A program of

Special Guests

The Virginia Film Festival is proud to host over 100 visiting guest artists each year for enlightening discussions and lively Q&A sessions with our audiences. See below for just highlights of our 2019 distinguished special guests.

Ethan Hawke

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” is a phrase a young Ethan Hawke took to heart while filming Dead Poets Society, the Academy®Award-winning drama that launched his career as an actor. Thirty years and several Tony® and Oscar® nominations later, he has emerged a multifaceted artist, novelist, screenwriter, and director. Hawke recently starred in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, for which he won the Gotham Award, Independent Spirit Award, and over 20 film critics’ awards.

Hawke has collaborated with filmmaker Richard Linklater on multiple occasions, including Fast Food Nation, Waking Life, The Newton Boys, Tape, and Boyhood.  In one of their most celebrated projects, Hawke starred opposite Julie Delpy in the critically acclaimed film Before Sunrise and its two sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Behind the lens, Hawke has directed Chelsea Walls and the documentary Seymour: An Introduction.

Hawke resides in New York and is married with four children.

See Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Wanuri Kahiu

Wanuri Kahiu is an award-winning filmmaker. Kahiu’s first feature film From a Whisper, based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,won Best Narrative Feature in 2010 at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. In 2010, her short science fiction Pumzi premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win best short film at the Cannes Independent Film Festival and the silver at Carthage Film Festival (Tunisia). Pumzi also earned Kahiuthe ‘Citta di Venezia 2010’ award in Venice, Italy. After the release and subsequent ban in 2018 in Kenya of her film Rafiki, a love story between two girls, Kahiu took the Kenya Film Classification Board to court and fought for her constitutional rights to Freedom of Expression as enshrined in the 2010 National Kenyan constitution. Kahiu is part of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a collective of African artists whose ambition is to create fun, fantastical, and fierce work.

See Rafiki

Liana Liberato

Liana Liberato is the inaugural recipient of our Rising Star Award. She can currently be seen in a leading role on the Hulu series, LIGHT AS A FEATHER. Liana stars opposite Tony Hale and Malin Akerman in the indie TO THE STARS that premiered to rave reviews at Sundance 2019. Earlier in 2018, Liana was seen in the indie feature MEASURE OF A MAN opposite Judy Greer, Luke Wilson, and Donald Sutherland. She first garnered critical acclaim at the age of 14 for her performance in TRUST opposite Clive Owen and Catherine Keener. She was last seen in Maggie Betts’ directorial debut, NOVITIATE, opposite Melissa Leo and Margaret Qualley and Marti Noxon’s TO THE BONE opposite Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves. Both films premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and are due out later this year. In 2014, Liana starred in two studio features, IF I STAY opposite Chloe Moretz and THE BEST OF ME oppos ite James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan. Liana is 24 and originally from Galveston, Texas.

See To the Stars

Ann Dowd

Ann Dowd received the 2017 Emmy®Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her acclaimed performance as “Aunt Lydia” on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. She earned another Emmy®nomination for her performance as “Patti Levin” on the beloved HBO series The Leftovers. Last summer she shared the screen with Toni Collette in A24’s horror hit Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Ann’s television career has been highlighted by an acclaimed performance alongside Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge, recurring roles on Good BehaviorJudging AmyThird Watch, and Freaks and Geeks. Her film work includes Side Effects, Flags of our FathersThe Informant!,  Marley & Me, The Manchurian Candidate,Garden State, and Philadelphia.

See Dismantling Democracy

Steven J. Kung

Steven J. Kung is a gay Taiwanese-American writer-director who has written episodes of Dear White People and  Falling for Angels, and recently directed an episode of Fresh Off the Boat. He’s been telling Asian American, minority, and female-forward stories for his entire career, starting with A Leading Man, his feature film about Asian American representation in entertainment.Steven cut his teeth as Matthew Weiner’s assistant on Mad Men. He graduated from the Disney ABC Directing Program, the DGA Mentorship Program, and the Ryan Murphy Half Initiative. He also serves as co-chair emeritus of the DGA Asian American Committee. A native of Virginia Beach, Steven holds an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and a BA with High Distinction in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia.

