This was my third year at the Oxford Film Festival, and I have to say this fest just gets better and better every year. Other small regional fests take note: If you want to grow your small-town-fest-that-could into a small town fest that can and does have a reputation as one of the go-to fests for your region, take some notes from the folks who make this fest happen. As at any fest, there are countless volunteers who make it happen, but I have to give a shout out to the fest co-directors, Michelle Emanuel, Molly Fergusson and Micah Ginn, and Assistant Director Melanie Addington.
My fellow fest circuit junkies — not to mention all you indie filmmakers out there looking for a great fest to showcase your hard work — should add Oxford to your list of fests to check out; If you’re ever fortunate enough to be invited to attend as a filmmaker, juror or panelist, do not turn it down.
One thing I love about Oxford Film Fest (henceforth referred to as OFF for brevity) is how responsive the folks who run the fest are to feedback and ideas. During my involvement with this festival, I have seem them respond positively to issue after issue, and the dedication of this (again, let me emphasize, entirely volunteer) staff to making their little fest shine in a big way pays off. The hospitality of this fest is among the best I’ve seen at any fest, large or small; in fact, this weekend I had numerous conversations with folks new to OFF who were amazed at the level of hospitality. They should sub-brand their fest as “The Hospitality Fest.”
Thursday night, opening night of the fest, was an early reception/meet-and-greet for filmmakers and press at the home of festival super-patron Donna Ruth Roberts. I’ve written before in my OFF dispatches about Donna Ruth; her home is lovely and radiates ambient Southern charm, and Donna Ruth herself is a living embodiment of the term “Southern Hospitality.” She has become, over these past three fests, a friend of mine I look forward to seeing; she’s invited me more than once to come out to Oxford for a non-fest visit sometime, and one of these days I will take her up on it. Heck, she may not get rid of me once she has me there.
Donna Ruth opens her home year after year to a cadre of filmmakers, press and locals, greeting and talking to everyone, making sure everyone’s okay in her lovely, nurturing manner. Also, her home always smells like heaven on earth; after some detecting work a few years ago, Jen Yamato, Eric Snider and I tracked down the “Donna Ruth” scent to these amazing French Tulip candles she burns. That smell is so comforting to me that Jen sent me one of those candles a few days before my surgery, knowing that scent would calm me and evoke lovely memories of Oxford and Donna Ruth. It did, I’ve now burned through it completely, and will be stocking up on more of them in the future to calm me through these rocky times.
Following Donna Ruth’s reception, a group of us headed to watch the live-broadcast of Thacker Mountain Radio, a local weekly radio show that’s a bit like a combination of Garrison Keillor and old-time variety shows. Our friend and fellow critic Shawn Levy did a live reading from his latest book, Paul Newman: A Life.
I came to the fest this year as both a juror for Documentary Features and moderator of a panel, so between those obligations and my need to pay close attention to my fatigue level and take care of myself, this being my first post-surgical excursion out of Seattle, I didn’t get to see many films other than the eleven features I screened for the docs competition. One thing I’ve observed is that the quality of films at Oxford continues to improve each year as the fest’s reputation grows, and the docs competition this year was both varied and competitive. The film that won the fest’s Hoka Award for Documentary Feature was The Last Survivor, an outstanding film by first-time feature filmmakers Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman, and produced by Jeff Scheftel, who, among other things, was also a producer on another doc I’ve championed, Darius Goes West.
The Last Survivor was remarkable for the way in which the filmmakers addressed the atrocity of genocides in Darfur and Rwanda through the stories of their engaging subjects, each of whom has handled being a survivor of such horror in their own way, while giving the viewer a stark reminder how the situations in Rwanda and Darfur are very similar to the Holocaust under Hitler, when millions of Jews were slaughtered before the world took notice enough to stop it. Hedi, the Holocaust survivor whose story is interwoven with those of the modern day survivors of this horror, both the wrenching tale of her own experiences in Nazi concentration camps, as she strugggled to ensure that both she and her sister would survive, while also offering hope that beauty can, in the end, arise out of even the worst situations. The Last Survivor is a lovely, well-made tapestry of a film that I would compare to films like War/Dance and The Devil Came on Horseback (yes, it is that good), and I hope to see it get distribution and do very well.
Our jury gave an honorable mention to a film called Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist, which took what could have been a snoozer of a topic and made it fascinating and engaging by drawing a dramatic narrative arc and telling a compelling story that an audience could relate to. And here’s where I segue into a little sidebar on docs which I know a good many of my fellow critics will take umbrage with:: After viewing countless indie docs over the past however many years, I have come to have a very low tolerance for “talking head” documentaries. You know what I’m talking about here — those films where every other shot seems to be an extreme close up of someone talking, usually “artfully” framed to the far left or right. For me, your doc can have some of that, but talking head crap should never constitute the majority of your film. It’s just boring. Even in a doc, you should tell a story — it’s just a story based on real subjects rather than made up characters.
Naturally Obsessed told a story — or rather, the stories — of several graduate students in Columbia’s research science department. I personally would be bored out of my skull doing the work these folks do, but they are obsessive about it and in love with their work, and that comes through throughout the film. The subjects the filmmaker chose to focus on — the professor in charge of this particular lab and group of students, who’s also trying to get tenure himsef, and several of the students, each of whom have very different motivations for being there and goals they hope to accomplish in the long run, were all interesting, self-ware and engaging. The story of these students and why they do what they do, therefore, held my interest and fascinated me.
