Like many festivals in 2020, the Virginia Film Festival, based in Charlottesville, adopted a blend of virtual and drive-in screenings for their 33rd annual event last month. Many of this year’s bigger festival films—and expected Academy Award nominees—like Nomadland (2020), Ammonite (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), played at two outdoor drive-in locations. As a result, viewers across the country who couldn’t attend in-person showings instead had the opportunity to discover some of the more hidden gems in the virtual screening selection. VFF offered a wide array of narrative films, short films, and documentaries from around the world, as well as a variety of panel discussions over the five days of the festival.
Gather (2020), dir. Sanjay Rawal
This documentary tells three stories, each focusing on food sovereignty as a means of healing in Indigenous communities across America. White Mountain Apache chef Nephi Craig works to open a restaurant that will serve recipes made by Apache chefs from ingredients grown by Apache farmers. In South Dakota, high school student Elsie DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation and a budding scientist, studies the nutritional benefits of buffalo meat as a possible solution to the high rate of diabetes in her community. And along the Pacific coast, the Gensaw family, who are members of the Yurok Nation, create youth programs to preserve the salmon fishing traditions of their tribe.
Across these three subjects, a consistent idea emerges: food has been, and still is, an integral factor in the health of Indigenous communities. The effects of imperialism and genocide, which decimated tribes in part by attacking their food sources, can still be seen today in food deserts, widespread physical and mental health issues, and environmental degradation. “We’re living out a long term genocide,” Samuel Gensaw points out. His words are haunting and true.
Gather is a fairly conventional documentary stylistically, and the way it tells its story isn’t particularly memorable. But the story itself is vital and, ultimately, grounded in hope. If food has played a central role in the continued violence against Indigenous Americans, then it can also be a meaningful part of their restoration and healing. Nephi Craig, Elsie DuBray, and the Gensaw family are living proof.
Boys State (2020) dir. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
In this compelling documentary, over a thousand boys gather in Texas for a week-long political experiment of sorts. Assigned to two parties—the Nationalists and the Federalists—the boys outline their own party platforms, hold elections, and try their hand at running a mock government. Boys State provides a glimpse of America’s future political leaders, a glimpse that is equal parts encouraging and alarming.
For all their goofing around, the boys are well-versed in how the democratic system works and they come to camp ready to win through any mean available to a politician. Robert MacDougall, running for governor of Boys State, forms his candidacy around conservative talking points on abortion and the Second Amendment; he later confesses to the camera that his personal views differ significantly, but he was willing to compromise them to win the vote. Ben Feinstein, State Chairman for the Federalist Party, isn’t above resorting to ad hominem attacks and whipping up a little controversy against his opponents. And at various points, racism and sexism rear their ugly heads in both parties.
At the same time, Boys State suggests the future of American democracy won’t be all bad. The Nationalist candidate for governor, Steven Garza, runs on a platform of cooperative bipartisanship and gets to know as many of his constituents as he can. René Otero, the Nationalists’ district chair, weathers several social media attacks and an impeachment campaign through his perseverance, political know-how, and remarkable command of a room.
All of the participants in Boys State are smart, well-spoken, and determined. It’s not hard to imagine that we might see them again running in a real election. But for many, the political experience they have gained by the end of the week comes second to the friends they have made. After all, they are what the title says: boys. Boys State constantly treads this line—between depicting its subjects as kids or casting them as the future of American politics, between implying a hopeful idealism about democracy or indicating that the strident rhetoric of our current leaders has seeped into the next generation. Ultimately, Boys State suggests that politics isn’t all that much simpler at this level than it is in the real world.