See Queer Love on Screen

Elizabeth Flock

Elizabeth Flock is a Peabody®and Emmy® Award-winning journalist at the PBS NewsHour and the author of The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai, which won a Nautilus Book Award in 2018. She primarily covers the arts, gender,and justice. Last year, she led a NewsHour investigation into sexual harassment and retaliation within the U.S. Forest Service that led to changes in theagency, the resignation of the Forest Service Chief,and a congressional oversight hearing. Her reporting on opioid treatment options was part of a larger NewsHour series, “America Addicted,” nominated for an Emmy®Award. Her reporting has also appeared in theNew York Times, The Atlantic, theWashington Post, and many other publications. She is based in Taos, New Mexico.

See Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Jacqueline Olive

Jacqueline Olive is an independent filmmaker and immersive media producer with fifteen years of experience in journalism and film. Her debut feature documentary, Always in Season, premiered in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency. She has received artist grants and industry funding from Cucalorus Foundation, Sundance Institute, Independent Television Service, Ford Foundation, Firelight Media, and more. Jacqueline was recently awarded the Emerging Filmmakers of Color Award from IDA and the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and was profiled as one of Variety‘s “10 Filmmakers to Watch.”

See Always in Season

Ric Burns

Ric Burns is a documentary filmmaker and writer, best known for his series, New York: A Documentary Film, which premiered on PBS to public and critical acclaim. Burns has been writing, directing, and producing historical documentaries for more than 25 years, since his collaboration on the PBS series The Civil War (1990), which he produced with his brother Ken. He has directed some of the most distinguished programs shown by the acclaimed       PBS history series American Experience, including We Shall Remain: Tecumseh’s Vision (2009), The Pilgrims (2015), and The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018). His work has won numerous film and television awards including six Emmy®Awards.

Burns was educated at Columbia University and Cambridge University. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.

See Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway has earned eight NAACP Image Award nominations. Calloway was recently invited to become a 2018 member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for her contribution to the entertainment industry. Her film credits include South Side with You, Coming to America, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Crimson Tide, and Cheaper By The Dozen. Calloway is currently starring as the matriarch Lady Ella in Bounce TV’s one-hour hit drama Saint & Sinners, now in its fourth season. Calloway can also be seen in Netflix’s Unbelievable and Showtime’s Black Monday. An original cast member of the Broadway hit Dream Girls, Calloway has also starred in Seven Guitars at the August Wilson 20th Century Theater Festival held at The Kennedy Center. Calloway has been married to anesthesiologist Dr. Tony Calloway for 30 years. They live in Los Angeles, California.

See Harriet

Shelly Chopra Dhar

Shelly Chopra Dhar has shown she’s not afraid of breaking the status quo. She is a proud mother of four, a computer scientist, and a filmmaker. She worked in computer science for 15 years, starting as a programmer and ending up as the Director of Technology for a school district in the United States of America. While taking a break from work to raise a family, she fell in love with and discovered her skills in visual art forms: painting, ceramics, and finally, film. Dhar attended film school at the Michigan Motion Picture Institute. Dhar’s biggest project after graduating from film school was co-producing Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Hollywood film Broken Horses. When her original script Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga gained traction among Bollywood artists, Dhar returned to India to direct the film. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is Dhar’s feature directorial debut.

See Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl)

Dennis Christopher

Dennis Christopher was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has been acting for 40 years, with his first major gig happening in 1967 at the age of 12 in the sci fi series “Time Tunnel,” where he was the main guest star portraying the young magician Merlin. He is best known for Breaking Away, for which he received a BAFTA and a Golden Globe nomination. He has starred in over thirty feature films, among them are Django Unchained, Fellini’s Roma, and Chariots of Fire. He has also been featured on television in Stephen King’s It, The Lost Room, and on the final season of Deadwood. Currently, he is working on the political comedy, Graves.

