MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Dispatch: Oxford Film Festival

Last weekend I made what’s come to be an annual trek to Oxford, Mississippi for the Oxford Film Festival. This year I brought my son Jaxon along for his first-ever trip with me to a festival, and I think he had a great time as well. Oxford has always had some of the best hospitality I’ve seen at fests, and the length of your film isn’t what matters at Oxford. They treat all their visiting filmmakers equally well, rolling out the Southern hospitality and charm. Over the years, I’ve heard countless filmmakers rave about what a surprisingly great time they have at this fest. The hotel where everyone stays is simple – comfortable beds, functional furnishings, nothing fancy. But it’s right near the Square, where everything’s happening, and the fest provides frequent shuttle service that makes it easy to get around. Everyone’s friendly, and the fest’s social-heavy schedule with an emphasis on late-night parties and later-night after parties encourages everyone to make new friends.

I’ve written quite a bit about Oxford over the years, in part because it’s remained an interesting fest to return to year after year. They never get complacent; every year since I’ve been attending it, they’ve tried something new, thought outside the box, aimed higher. Oxford’s a great model for smaller regional fests, and a great example of why regional film festivals matter. When they’re run well, regional fests curate a selection of film that simultaneously speaks to and challenges their audience; they bring diverse independent film to places that otherwise wouldn’t have that access; and they grow and nurture interest in cinema, which both increases the range of cinematic voices and preserves the future of film as an art form. Oxford accomplishes all those goals.

This year, for the second time, Oxford made a community film. Maybe there are other small fests that do this – if you know of one, please let me know, because this is one of the smartest ways I’ve seen a smaller fest really engage their community in what a film festival is about. The idea is that they get a regional writer-director to write a script, and they cast and crew it from the community, shooting over a weekend. It draws a ton of interest from the community, people come out in droves to audition, and the folks of Oxford get to experience first-hand what it’s like to be on a movie set. They screen the film several times at the fest, and of course those screenings are packed because everyone wants to see people they know in a movie, right? And then many of those people will stick around and see other films while they’re there. Brilliant.

This year’s film was called The Show Must Go On, and I have to say, for a community film shot over a weekend, it was really good. Written, directed and edited by Matthew Graves and shot by keep-an-eye-on-this-guy DP Gabe Mayhan (who also shot Pillow, my favorite short from last year), the film was fun and funny, with enough cameos for locals to have their moment in the spotlight, while still holding together a story. Local actor Johnny McPhail (Ballast, the upcoming Tarantino flick Django Unchained) has a nice turn as snooty state art director Sebastian Drake, but the real star of the production is the well-designed set, which had to completely collapse around the ensemble at the end of the play — multiple times for multiple takes. Really fantastic production value all around, which goes to show what you can do with a collaborative effort and a team committed to making it happen.

Oxford is a college town, the home of Ole Miss University. Over the years I’ve been coming to the fest, I’ve seen them play around with a few different ways to try to engage with that market, but this year was the smartest I’ve seen them try yet. Ole Miss is a very Greek-heavy school. And if there’s anything Ole Miss Greeks enjoy almost as much as dressing up and partying on the Square on weekends, it’s competing with each other and philanthropy. So the fest challenged the Greek community to engage with the festival through various competitive categories such as volunteering for the fest, painting banners to promote the fest, and most members in attendance. The winning sorority and fraternity got a donation from the fest to their organization’s philanthropy, which works out well for the Greeks because they’re all heading into heavy fundraising time anyhow. Win-win – and maybe you get some college students to check out the experimental shorts block instead of whatever Hollywood stuff is playing over on the other side of the theater.

