Virginia Film Festival Day 1

People gather outside The Paramount Theater for the opening night of the Virginia Film Festival on Wednesday evening. The film “Just Mercy” was shown on opening night.

On the heels of Wednesday’s opening night gala, the Virginia Film Festival’s 32nd season will hit full speed Thursday with no last-minute alterations and a schedule full of films, features, panels and speakers.

“We don’t have any changes at this point and it doesn’t look like the weather is going to be a problem, so I’m pretty excited about having a full slate of films for the next four days,” said festival director Jody Kielbasa. “It’s going to be busy and it’s going to be fun.”

The festival officially kicked off Wednesday with a 10 a.m. showing for area school students of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” an acclaimed HBO documentary on the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The opening night film screening also featured Stevenson as a character fighting for the wrongly convicted in “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan and featuring Jamie Foxx.

The presentations represent the festival’s effort to stimulate community conversation about equal rights and justice as well as to entertain.

“We’ve always tried to have programs that resonate with what’s going in the community and we have the chance to bring the community together to discuss equality and issues in a way that’s very inclusive,” Kielbasa said. “With the international films we screen, we’re also able to throw a window open to other cultures to discuss the differences and similarities. I’m proud that we have such a diverse slate of films, speakers and programs.”

The festival is in its third year of a “Race in America” partnership with James Madison’s Montpelier. The festival’s centerpiece film this year is “Harriet,” which was filmed in Virginia and follows Harriet Tubman’s fight for the freedom of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad.

The festival also features a collection of LGBTQ+ films and projects, including two television episodes written by UVa alumnus Steven Kung.

On the lighter side, a 40th-anniversary screening of “Breaking Away” will bring in star Dennis Christopher for a discussion. The film also introduced actors Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern to wider audiences.

The diversity also goes to music. Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, the festival screens “Western Stars,” a new documentary that focuses on Bruce Springsteen, his band, a full orchestra and his wife, guitarist and vocalist Patti Scialfa performing his new album of the same name.

The showing includes a post-screening conversation with Thom Zimny, who shared directing duties with Springsteen.

“I’m proud that we’re offering a variety of programs, including films that are just fun and relaxing,” Kielbasa said. “Sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy yourself and we offer that, too.”

In his 11th year at the festival’s helm, Kielbasa said putting the four-day event together is a labor of love. It’s also a little bit scary at times.

“It changes from year to year and that’s a challenge. Sometimes the problems are last-minute changes, people who can’t make it or even the weather. It can be a moving target to try and bring everything together,” he said.

“But we have 250-plus community volunteers who are very loyal and a great staff that really knows what they’re doing and that makes it easier. Some of the volunteers have been here for all 32 years of the festival,” Kielbasa said. “I’m proud of the festival and I’m pleased with what we’ve done this year.”

To find films, dates, times and ticket prices, visit

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