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.