Photo essay: Circles of inspiration at RIFF

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At the Richmond International Film Festival, which celebrates and showcases music as well as films, the influence of art and culture in the twentieth century was never more than a breath away, even when the influences themselves were unexpected.

Jesse Vaughan is influenced by Hitchcock; Jesse Vaughan himself influences Richmond kids and aspiring filmmakers. Hip hop artist Black Liquid uses a story about the development of Rambo 4’s score to inspire a Richmond composer to add a depth of nuance to his scores. Youth Yamada, a Japanese-American guy from Philly, performs songs that sound more purely seventies than some of the music that actually came out of the seventies while his musical partner, Belle, accompanies him on the tambourine, Stevie Nicks style.

150 films and 50 bands were given a spotlight at the festival — a brainchild of producer, director and force of nature Heather Waters that grows larger in attendance and notoriety every year. The venues that were the site of critiques, jam sessions, film screenings and performances each hummed with nervous energy as artist after artist opened themselves up to their audiences. More seasoned artists seemed barely fazed by the throngs around them, while others seemed unable to think about anything else.

But more than anything, at RIFF, there was the strong sense of community that little big city Richmond does better than most places. At a FLOW Collective panel, the artificial barrier between the successful filmmakers up on the dais and the seated audience who had come to learn from them was broken by a Girl Scout darting up and down the aisle, stage-whispering her sales pitch and offering everyone a plate of cookies. Maybe the biggest takeaway from RIFF 2017 is that inspiration is a circle, not a one-way street.

The Richmond International Film Festival’s Feb. 28 opening night feature, a screening of Petersburg-born director Jesse Vaughan’s film The Last Punch at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown, was preceded by a directing workshop with Vaughan himself.
“I think it’s Hitchcock,” Vaughan said when a panel-goer asked him who he thought the best director of all time was. “Because he understood story, he understood lighting, he got the technical aspects. I mean, he invented that shot, the Hitchcock shot. That zoom, you all know what I’m talking about. He was so on top of the special effects.” (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Jesse Vaughan gets ready to pose for a photo with a high school student (far left) who is currently attending his alma mater, Benedictine College Preparatory school in Richmond. “Thank you guys for coming out,” he said. “Such a young crowd out (for this workshop).” (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
“It’s an honor to be here at the Byrd Theatre, which has been here with us since the beginning,” said Heather Waters, co-founder of the Creative World Awards, as well as the founder of the Richmond International Film Festival, as she introduced The Last Punch on opening night. “This is a really special movie tonight, from a local director who has done incredible things over the years.”
At the end of the festival, Waters said that all told, she estimated attendance of this year’s festival to number around ten thousand.
The Byrd Theatre opened in the 1920s, and is a fixture of the city that often plays host to film festivals. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Karon Riley, an AFL defensive lineman-turned-actor who starred as boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Jesse Vaughan’s The Last Punch, casts a glance at Vaughan and CBS6 reporter Cheryl Miller as they talk post-screening about the events leading up to his casting. He had originally read for a smaller role, but filled in as Ali during a table read and impressed the filmmakers enough to get an audition for that role.
“He had the Ali attitude, the confidence,” Vaughan said. “He walked in and he said, ‘Look, I’m six foot three. I’m two thirty pounds. I look like Muhammad Ali.’ He had no idea I was already set on him before he even walked in.”
Riley, a lifelong fan of Ali, says that embodying the role affected him deeply and it took him about a year to shake having played the boxer. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Sparky Quano, an electronica/rock musician from Tokyo, finger-plucks a guitar while performing at the Broadberry on March 1.
RIFF kicked off the month of March and the third day of festival events by hosting a music showcase with performances from a wide variety of artists at popular local venues Strange Matter, the Broadberry, and The Camel.
This is the first year that RIFF has showcased musicians and music along with films and filmmakers. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
“I think musically, from what I’ve seen, the other musicians skew a little younger,” said Drew Gibson, a D.C. musician who is originally from Richmond and performed with his backing band at the March 1 musical showcase at The Camel. “Which is fine, because we make having no hair really cool, so. I grew up in Richmond, and I’ve played here a few times, but it’s good to cross-pollinate with festivals like this, with people coming for film and people coming for music. I do hope we get a few new listeners out of it. I think we probably will.” (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Musician Dave Hadley accompanies Gibson on the pedal steel guitar.
“Dave is great,” said bassist Jon Nazdin. “It’s hard to rock out that hard sitting down.”
Hadley started playing in the 1970s, toured with the Army Band in the 80s, and now tours the country as a performing and recording pedal steel guitarist. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Hadley’s instrument of choice, the pedal steel guitar, is partially operated by foot pedals and knee levers that change the pitch of the strings. Like Gibson, Hadley finger plucks the strings instead of using a pick. The pedal steel guitar is known for its “liquid” sound that makes it popular for playing jazz and blues music. Gibson says the guitar meshes well with his signature sound, a bluesy alt-country. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Belle, the accompaniest of singer-songwriter Youth Yamada, looks at him as she accompanies him on the tambourine at a March 2nd performance at The Camel.
Youth Yamada was one of RIFF’s featured musicians. A Japanese-American who hails from Philadelphia, Yamada travels all over the world to perform his music, which is sonically reminiscent of artists like Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys.
Belle’s outfit and choice of instrument seemed to echo the time period and genres evoked by her musical partner’s stylings. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Youth Yamada tunes his guitar in between songs. Like Sparky Quano and Drew Gibson, Yamada finger-plucks his guitar, which is more difficult and harder on the fingers, but allows for a wider range of sound. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
“I can’t actually play the drums,” admits one of RIFF’s photographers, Richmond-based Joey Wharton, after he sat down at a drumset and played for half a minute. “Everything I know, I learned from Rock Band.” The drums were left abandoned after a poorly attended weekday jam session for the musicians of RIFF. “Everyone’s off rehearsing during the day, so not a lot of people swung by,” Wharton said. Wharton is a freelance photographer and videographer who specializes in live music. “Heather (Waters) hired me because there is that music showcase all this week, so I’ve just been bouncing around from venue to venue,” he said. “I think every year the festival gets better and better. This is the first year for the music showcase, but there’s people coming from all over the country. It’s good exposure. You never know, the right person might watch your session and say, Hey, I want you on my next project.” (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Professor and composer Carlos Chafin answers the question of a young filmmaker during RIFF’s March 4 FLOW Collective conference, which brought together filmmakers of all stripes to answer questions and critique reels. Director Jesse Vaughan sits behind him, listening.
The FLOW Collective is a recent addition to the RIFF lineup that began in 2016 and expanded this year. The panels center on the concept of “creative flow”, an idea common to Eastern religions that gets its official name from Hungarian philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (PHOTO BY DIANA DIGANGI)
Richmond composer Douglas Bischoff sits and listens as a panel of musicians and filmmakers critique his reel. Hip hop artist Black Liquid suggested that his scores for film needed to display more nuance, and more closely underpin the mood of the scene, instead of overpowering the visuals.
“If I’m watching something, I need context,” said Black Liquid. “Greatest thing I ever heard about film, and about a score, is about the fourth Rambo movie, which some may say is ridiculous. But when they made it, it didn’t have a score, and people couldn’t sit through it in focus groups. They put a score to it and it changed the entire game. They added that context.”

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