See Breaking Away

Melissa Elizondo

Melissa Elizondo Moreno was born in Mexico City in 1987. She graduated from the University Center for Film Studies of the UNAM, has worked in various artistic projects, and directed several documentary short films. Her filmography includes the short films Túmin, Solidarity Economy (2013) and The Threads that Weave Us (2014). She premiered her first documentary feature, The Sower, in 2018. It went on to win the Guerrero Award of the Documentary Press, Award for a Documentary Made by a Woman, and Audience Award for Mexican Documentary Feature Film at the Morelia International Film Festival, as well the award for Best Documentary at the ONE Country ONE Film International Film Festival in France.

See The Sower

Kevin Jerome Everson

Artist/Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio. He received his MFA from Ohio University and a BFA from the University of Akron. He is currently a Professor of Art at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He has made nine feature-length films and over one hundred and sixty short films. Everson’s films and artwork have been widely shown at venues including Sundance Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History in Washington D.C., The Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His work has also been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Alpert Award, a Heinz Award, a Creative Capital Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, Ohio Arts Council Fellowships, and an American Academy in Rome Prize.

See Kevin Everson Short Films

Linda Goldstein Knowlton

Linda Goldstein Knowlton is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, executive producer, and director. In 2016, she was executive producer for the documentary Dream, Girl, which premiered at the White House. The film showcases the stories of inspiring and ambitious female entrepreneurs. She also produced Code Black, Best Documentary winner at LA Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival, on which the CBS one-hour drama of the same name is based. Knowlton directed and produced Somewhere Between, which won the Sundance Channel Audience Award at the Hot Docs Film Festival and was released theatrically in over 80 cities across the US. For her directorial debut, she co-directed The World According to Sesame Street, which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival in competition and aired nationally on PBS. Linda started her career producing feature films, including the award-winning Whale Rider and The Shipping News.

See We are the Radical Monarchs

John Grisham

Long before his name became synonymous with the modern legal thriller, John Grisham was working at a small Mississippi law practice, squeezing in time to work on his hobby—writing. Born in Arkansas, he dreamed of being a professional baseball player. Realizing he didn’t have the right stuff for a pro career, he shifted gears and majored in accounting at Mississippi State University. After graduating from law school in 1981, he went on to practice for nearly a decade. Since publishing A Time to Kill in 1988, Grisham has written one novel a year. There are currently more than 300 million John Grisham books in print worldwide. When he’s not writing, Grisham keeps up with his greatest passion: baseball. The man who dreamed of being a professional baseball player now serves as the local Little League commissioner. The six ballfields he built on his property have hosted over 350 kids on 26 Little League teams.

See The Client

Debra Martin Chase

Debra Martin Chase, the first African-American female producer to have a deal at any major studio, is an entertainment industry trailblazer. She is also the first African-American woman to produce a film that grossed over $100 million. To date, her films have grossed over one-half billion dollars at the box office. Chase’s work has garnered Academy Award®, Emmy® Award, NAACP Image Award, and Peabody Award nominations. Her company, Martin Chase Productions, currently has an overall deal with Universal Television. Prior to that, Chase ran Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions from 1995 to 2000 and Mundy Lane Entertainment, Denzel Washington’s production company, from 1992 to 1995. Chase has produced three beloved multi-film franchises—The Princess Diaries, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and The Cheetah Girls. Debra Martin Chase is a member of both The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She resides in Los Angeles and New York City.

See Harriet

Daniela Taplin Lundber

Daniela Taplin Lundberg is the founder of Stay Gold Features, a New York-based film finance and production company. With Lundberg serving as the producer of all its projects, Stay Gold Features’ films consistently push boundaries by exploring the human condition, making audiences laugh, cry, and converse. Stay Gold’s previous films include the Sundance Film Festival hit Patti Cake$, which sold to Fox Searchlight in a seven-figure deal that was also the highest sale at the festival that year, and Under the Silver Lake, starring Andrew Garfield, which sold to A24. She also produced Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, which was released by Netflix in 2015 in a game-changing deal for the film industry. Named to Variety’s 2017 Women’s Impact Report, Lundberg is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Lundberg is a graduate of Princeton University and lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