I did manage to catch some films at Oxford this year in between the parties; and the Southern food that turned up everywhere, usually involving gravy; and the one-week-post-Superbowl Eli Manning sighting at Ajax Diner that had my male tablemates all in a tizzy; and the late-night field trip with 20 or so other fest folk to a real slice of bizarro-Americana Graceland Too(photo blog on that trip coming). The narrative features category, for which I served as a juror, had an interesting slate including How to Cheat, Dick Night, Butterfly Rising, Frontman (the Frontman guys came all the way over from Great Britain for the fest!), Cellmates, and Perfection, which won the jury prize (my fellow jurors were Don Lewis and Julie Kaye Towery Fanton). I caught a doc I liked a lot called Patriot Guard Riders, about motorcycle riders who come out in force to protect families at the funerals of soldiers from protests by the Westboro Church. Very moving film. I also enjoyed the fest’s Secret Screening film, Holiday Road, which just played Slamdance. It’s weird and quirky, and feels more like a student film than anything, but parts of it were pretty funny.

Also this year, the fest partnered with Oxford Music Festival, which I think is a brilliant idea. Not sure how well it worked for them, but there’s a lot of room to grow that. I just hope they refrain from adding a Technology fest into the mix … personally I’m not a fan of how the whole Interactive tentacle has grown so huge at SXSW, and I wish it was smaller and focused just on music and film. But Oxford is positioning itself more and more each year as a showcase fest for their region, so we’ll see how that goes for them in the future.

My short film, Bunker, had sneak preview screenings before Holiday Road at both its screenings – the first time anyone outside my post crew and a handful of industry folks who provided feedback during editing have seen it. The audience seemed to enjoy the film, thankfully – lots of good questions at the Q&A, and lots of folks coming up to later in the fest to tell me what they’d liked about it.

All in all, a very good fest at which I saw old friends, made some new friends, and ate the best shrimp and grits I’ve ever had. Good times, Oxford. See you next year.

One Response to “Dispatch: Oxford Film Festival”

  1. Thanks for this news item on how community film can be integrated with a film festival. The future, if we are to believe the social media evangelist, is participatory.

    Our work at ICFF has been concerned with building community in and through film. perhaps we could screen your film, if it’s suitable? (We’re looking for films now that start with imagination and creative process as ends in themselves.

    This quotation is part of our philosophy
    “The outcome of participatory communication for the people is consciousness-raising.By reflecting about their own condition, they are better able to think about and articulate social action that they believe would improve their well-being. Additionally, people develop communication skills,acquire new knowledge and contribute indigenous knowledge to development decision-making. Utlimately the participation process can lead to resource acquisition that enables people to reach common goals within the community, making it possible for people to live and work harmoniously.”

    (Shirley A. White, Participatory Video, p.38)

Quote Unquotesee all »

What do you make of the criticism directed at the film that the biopic genre or format is intrinsically bourgeois? That’s the most crazy criticism. That’s an excuse for not engaging with the content of the movie. Film critics sometimes, you know, can be very lazy.

Come on, formal criticism is valuable too. But I’m amazed when this is the thing they put in front of the discourse. My situation is that I’m dealing with a highly explosive subject, a taboo subject that nobody wants to deal with.

Karl Marx? Yes, this is the first film ever in the Western world about Marx. And I managed to make an almost mainstream film out of it. You want me at the same time to play the artist and do a risky film about the way my camera moves and the way I edit? No, it’s complicated enough! The artistic challenge — and it took me ten years with Pascal to write this story — was the writing. That was the most difficult part. We were making a film about the evolution of an idea, which is impossible. To be able to have political discourse in a scene, and you can follow it, and it’s not simplified, and it’s historically true. This is the accomplishment. So when someone criticizes the formal aspects without seeing that first, for me, it’s laziness or ignorance. There’s an incapacity to deal with what’s on the table. I make political films about today, I’m not making a biopic to make a biopic. I don’t believe in being an artist just to be an artist. And by the way, this film cost $9 million. I dare anyone in the United States to make this film for $9 million.
Raoul Peck on The Young Karl Marx

“The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.

“The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.”All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.

“If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be?”
~ Raymond Chandler, “Oscar Night In Hollywood,” 1948