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Local Lens

With regional themes and creators, Richmond International Film Festival brings it home.

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The annual Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) showcases contemporary films from across the world. For the 2022 edition, June 7-12, some of the most anticipated screenings of short films, documentaries and features will spotlight local topics and filmmakers, and there are a few noteworthy debuts.

"The ACLU nationally has produced a few animated shorts that were sent to Sundance, but I don't know if any other affiliate has produced a documentary like we have," says Phuong Tran, digital communications manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, whose "Injustice: Hidden Crisis in Virginia's Prison" will premiere at Bow Tie Movieland on June 9. "Making a documentary is a creative way to talk about something that is not popular to explore in mainstream media."

The non-profit advocacy organization partnered with the North Carolina-based Narrative Arts production company to craft a doc that takes a hard look at Virginia's criminal legal system. While it definitely has a reformist's slant, the film is fact-based, fast-moving and goes in-depth on a topic that Tran says is at the intersection of a lot of society's current problems, namely mental illness, lack of resources, and racial inequities.

"The hidden crisis is that we passed many 'tough on crime' laws in the '90s hoping they would keep us safer," she says. "But the results of those laws are that many people are being incarcerated in horrendous conditions with little oversight or supervision or accountability. And this impacts not only the incarcerated, but their family and the community. It's now a generational problem."

Reform is a recurring theme throughout the festival. There's also the June 10 Movieland premiere of "Richmond on Paper: Birth of A Planet," the first documentary to be made about the pioneering Richmond Planet, one of the country's seminal Black newspapers, and its founder, the African-American journalist John Mitchell Jr.

Mitchell took the reins of the paper in 1883 at 21 and ran the operation until his death in 1929, leaving behind a body of journalism that explored the racist aspects of Jim Crow-era life in the South; one that pulled no punches in its crusade against lynching and separate-but-unequal treatment.

"The family gave the filmmakers our blessing and stayed out of the way," says John Mitchell, the publisher's great-great nephew and one of the voices who helps to tell the film's story. "When people talk about the Planet and its legacy, they are talking about what we know as critical race theory."

The 34-minute short documentary helps to re-introduce some seminal texts to a new audience. Mitchell says that it couldn't come at a better time. "The story of our past is in those papers, not just the Richmond Planet but the Chicago papers, the Norfolk Journal and Guide... these are our stories told from our perspective so we have them to tell each other. We don't have to rely on [schoolbooks] coming out of Texas."

Mitchell will be the moderator of a panel discussion following the 34-minute film, which is produced by Tilt Production and Creative. His uncle's legacy will be discussed within the larger contemporary topic of diversity in journalism. "We will talk about the process of telling a story," he says. "And how important it is to have voices that are actually connected with the different communities you are speaking about."

The James River is the main character of "Headwaters Down," an unusual environmental documentary from first-time filmmakers Justin "Saw" Black, Dietrich Teschner and Will Gemma. The feature, which screens June 8 at the Byrd Theatre, chronicles an eventful trip taken by friends down by the James River, and recently won the 2022 Virginia Environmental Film Contest at the Virginia Environmental Film Festival.

"Headwaters Down" has its origins in a semi-regular 250-mile canoe trip down the river taken by the filmmakers and their friends. "We decided to take cameras with the intent of maybe posting video clips on a blog, but what happened to us was some serious movie moments that we didn't expect," says Black, a Richmond-based singer-songwriter who also composed the score of the film. "When we got back and looked at the footage, we were like, 'there's three acts here. Let's see if we can make a feature film out of it.'"

The adventure includes not just the dangers of traveling through rapids and inhospitable terrain, but also the threat of human violence. At one point, the group was held at gunpoint and told they were trespassing. "It felt nuts out there when we ran into people," says Teschner. "It brought up the issue of land use, which is something we talk about in the film ... where you can go for a designated waterway. All of these challenges that we faced ended up providing jumping off points to talk about real issues."

"The more time we spent on the river over the years on these trips, the more we learned about it and the issues facing it" adds Gemma. "It's one of the most polluted rivers in the state despite being a prime source of drinking water. The film is serious but it's seriously joyful. The James River has been such a big part of our lives and we want to show people who don't interact with the river just how much they can get from it if they just take care of it a little bit and get out there."

The screening of "Headwaters Down" will be accompanied by two short features, "The Revenge of the Electric Cart," a documentary by Purcellville journalist Rikki Stinnette about dealing with a parent with rheumatoid arthritis, and "A Little Sun," which also prominently features the James River. This poignant story of interracial love was directed by Danny Caporaletti, a professor in the cinema department of Virginia Commonwealth University, and is one of many festival attractions helmed or produced by Richmonders or shot in Virginia.

The list includes "The Disappearance of Toby Blackwood," a comedy about a missing conspiracy theorist produced by Richmond native Katie Middleton (June 9, Movieland), "Ratt's Life," a serio-comic feature shot in Newport News by Hampton Roads scribe Grayson Wolfe (June 8, Movieland), and "Policing Joy," a 20-minute documentary on Black hair bias researched and executive produced by VCU professor Danielle Apugo (June 9, Movieland).

Heather Waters, founder and producer of RIFF, says that having a strong representation of local filmmakers each year is important to organizers.

"It not only gives the filmmakers the opportunity to get in rooms with other outstanding filmmakers visiting Richmond, but in many cases it leads to new relationships for them within the industry," she says. "Sometimes even more projects and jobs for our local filmmakers. Additionally, we often look for films that tell Virginia stories – stories we feel are important to our city and the Commonwealth that not only reflect our industry and the rich locations we have, but also ones that we feel will enrich and grow our community.”

For tickets, times and a complete schedule of festival screenings and events, go to riffva2022.eventive.org.

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