See Harriet

Chef Patrick O'Connell

Patrick O’Connell, a native of Washington, DC, is a self-taught chef who pioneered a refined, regional American cuisine in the Virginia countryside. His alliance with local farmers and artisanal producers was an adaptation born of necessity more than 40 years ago when nothing, but milk was delivered to the tiny town of “Little” Washington, VA. O’Connell has been referred to as “the Pope of American Cuisine.” His orientation is different from most chefs today primarily because he considers himself to be a restaurateur and as the title implies, his goal is to actually restore and heal people – the preparation and presentation of food being but a single element in the process. O’Connell has evolved and refined many of the dishes from his childhood, making them relevant in a new century while keeping their soul intact – building a sort of culinary bridge between past and future.

See The Inn at Little Washington: A Delicious New Documentary 

Kwaku Alston

Kwaku has photographed some of the most famous faces of our time—from Oscar and Grammy winners to Barack Obama and the First Family. His many and diverse clients include The New York Times Magazine, Time and Essence Magazine, global brands like Amgen, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Target and Verizon, and media giants such as Universal Studios, Disney, Amazon, Sony Music and ESPN. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Kwaku launched his career in New York City and began shooting for major magazines and ad agencies while in his early 20s. Today he bases himself out of both New York and Los Angeles and his photos have appeared on everything from movie posters to the covers of best selling books to advertising spreads for international brands such as Apple and HBO.

See Conversation with Kwaku Alston

Jamelle Bouie

Based in Charlottesville, Virginia and Washington D.C., Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times and political analyst for CBS News. He covers campaigns, elections, national affairs, and culture.

Prior to the Times, Jamelle was chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. And before that, he was a staff writer at The Daily Beast and held fellowships at The American Prospect and The Nation magazine. He attended the University of Virginia, where he graduated with a degree in political and social thought, and government. Jamelle is also a photographer, documenting his surroundings using digital and analog tools.

See Harriet

Soraya McDonald

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She’s based in Brooklyn.

See Driveways

Alonso Duralde

Alonso Duralde is the author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men (Advocate Books) and Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas (Limelight Editions). He is the film critic for The Wrap/Reuters and has written about film for Movieline, Salon, MSNBC.com, and HitFix, among many other publications. He also co-hosts the Linoleum Knife podcast and regularly appears on What the Flick?! (The Young Turks Network). Duralde also serves as Senior Programmer for the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles and as a pre-screener for the Sundance Film Festival; he is also a consultant for the USA Film Festival/Dallas, where he spent five years as Artistic Director. A former Arts and Entertainment Editor at The Advocate, Duralde was a regular contributor to The Rotten Tomatoes Show on Current and has been featured in documentaries for TCM (Merry Christmas!), Current, (50 Documentaries to See  Before You Die), IFC (Indie SexFabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema) and Starz (Sex and the CinemaIn the Gutter), as well as on the special features of the Brokeback Mountain and Valley of the Dolls DVDs.

He lives in an awesome rent-controlled apartment with his husband Dave White, author of the very funny memoir Exile in Guyville.

See Queer Love on Screen and Queen of the Capital

Brian Truitt

From the biggest Star Wars movie to the weirdest Oscar-bait flick, Brian will give anything a try as he brings two decades of entertainment reporting experience to covering film, TV and the occasional YA novel.

See Field of Dreams

Alissa Wilkinson

Alissa Wilkinson is Vox’s film critic. She’s been writing about film and culture since 2006, and her work has appeared at Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, The Atlantic, Books & Culture, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Paste, Pacific Standard, and others. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and a 2017-18 Art of Nonfiction writing fellow with the Sundance Institute. Before joining Vox, she was the chief film critic at Christianity Today.

Alissa is also an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, where she’s taught criticism, cinema studies, writing, and cultural theory since 2009. She is the co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, 2016). Alissa regularly gives lectures around the world on film, pop culture, postmodernity, religion, and criticism. She holds an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Seattle Pacific University.

See Marriage Story

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