Kielbasa Builds Community With the Virginia Film Festival

Jody Kielbasa

“I’ve produced other things before, but this is always a moving target 30 days out,” said Jody Kielbasa, the director of the Virginia Film Festival, as he sat in his office in the old Albemarle Hotel building in Charlottesville. He was composed, but strained. There was still so much to do to be ready.

Now in its 25th year, the Festival will run Nov. 1-4 this year and screen 120 films, about 95 of them narrative features and the rest shorts, at theaters around Charlottesville.

Kielbasa took over the festival three years ago. He moved to Crozet from Sarasota, Florida, where he had been the founding director of the Sarasota Film Festival.

“We love it here; the proximity to Charlottesville while still being in the country. We’re really happy with the schools.

“I was raised in Florida so the change of seasons and the mountains are nice for me. We fell in love with the Batesville Store. We miss them terribly.”

Kielbasa took a degree in acting from Florida State University and worked as a soap opera actor in Los Angeles for a while. Then he opened a 92-seat theater there, the Tamarind Theater, and operated it for seven years. It still exists and is run by an outfit called the Upright Citizens Brigade.

“It revitalized the area around it,” he said with satisfaction. “It was a cool bohemian hangout.” Lots of Hollywood names frequented it and Ronald and Nancy Reagan came once.

“It was fun and it was a dynamic period in my life.”

He returned to Florida for family reasons and was hired as artistic director at a theater in St. Petersburg. Then he was hired to be the founding director of the Sarasota festival.

“The goal was to drive tourism in Sarasota,” he explained.

Next he came to Virginia. One of his first changes at the Virginia festival, which is a U.Va. operation, was to drop the festival’s policy of having an annual theme.

“A theme is very limiting,” he said. “You get tied to it and then meanwhile things changes and the theme makes less sense.

“The biggest thing for me is community building through the festival. That’s how we are programming now and attendance is going up. We had 24,000 come last year. We are at 70 percent of capacity in our theaters. I think it’s because the films are reaching different cultural segments.

“We’re trying to make the festival contemporary and less classical. We want you to be able to see films you might not otherwise be able to see, and we are also focusing more on documentaries. What’s nice about Charlottesville as opposed to some other festivals is that there is a lot of talking about the movie afterward. Charlottesville is great for that.”

While it began with an academic purpose, the festival now has a “dual role,” Kielbasa said. “We’re not just academic but a bridge to the community. It gets all the people interacting. More than 100 films in four days can do a lot of outreach.”

He recalled the impact of screening Freedom Riders with black citizens of Charlottesville and some noted civil rights leaders in the theater. “It was cathartic for the audience,” he said.

This year the festival will show All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate scandal, and Bob Woodward, one of the reporters who uncovered it, will join a panel moderated by former governor Gerald Baliles for a discussion afterward.

Kielbasa said one of his favorite movies is The Wizard of Oz. “It succeeds at every level.” Others he considers superior are It’s a Wonder Life, The Good the Bad and The Ugly, Bladerunner, and the Godfather trilogy. He could go on for quite some time with a favorites list.

“I watch a lot of movies,” he admitted, but not necessarily every one that will be shown at the festival. Once it’s over, he takes a break from watching. “I can’t see some films much in advance because studios restrict access out of fear of piracy,” he explained.

“An overlooked period is the screwball genre,” he said, “movies by John Sturgis and Frank Capra made during the 1930s and ‘40s. It was an era of innocence. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an example.

“It’s the single most difficult type of movie to remake. You have to have naivete for it to work. It’s hard to recapture. For instance, you can’t recapture the Andy Griffith Show.”

He said even children now have somewhat jaundiced views of life. “There is a certain snarkiness to kids’ shows today.

“Still, a good story is a good story. Is it told honestly and truly? That’s what the audience looks for. In the theater you want to hear the reaction from the people around you.”

Kielbasa has co-produced a film himself, The Deal. It premiered at the Sundance festival in Colorado and it had well-known actors, but it did not get into theaters and went straight to a video release.

“Crozet harkens back to the Capra era. It’s been a privilege to be in here,” he said. “We see it all with fresh eyes. Picking peaches is new. The University is phenomenal and what a privilege it is to teach there.”

His kids play in the Peachtree League. “Opening Day for Peachtree is as Americana as you can get. And we love the library. There is such a love of literature there. It’s magical for the kids, and to be next to the trains as they go by. It’s one of my favorite things about Crozet.”

For details on this year’s festival program, visit