Oxford Film Festival celebrates movies, music and Mississippi

ScreenerBlog

Over the past few decades, film festivals have popped up all over the country in some of the less likely places. As Mississippi’s Oxford Film Festival celebrated its 14th anniversary earlier this month—from Feb. 15 to 19—it continued to expand and grow and change with the times.

Based in Lafayette County in the northern part of Mississippi, the city of Oxford is quite different from its surrounding region, being a more liberal-arts-loving community set in the college town that houses the University of Mississippi, known by most as “Ole Miss.”

It’s been said that a third of the town’s population live on campus and that the population grows to over 100,000 whenever there’s a football game. More famously, Oxford is the home of William Faulkner, whose grave is a popular hangout for poetry buffs, and his home Rowan Oaks is one of the town’s more popular tourist spots.

Under the guidance of recently appointed director Melanie Lynn Addington—a longtime former volunteer—the Oxford Film Festival has thrived by bringing filmmakers from all over the country and the world to present their work. Most of the country was represented this year, with filmmakers from England and Japan also traveling to the festival to talk about their films.

Even the awards given by the Oxford Film Festival are special, as the “Spirit of the Hoka”—named after the Chickasaw princess who reportedly ceded the Lafayette County area of Mississippi to white settlers in 1832, and the Hoka Theater built by Ron Shapiro in the ’70s—was given out in 13 award categories.  The “Hoka” is represented by a 16-inch statue designed and constructed by sculptor Bill Beckwith from cast hydrocal (a type of plaster), which offers the award winners an interesting challenge on how to get the roughly five-pound statue home.

Oxford is quickly earning a reputation as a festival that changes with the times by staying up-to-date with current affairs. In response to the controversial HB 1523 bill instituted by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant last year—a “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act” that gives shop owners the right to refuse service to LGBT customers based on their religion—Oxford introduced a LGBTQ section and award for its 2017 festival.

In conjunction with this sea change, the festival held a 10th-anniversary screening of Malcolm Ingram’s doc Small Town Gay Bar with the filmmaker attending for a panel and to act as a juror in the new award category. Similarly, Oxford held a script reading and special 20th-anniversary commemorative screening of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, originally to be followed by a panel that unfortunately had to be cancelled, although filmmaker and actress Guinevere Turner—apparently the inspiration for Joey Lauren Adams’ character—attended Oxford as a juror.

The festival officially kicked off on Thursday, Feb, 16, with Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter, a film shot in Jackson, Mississippi with the state’s capital playing the part of New Orleans and other Southern cities. It was appropriate to have the film opening with the work of a female filmmaker, since last year Oxford started awarding a Hoka to a woman filmmaker in the name of Alice Guy-Blaché. (This year’s winner was Canadian Erin Heidenreich, whose documentary Girl Unbound played at the fest.)

Actor Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame appeared at the fest to talk about author and essayist James Baldwin before the local premiere of Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, which quickly sold out its two Friday night screenings. The movie opened theatrically the same day in Madison, Mississippi—the only city in the state playing the movie—which is 150 miles from Oxford.

A similar commemorative screening of Midnight Express was followed by the local premiere of Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey, a documentary about the author of the memoir that inspired Midnight Express returning to Turkey, with Hayes also in attendance. (I Am Not Your Negro and Midnight Return ended up tying for the Ron Tibbett Audience Award as the festival came to a close.)

Presented as a “secret screening,” the doc The Process: The Way of Pablo Sierra from local director Jeff Dennis offered a portrait of local artist Pablo Sierra, a Spaniard who came to Oxford as a long-distance runner before retiring from sports to become a baker and potter. Sierra digs up the clay he uses in his craft from the Mississippi creeks and also built his own brick kiln. It’s mesmerizing to watch Sierra at work, and the filmmakers are still deciding how to distribute the doc.

Pablo Trailer from Life Long Productions, Oxford on Vimeo.

Beyond that, Oxford presented the Southern premiere of films like Victoria Negri’s Gold Star and Ian MacAllister McDonald’s Some Freaks—the latter just picked up for distribution by Good Deed Entertainment—as well as the world premiere of the campy low-budget Kudzu Zombies, featuring local celebrities and official Oxford Film Festival ambassadors Johnny and Susan McPhail. Negri was presented the Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award for her performance, and Some Freaks took home the Hoka for Best Narrative Feature.

You can’t go down to the Mississippi Delta area without hearing some live music, and the special guest of this year’s fest was Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers, a rockabilly Hall of Fame group from Arkansas who have been together for 62 years and apparently hadn’t been invited to play in Oxford for 60 of those years. Besides an appearance at a live taping of the popular local Thacker Mountain Radio at Oxford’s historic Lyric Theater, the Pacers played at local club Proud Larry’s, and were also the subject of the doc short Arkansas Wild Man, directed by Nathan Willis.

While Oxford had hosted a virtual-reality section in the past, this year was the first year in which ten VR projects competed for the first-ever Hoka in a VR category. Part of the “Fest Forward” section, curated by Kim Voynar and Nathaniel Luke Pinzon, it included entries considered New Media, a category that is still a bit of an enigma even to the filmmakers whose projects were chosen to represent the category.

I was a juror for this section as well as deciding among an impressive array of animated and experimental shorts, as well as local music-videos. The animated offerings were absolutely fantastic this year, with The Fox and the Whale winning the Hoka, and A Little Love Goes a Long Clay receiving a special jury mention for 14-year-old Juliet Buckholdt, who crafted the claymation film based on her own experiences with bullying and social media. Buckholdt would also be rewarded with the Pat Raspberry Emerging Mississippi Filmmaker Award, which includes $1,000. One should also look for Andrew Wilson’s Invisible to get further festival attention.

Oxford has also teamed with other Southern film festivals, partnering with Shreveport’s Louisiana Film Prize for a block of their winners—the grand prize being $50,000—and sharing a number of volunteers with the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.

The festival came to a close on Sunday night, Feb. 19, with Jeff Grace’s Funny Guy and Folk Hero, starring Wyatt Russell and Alex Karpovsky, a rousing road comedy about a love triangle that involves two longtime friends who go on the road together.

More than anything else, the Oxford Film Festival continues to establish itself as the focal point for the local Mississippi community and Oxford’s talented creative pool. Visiting filmmakers network with one another at the nightly parties, often at houses donated by fest sponsors, making lifelong friends, with many regulars returning each year to help out either with the programming or judging awards. It’s been estimated that this year’s festival sold roughly 1,800 more tickets than last year, as Oxford continues to grow and expand.

The 15th annual Oxford Film Festival is scheduled to take place the week of Feb. 7, 2018, and Addington and her staff will continue to work throughout the year scheduling special fundraising events to support the fest.