There were other exceptional docs in the competition that we were unable to mention at the ceremony because we just couldn’t award everyone we would have liked to, but I’d like to also give particular shout-outs to Jim Granato’s D-Tour, which tells the story of indie pop band Rogue Wave coping with their drummer Pat Spurgeon dealing with kidney failure and the need for daily dialysis to keep him alive just as their band was finally getting successful and going on a lengthy tour; Mississippi Queen by Paige Williams, in which Williams embarks on and films her personal journey to reconcile her Southern Baptist upbringing with her own homosexuality and the fact that her own parents run an ex-gay ministry. It was a brave film with elements that reminded me of both smalltowngaybar and For the Bible Tells Me So, and I expect it to continue to get good response on the festival circuit. Wheedle’s Groove, directed by Seattle-based filmmaker Jennifer Maas, tells the story of the history of soul music in Seattle, a town far better know for its grunge and indie rock, but beyond that it is a story of hopes and dreams put on hold, all but forgotten, and (however briefly) revived once again.
Thursday night’s opening night party was held in an art gallery in the Oxford Square, and gave folks an opportunity to mix and mingle while noshing on some delish local catering.
Friday was a packed day of morning jury deliberations with my fellow docs jury members, Todd Gilchrist and Ed Stencel (I couldn’t have asked for two better folks to serve with, they both took the task seriously and we had some very … spirited debate), a filmmaker/press luncheon at famous local establishment City Grocery, and then the Speed Pitch panel, which I moderated. This turned out to be one of the best panels I’ve been involved with at a festival. Using a concept similar to “speed dating,” each participating filmmaker was given 90 seconds to pitch their movie (either the one they had at the fest or another project) to a distributor. We rotated the filmmakers through the six distributors so they had an opportunity to pitch to different kinds of distribs and producers. After that, we had a lengthy discussion about what the distribs heard that they liked (and didn’t), what made a pitch stand out from the pack, and which pitches they felt had the most merit and why. This was a lively panel with a pretty packed audience, and the end result was filmmakers getting a crash course in how to pitch their films quickly when opportunities arrive at fest parties and such, and perhaps even with some distribs actually interested in some pitches they heard and having later discussions with the filmmakers about them. All in all, a great panel.
Following that panel was a panel on “The Art of the Celebrity Interview,” moderated by the effervescent Lisa Rosman, with critics Elvis Mitchell, Jen Yamato, Todd Gilchrist and Shawn Levy participating. Much lively and entertaining discussion ensued, though the panelists were generally careful not to name names in telling stories about interviews gone horribly awry. I overhead a pack of younger girls in Ole Miss sweatshirts chatting excitedly about how the panel was “way more interesting than they thought it would be” as they left, so that in and of itself I took as a good sign.
Next up as a real treat for fest attendees: A “Conversation” with Elvis Mitchell and actor Ray McKinnon, who’s done everything from work with the Coens on O Brother Where Art Though to his most recent role as the coach in the Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side. Following that, a pack of hungry fest folks descended en masse upon one of my favorite Oxford haunts, the Ajax Diner in the Square. I think just about everyone I knew personally showed up, but also there were Ray McKinnon and his lovely and charming wife Lisa (and can I just add here that you will not meet two nicer celebrity folks than Ray and Lisa), and later on local famous resident Joey Lauren Adams (also a delightful person) dropped by. The Ajax folks were a bit overwhelmed for about half-a-second, and then proceeded to find us all seats and then serve of their amazing food quickly and with their usual friendliness and Southern charm. Post-surgery, I can no longer handle my favorite dish there, the Jack Cheese-stuffed meatloaf, but I think I may want to marry their squash casserole when this divorce is over and have a lifetime relationship with it.
Friday night’s party was held at an incredible venue, Oak Hill Stables (think lots of polished wood, fine furnishings and luxury, not tromping through manure), accompanied by a nice spread of food including chili and, in the large front room … karaoke! We were all treated to seeing numerous filmmakers, press and locals rock out the karaoke, though I must say my own performance of Time Warp rocked the house, and Jen Yamato, director Jennifer Maas and I did a rendition of Backstreet Boys “I Want it That Way” that may be talked about for years — years, I tell you! — among the Oxford fest folks.
Saturday there was a tour of Faulkner’s house which I missed by oversleeping 20 minutes, lunch at Handy Andy’s BBQ, a brief foray into Off Square books for a look-see, and then screenings of Carried Away (which ended up winning the Narrative Jury award) and the block of animated shorts. I don’t watch a lot of shorts, generally, but I wanted to mention two that particularly struck me: Jury Winner Topi, directed by Arjun Rihan, a 7-minute short that captured the humanity underneath the bloody Shikh/Hindu-Muslim conflict in 1947, when the British Empire divided India and Pakistan, and Pause Replay, directed by Chan-Chia Chang, an insightful and asute 6-minute film about relationships, love and memory told through the tale of two robots, Adam and Eve.
Saturday night’s big Award Ceremony and party had an unfortunate (or fortuate, depending upon how you look at it) technical glitch that took so long to fix, the fest folks decided to open the bar and food tables before the show rather than after. I didn’t hear any complaining from the attendees, who gratefully noshed on everything from pulled pork sandwiches (your choice of Memphis-style or Carolina-style sauce, even) to Asian meatballs, from sushi to jambalaya over rice. There was quite a bit of drinking involved as well, though of course I know this from a strictly observational viewpoint, alcohol not being one of my favorite things. If they’d had a latte stand going, though, I would have been all over that action.
All in all, it was another great year for the Oxford Film Fest folks; I’ll miss y’all, and hope to be back next year.