In Afghanistan, a young woman watches over her paralyzed husband and begins to reveal the stories of her life that she has kept hidden for the past 10 years. In southern Africa, a young orphan journeys away from his hometown and forms an unexpected friendship with an old Indian woman. In Italy, a man’s plans to tell his conventional family that he is gay go awry when his father has a heart attack at the dinner table.

These stories are drawn from all corners of the globe, but came to life on the silver screen at the University of Richmond this semester as part of the International Film Series (IFS), that this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Started in 1989 by former Dean of International Education Uliana Gabara, Director of the Media and Resource Center Paul Porterfield, and former film and drama professor Bert Cardullo, the IFS has over the years shown 407 foreign films, representing a wide range of genres from comedy to drama to action to film noir.

The lineup hasn’t always been so diverse. In its early days, the series focused on old black-and-white classics. But the organizers quickly realized that this repertoire didn’t appeal to as wide an audience as they would have liked.

“We wanted to show as complex and large an artistic representation of other countries and cultures as possible,” Gabara says. “The goal is always to have a mix of countries ... while always using the supreme criterion that it’s got to be a good movie and a good story.”

Over the years, those good stories have been drawn from more than 80 countries. Every year, Porterfield, in conjunction with the Office of International Education, combs through movie distributor catalogs and reviews from professional film journals, magazines, and newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune to create a lineup that will be provocative, diverse, and entertaining.

“It’s not just meant to be popular films,” says Porterfield. “It’s also meant to be films that challenge people in terms of content and how they’re made. One of the intents of this is to go places you don’t normally go, experience things you don’t normally experience, and give you a window onto the world.”

Audiences, comprising a mix of students, faculty, and community members, have responded by flocking in droves to Ukrop Auditorium, where the series took up residence in 2011. In 2012–13, more than 5,100 people attended the series, with an average of 300 viewers turning out every weekend to see the selected film, shown for free twice on Friday and once on Sunday.

Members of the Richmond community have long been an important part of the IFS, streaming to the series not only to see films that would never otherwise come to area screens, but also, for many immigrants in the region, to maintain a connection with their home cultures.

“That idea that once you come to America, you should forget the culture you came from — that has really played itself out,” says Gabara.

Jaax remembers in particular one Lebanese attendee at a previous showing: “He was so excited. ‘A film from home!’ he said.”

Among the campus community, the IFS has also supported the University’s growing emphasis on comprehensive internationalization, with a number of professors incorporating the series’ offerings into their course curricula and students interested in study abroad turning to the films for a broader glimpse of the world.

The engagement of both the regional and the University communities in the IFS has also spawned several offshoots over the years: the African Film Weekend, coordinated by Associate Professor of French Kasongo Kapanga every fall, and ChinaFest, a weekend of Chinese film held every spring. Both of these “mini-festivals,” as Jaax describes them, will next year celebrate their tenth anniversaries.

“I’m very excited about Asian cinema,” says Porterfield, who is also a film studies professor. “The filmmakers in some of those areas have had some difficulty making films because of political reasons, and to get their films distributed is a challenge, but they’re making terrific films.”

Both Porterfield and Gabara hope to see the IFS continue to grow, particularly as the University’s Film Studies Program, created in 2010, expands.

“[We have] a very profound conviction that film is a very important aspect of culture and of art and that it needs to be part of the education and entertainment of the University community,” says Gabara.
For Jaax, international films are one of the best vehicles available for this mix of enjoyment and learning.

“The movies are shown in the original language with subtitles, and you really become immersed in the culture, because that language over the course of the film becomes music,” she says. “I think that’s the magic of cinema: you become engrossed in the story.”