numerous honors for its powerful message, and has been praised by the likes of the late Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep.


Another noteworthy documentary piece featuring heavy subject matter is Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd’s film Almost Holy, also called Crocodile Gennadiy. This film was Executive Produced by the acclaimed Terrence Malick, who many may recognize from his work on The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands. The fall of The Soviet Union left Ukraine in a wake of social and political upheaval; its crippled economy and corrupt infrastructure produced little hope. However, a pastor and civic leader from Mariupol, Ukraine named Gennadiy Mokhnenko, made a name for himself by forcibly abducting homeless drug-addicted kids from streets of his city. He founded Pilgrim Republic, a children’s rehabilitation center and home for former drug abuse victims. The review from its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival ensured that the “Terrence Malick-produced Crocodile Gennadiy is a lot more than poverty porn.”


Louder Than Bombs is a feature length drama directed by Norway’s Joachim Trier that premiered at Cannes this year. The preparation of an exhibition celebrating the famous war photographer, Laura Freed, brings her husband and their two sons together for the first time three years after her unexpected death. When an unsettling secret resurfaces, the three men are forced to look at each other and themselves in a new light, redefining their innermost needs and desires. Although it was not in competition this year at RIFF, Heather Waters noted, “This film has a ton of buzz, and will be in theatres across the country in April, so it’s great that we’re getting it here first in Richmond.”

In spite of the film not being in competition, the RIFF 2016 Rising Star Award went to the freshly 18-year-old Devin Druid, a Richmond native, who portrayed the younger son, Conrad. In a Variety interview, Trier gave a glowing commentary on casting the youth, “And then we found Devin Druid, who’d done some great work with Louis CK, and that was perhaps the part I was most nervous to cast… That’s what kept me up at night, trying to find that kid. When Devin Druid was brought to my attention…we found our guy. That was the biggest relief of the whole process. And I’m so pleased with him.”

Upon meeting Druid at the festival, I was delighted when he mentioned his aspirations to be the “18-year-old-male incarnation of Tilda Swinton”, which shows an impeccable taste that pairs well with his obvious passion for the craft. Druid was sure to add, “This is not a soundbite film. It’s very sophisticated and requires the viewer to be present. And some people really need to let it rest with them for a day or two. I’m proud of this film. I think it’s extraordinary. I’m so very pleased that it will be released soon so others can see it.”


Shot in Winterthur, Switzerland, “Lothar” is a 14-minute narrative short about an absurd character whose sneeze causes nearby objects to explode. The poor kid can’t catch a break, as we are briefed of his lifelong bout with technology and nature. To protect the world from his destructive “gift”, Lothar has relegated himself to a bunker stocked with the necessities: light bulbs, toilet paper, his daily bread, a toaster. The sheer quantity and repetition of these items recall a backhanded-Warhol aesthetic that uplifts the implied monotony of his isolation. Lothar’s melodrama is no joke when he manages to break his beloved toaster, an early gift from his mother. This mishap provokes Lothar to risk leaving the confines of his subterranean home. Writer/director Luca Zuberbühler elaborates, “With the story of Lothar, I want to symbolize the contrast between the external world and one´s solitary life.” Although Lothar was not recognized in RIFF’s juried selections, this film’s exorbitant pack-for-your-punch has earned quite an extensive resume. The short has reached over 150 festivals, and has received over 25 international awards. “Lothar” is now online in HD and free to watch at www.viddsee.com/video/lothar

Interview with Luca Zuberbühler

What inspired you to make this film? 

The first idea popped up when I was gaming Angry Birds on my phone – a game where you can break everything by throwing birds?! Seems funny, but then I thought: What if a human being breaks everything against his will, a man purposelessly smashing the world around him? It would be fun to watch.

What is the time setting of Lothar? Present day, future?

It’s a very good question. No one asked that before. It looks a bit retro-styled, but has science-fiction elements as well. I would say in present day of a cartoon world.

RIFF has aspirations to, in time, become a qualifying festival for larger, more prestigious festivals. What do you think it would take to really put RIFF on the map?

The core team should be very passionate about film. I’ve seen it many times, that some fests just wanted to have a prestigious event, a film fest, but did not really care about good quality films or about filmmakers and how they did it. As a filmmaker, you just feel it if it’s “true” or not. The “film-heart” is either big, or not there at all.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that RIFF has been created by one of the largest “film-hearts” in the state. One of Heather Waters’ most fervent goals with RIFF is to “reinforce, within the Richmond community, the totality of what a film following brings to the city.” Much more than a competition, the festival acts as a “condensed model showing how creative and business communities can share a mutualistic relationship” through film. This year, RIFF received its greatest number of submissions shot in Virginia, and by Virginia filmmakers (features include On The Wing and Shooting the Prodigal, shot in Richmond; Josephine, Coming Through The Rye, and Texas Rein – as well as shorts like “(un)Sexy,” “Fading Felt,” and “She’s Home”). Waters has especially structured RIFF to advertise this untapped potential within the city by “using film as a gathering force to collaborate strategically with individuals and businesses,” while utilizing industry sectors involved in film production. She continues, “capitalizing on these connections will help push us toward the likes of an Austin or Atlanta.”

RIFF works with a plethora of sponsors and local businesses to facilitate the various industry panels, Q&As, live musical performances, red carpet awards, and entertainment mixers that complete the festival experience. This year, the historic Byrd Theatre and Bowtie Movieland/Criterion theatres screened all Official Selection films. Over the course of the festival, restaurants such as Balliceaux, Starlite and Joe’s Deli hosted mixers and filmmaker breakfasts. Thursday night festivities culminated at the Broadberry with the Music Video screenings, followed by a live music showcase of Richmond’s popular talent—featuring Anousheh, Black Liquid, members of Horsehead, Rodney Stith, Skye Handler of Lady God, Chance Fischer, The Tide Rose, Lamayah, and Heather Taylor of Junction Hill.

“This city has a lot of underground talent that is unfortunately split between many separate artistic communities,” Waters explains, “so in growing our festival, we look for as many opportunities to cross-pollinate all of these sectors as possible, and show off the best of what Richmond has to offer.” In working with sponsors, Waters strives for a “cyclical development of partners [who] self-identify as collaborators in building the Richmond scene… boosting tourism, and creating a repertoire for Richmond as an ideal place to make films.”

Amy David

Amy David

Amy David was the Web Editor for RVAMag.com from May 2015 until September 2018. She covered craft beer, food, music, art and more. She's been a journalist since 2010 and attended Radford University. She enjoys dogs, beer, tacos, and Bob's Burgers references.

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