Dramatic tension: Kielbasa counts down to opening night

Jody Kielbasa is tired. When we spoke with him, the Virginia Film Festival director had been in Richmond the previous night, trying to celebrate his wife's birthday while dealing with emails during dinner about the impending festival lineup.

And it's a big one– the 25th anniversary of what's now a Charlottesville institution that started as the inspired idea of former Governor Gerald Baliles and former billionaire's wife Patricia Kluge.

September is crunch month for Kielbasa. He's got to get the schedule firmed up before it's announced October 2. "A lot of producers won't commit until after Toronto," he says, and that film festival is over September 13. That's where bigger films are found, like The Artist or The Descendants, that will anchor his own November 1-4 festival in a few short weeks.

A new collaboration with UVA's Miller Center and its annual "Presidency in Film" series will bring the man who broke the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward, for a screening of All the President's Men. "I was in high school when that happened," says Kielbasa. "It's interesting to me when we can have a dialogue on something that shaped our history."

He mentions the festival's ongoing partnership with the Center for Politics, another one-of-a-kind program that distinguishes the Virginia Film Festival from the other 1,500 around. 

"It's the 50-year anniversary of significant events from the '60s," he reminds. This year's pick from the Center is Ethel, a film about Ethel Kennedy directed by Rory Kennedy. It also focuses on Bobby Kennedy's time at UVA Law School, and another historic event: when the first African American– Ralph Bunche– was invited to address the student body 52 years ago. "He said he'd only do it if it was an integrated audience," says Kielbasa.

Yet another partnership is with the Library of Congress, showing from its National Film Registry movies that are culturally and historically significant. "We launched that last year," says Kielbasa, with Badlands. He hints that this year's selection could be a Disney film.

During his four years here, the festival– whose signature events include a quick-turnaround "adrenaline" project– has become even more contemporary. "We're screening the best new films," says Kielbasa, adding that he is continuously trying to balance documentaries and shoestring indies with big-budget studio releases.

How successful has that strategy been? "Attendance has set a record for three years straight," he points out. The sellouts have gone up, as have the number of films screened.

"Jody Kielbasa is the film festival's equivalent of a five-hour energy drink," says Baliles. "He has brought imagination and innovation to the festival's programming and has done so with such verve and vitality that it's now placed in the constellation of major film festivals."

But there's no time for resting on laurels. As of this writing, Kielbasa has about two weeks to snag a dozen or so hot films and get them scheduled into the right time slot and venue– his own personal adrenaline festival.