In February, Heather Waters was only six weeks from launching her tenth annual Richmond International Film Festival. The week-long event, which features a diverse mix of rising filmmakers and musical artists, has slowly but steadily gathered momentum since she founded it in 2011 to help promote Richmond as a creative hub.
But then the pandemic happened. Time for Plan B, Plan C, maybe even Plan F(udge).
“The last seven months have probably been the most challenging of my life,” says Waters, noting the logistics of arranging a large festival with artists traveling from around the world. “Luckily, we could pull back and didn’t lose a ton of money. But it was touch-and-go for months.”
After reprogramming the festival three times and learning a new virtual platform, Waters has managed to pull together a hybrid festival that will include more than 30 films at the Byrd Theatre and 70 more online (video on demand) in addition to several notable events around Richmond from Sept. 8 through 13.
Strict health guidelines mean that masks and social distancing will be required at all times for entry to indoor events and also at most outdoor events. In addition, temperature checks will be taken at select venues as extra precautions. Waters helped the Byrd find a cleaning chemical (Victoria Bay) that kills coronavirus quickly without doing damage to the seats. But it will mean extra cleaning time between screenings.
Normally a couple hundred filmmakers and roughly 40 bands participate, but Waters says this year around 40 filmmakers will take part and musicians will be livestreaming via Zoom, with additional music streamed on Facebook Live. “The bands will be together at Tang & Biscuit on Saturday,” Waters says. “Opening night, we’re collaborating with In Your Ear for its Shockoe Sessions featuring Jouwala Collective [trance-like Gnawa music mixed with traditional African].”
As far as the video on-demand titles, Waters explains that ticket holders can select films and watch them anytime over six days, with audiences voting online for festival awards. Some Q&As will be prerecorded with filmmakers and musicians to be shown at the Byrd following the films and on virtual platforms, she says.
When asked about festival themes, Waters says there are two this year: We Rise and 2020 vision: “Thank God we chose two, because I don’t think 2020 vision is working out for us [laughs].”
She praises the festival’s New York ticketing company, Eventive, for being proactive and creating the new virtual festival component. “It allows us to say to our patrons, if you don’t feel comfortable, you can go all virtual with the all-virtual pass, or split a pass up between physical and virtual,” she notes.
At press time, she had no clue how ticket sales will play out. They were relaunched a few weeks ago with new content tweaked or added almost daily. “Right now, it’s looking like a lot are virtual,” she says.
The main physical events during the week include the Tuesday, Sept. 8 opening night at In Your Ear Studio; a big Friday collaboration with the Richmond Flying Squirrels that includes a film double feature and musician Rodney Stith (or Rodney the Soul Singer); a Saturday, Sept. 12, all-day outdoor music event at Tang & Biscuit; and Sunday’s Flow Collective conference, which includes panels and pitch sessions for film and music.
The Byrd Theatre will host weekend screenings that include some films with local tie-ins, such as “The Magic Shed,” a pilot sitcom directed by Richmond’s Andrew Carnwath, and “Brewer’s Sessions,” which explores the local music scene through performances at Brewer’s Café, directed by Ajay Brewer. VPM is producing episodes of Brewer’s Café with two new ones launching at the festival.
Other highlights include the Australian film “Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture” starring William Kelly, actor Martin Sheen and other peace activists plus “Victories Place” from France and “Ticket” from Japan.
Waters says she tried to book Martin Sheen and actress Angelica Huston, whose documentary on PETA workers, "Breaking the Chain," is screening at the festival -- but both were busy. In the past, she's had guests such as Danny Glover, Kate Bosworth, and Eric Roberts.
Waters is proud of the “incredible documentaries” this year, including “16 Bars” a music documentary that follows three inmates at the Richmond City Jail and features Todd “Speech” Thomas from hip-hop group Arrested Development.
Finally getting a chance to breathe, she says she's grateful for how Richmonders have come together to support each other across various fields.
“Pivoting and learning a whole new system has taught me to be flexible, stay calm and do your homework,” she says. “And in a collaborative spirit, come together with something special for everybody.”
Ever the optimist, she is hopeful regarding the future of moviegoing in Richmond, as theaters with expensive commercial real estate struggle to survive.
“I don’t think anybody knows [how] and they’re holding their breath,” she says. “The forecast should be: Learn everything you can right now. Innovate, work together.”
The Richmond International Film Festival will be held Sept. 8 through 13 at various venues. Check out the website rvafilmfestival.com for details and ticket information. Individual tickets cost from $10-$12, passes and VIP full access badges cost $40 to $195.