“People are like, ‘Why would you watch your own movie?’ ” Payne said during a Q&A session after the screening. “Because of the audience. You spend so much time making a film, it’s only [with] a fresh festival audience that I can have that feeling of completion of the film.”
Such moments of satisfaction were plentiful this year at Middleburg, which opened with a screening of “Rustin,” from Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. The film, about Bayard Rustin, the civil rights pioneer who organized the 1963 March on Washington, was one of several biopics that screened at the festival — “Nyad,” “Maestro” and “Priscilla” among them.
Because of the ongoing actors strike, the stars of those movies weren’t available to sprinkle their usual fairy dust over the proceedings, with two crowd-pleasing exceptions: Cailee Spaeny, who plays Priscilla Presley in “Priscilla,” was on hand to receive an award on behalf of director Sofia Coppola, who was spending time with her mother. And German actor Christian Friedel did an impressive job of winning over the audience, even after playing a coldblooded Nazi official in “The Zone of Interest.” (“Priscilla” is distributed by A24, which has an interim agreement with the Screen Actors Guild allowing members to make promotional appearances; “The Zone of Interest” was an international production and not a SAG-affiliated project.)
This is an exceptionally strong year for award-season fodder, so when it came to voting on Middleburg’s coveted audience awards, filmgoers were spoiled for choice: The winners, announced Monday, were “American Fiction,” Cord Jefferson’s note-perfect adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” featuring a commanding lead performance by Jeffrey Wright, and the documentary “Invisible Nation,” Vanessa Hope’s unusually intimate portrait of Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen. “The Last Repair Shop,” a documentary about a program in Los Angeles that provides musical instruments to schoolchildren, received a special presentation audience award (the film was co-directed by composer and Middleburg stalwart Kris Bowers), while “Society of the Snow,” A.J. Bayona’s dramatization of a 1972 plane crash that stranded a rugby team in the Andes, won best international feature.
The music for “Society of the Snow” was composed by Michael Giacchino, who received this year’s distinguished composer award and offered commentary at a live performance of excerpts from that score, as well as the lush orchestral compositions he created for “The Incredibles,” “The Batman” and “Doctor Strange,” among others. As interpreted by the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra, Giacchino’s soaring music was one of the high points of the festival; when the program got around to the exquisite opening sequence of the Pixar classic “Up,” finding a dry eye in the house was just as challenging as finding a seat.
Founded by BET co-founder (and gifted violinist) Sheila Johnson, whose Salamander Resort & Spa is the hub for the festival’s main screenings, panels and parties, Middleburg honors a film composer every year. That’s just one way Johnson, executive director Susan Koch and programming director Connie White have managed to make the festival a hot ticket and industry destination amid such heavyweights as the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest.
Another way is simultaneously cultivating a sense of overload — at 39 films, this year’s program was more packed than ever — and relaxed serendipity. Only in Middleburg can a film fan bump into Lynda Johnson Robb after watching “The Lady Bird Diaries,” Dawn Porter’s eagerly anticipated documentary about Robb’s mother, Lady Bird Johnson. “We loved it the second time even more,” Robb said of seeing “The Lady Bird Diaries” with her daughter Lucinda. For Robb, Middleburg has become a cherished yearly ritual. “It’s something I do for myself,” she said. “It’s not doing it for my husband, not my children, it’s no pressure. It’s come and enjoy and have a good time.”
“The Lady Bird Diaries” will premiere on Hulu next month; Porter was just one of several directors who came to Middleburg this year, and who had a chance to shine in the absence of striking actors. Payne, Jefferson and Porter were joined by Celine Song (“Past Lives”), Todd Haynes (“May December”), Emerald Fennell (“Saltburn”) and “Rustin” director George C. Wolfe, who received this year’s Impact Award. “I believe that history finds the right conservator, so it can live like a river and move forward,” observed Washington Post columnist and opinions consultant Michele Norris while moderating a discussion of “Rustin” with Wolfe and Higher Ground executive Tonia Davis. “And I think in this group, history has found the right conservator, and at this film festival, thanks to Susan and Sheila, it has found the right stop on that journey.”
As big as names like Payne, Haynes, Wolfe and Obama are, many agreed that their most extraordinary encounters were with a group of five Ukrainian filmmakers whose trip had been arranged through a film diplomacy program organized by the U.S. Department of State and the American Film Showcase, implemented and produced by Elizabeth M. Daley, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Lee Satterfield, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs, introduced a one-hour conversation with the Ukrainian group on Sunday. Satterfield, who leads the United States’ cultural diplomacy efforts, including film, noted that “far from the headlines of fighter jets and the brutality of military prowess, there’s another war raging, and that’s a war against Ukrainian culture. That’s why we wanted these Ukrainian filmmakers to come and be part of this program. Because what they’re doing, storytelling through their own lens, is so critically important right now.”
Koch, who arranged the filmmakers’ stay at a nearby horse farm, noted wryly that they had to sign a safety waiver (“I don’t think it can be nearly as dangerous as what they’re going through now”); although the serene surroundings provided their own form of respite from Ukraine, producer-director Valeria Sochyvets remarked that even Virginia at its most bucolic wasn’t entirely free of anxiety. She still hadn’t gotten used to the sound of airplanes overhead, she said. “When you hear this noise, it feels like it will be some alarm and some bombs.”
As each of them introduced clips from films they had directed or produced, a theme emerged: No matter your artistic aspirations, war changes everything. Director Maksym Nakonechnyi noted that although the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2022, the countries have been at war for almost 10 years, a reality that has defined his creative and professional life.
“The work of me and my company, which is not only a production company but more of a creative collective of filmmakers, has been focused on war and its consequences” since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. That “was definitely not our intention when we first started,” he continued. “We wanted to make much more author-driven, art-focused projects. I would like to make films about raves and electronic music. But since then, all of our work has been focused on the war.”
Nakonechnyi’s film “Butterfly Vision,” which premiered at Cannes in 2022, screened at Middleburg later that day (it’s available on Mubi). The story of a returning Ukrainian soldier who had been abducted and raped by Russian soldiers, it was made before the full-scale invasion, offering a soberingly prescient portrait of the brutality and trauma that was to come. “We thought of the film as a postwar film,” Nakonechnyi observed. “But it turned out to be a premonition of the disaster to arrive.”
Sometimes full-circle can be as chilling as it is cheering.’