By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Oxford Film Festival 2011 — The Wrap
I got swamped with fest activities and travel, so I’m just now getting around to writing a wrap up the Oxford Film Festival, which just completed its 8th year this past weekend. Now that the awards ceremony is over, I can talk a bit about the winners and other films I liked this year at Oxford — which, it must be said, has been steadily improving the overall quality of their programming slate every single year.
This year there were a number of films that stood out for me. Among the competition docs, which I juried along with Skizz Cyzyk and Michael Rose, there were some real standouts, but in the end after much serious deliberation the docs jury chose Chad Freidrichs’ compelling film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History.
Warning: Constructive criticism ahead: we also agreed that this film was burdened by one of the most cumbersome titles ever, and that the title fails to really encapsulate the heart of the story being told. So while as a jury we didn’t want to take away from the film’s win by pointing this out at the awards ceremony, I personally am respectfully suggesting that Freidrichs might want to consider re-titling the film to better sell the broader ideas around race and social justice for which it won the award.
Outside the docs competition, I caught a number of good films. The very compelling doc Mississippi Innocence, directed by Joe York, played to several sold-out crowds. The film follows the entertwined tale of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both convicted of the rape and murder of 3-year-old girls. one was sentenced to death, the other to life in prison, based on questionable “expert” testimony. Both of them, as it turned out, were innocent, and it was only through rapid progress in the field of DNA testing and the passionate involvement of the people behind The Innocence Project that they were finally exonerated.
Mississippi Innocence is blessed with deeply moving subject matter — imagine yourself, knowing you’re innocent, being accused of such a horrific crime, judged by the courts and the court of public opinion, sentenced to die for someone else’s crime, sitting on death row for more than a decade of your life. No, really. Imagine it. It was more moving still, then, to watch Kennedy Brewer dancing and enjoying the Friday night party at Roosters, where blues great T Model Ford was performing.
Among the narratives, I enjoyed Prairie Love, which took the Narrative Feature prize. It’s a dark, sometimes darkly comic story set in the winter in North Dakota, and it’s about a weird guy who lives out of his station wagon who encounters a nearly frozen guy who’s on his way to meet for the first time a woman he’s been corresponding with who’s about to be released from prison. An old switcheroo later, and we have a kind of crazy sort of twisted love tale. Also, it made me very cold to watch this movie, so when you get a chance to see it, I recommend you wear a warm coat or at least your Snuggie.
I was also particularly taken by Passenger Pigeons, a compelling tale that revolves around the death of a coal mine worker. We see the impact of his death on the factory guy and his fresh-faced apprentice, dispatched to deal with PR nightmare the miner’s death represents; the girlfriend of one of the other miners, who’s struggling with the knowledge that this sort of accident could happen to her own boyfriend; the dead man’s brother, widow and young son; and an idealistic young environmentalist who arrives in town for a protest, having missed the memo on the protest being canceled in the wake of the young miner’s death. Writer/director Martha Stephens skillfully weaves her congruent storylines while avoiding the carefully scripted contrivance that often permeates such tales.
There seemed to be a consensus that the shorts programming at Oxford was particularly strong this year. I only caught a few of the shorts, of which I enjoyed Jeffrey Ruggles sweet, simple Queen’s Day, Neil LaBute’s smart, stylish Sexting, and Michael Williams and April Wren’s humorous The Mistake, which evoked for me one of my favorite shorts, Nash Edgerton’s 2007 Spider.
My favorite short (that I saw anyhow) was Pillow, a Southern Gothic bit of cinematic deliciousness that, for all that it’s a short, deserves an entire paragraph all to itself, but I wouldn’t want to give away much of the story other than to say that it’s about two brothers living with their bed-ridden, controlling mother and what happens when the one store in town is out of pillows and Mother demands a new one. Fate sends the brothers across the path of an unexpected source of feathers, and things get weirder and weirder from there.
Now, here’s where you should pay attention if you are a budding would-be filmmaker: If you are going to make a short film, and you understand that a short’s purpose is primarily to show your unique filmmaking style and your ability to actually see a project through to completion, what you want is to make a film as memorable and stylish as Pillow. Gorgeously, stunningly shot, with minimal dialog and a script with shades of Of Mice and Men, Pillow won the jury award for Narrative Short, as well as the inaugral Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award for Ed Lowry, who played “Brother #1″ in the film. It’s not every day you see a short that sticks with you as much as this one did.
One of my favorite parts of Oxford is always the Speed Pitch Panel, wherein filmmakers sign up for a slot at which they can give their “elevator pitch” to a panel of experts including successful producers and active acquisitions execs. This year they switched to a format I liked better than in previous years, having the panel sit in a semicircle and then having each filmmaker pitch to the entire group, such that everyone could hear each pitch. Todd Gilchrist did a terrific job moderating, and we heard some fascinating pitches … and even more fascinating feedback from folks who work directly in this aspect of the business that gave everyone a glimpse at how things really work behind the scenes.
And then there was the late-night visit to Graceland Too, a kitschy sort of homage to all things Elvis. It has to be seen to believed, truly — if you ever come to Oxford Film Festival, make sure you go on the tour. I’m thinking OFF should make the Graceland Too tour a required part of being a first-timer to Oxford. A rite of initiation, as it were.
I have some photos up in my Flickr account right here, but this is a case where a picture is not actually worth 1,000 words, which is about how many words per minues Graceland Too proprietor Paul McLeod can speak. It’s all either brilliant or crazy, I’m not sure which. Maybe a little of both. Let me just say, when your tour of a crazy-esque house stuffed to the gills with Elvis memorabilia at 2 in the morning begins with the front door being padlocked once everyone is inside, well. It can only get more bizarrely awesome from there.
The anticipated sneak peek at Where I Begin, directed by OFF alum Thomas J. Philips and co-written by OFF co-director Melanie Addington was, I must say, extremely well received by the packed houses both days, and I really enjoyed moderating the Q&A for both screenings. I gave feedback on an early iteration of the script and it was so incredible to see it not only completed so quickly, but completely very well. There are shots of painterly beauty and the film overall is just lovely to look at. Well done.
That wraps the Oxford Film Festival for this year … maybe next year we’ll see you around The Square.