In the far northwest corner of Mississippi lies the city of Oxford.
Author and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner hung his hat here, while James Meredith helped spark the civil rights movement with his admission to the University of Mississippi. Drive an hour west, and you’re at ground zero for American blues music. An hour east, you’ll be standing in Elvis’ birthplace. History and legend intermingle everywhere here.
In the midst of it all is the Oxford Film Festival, a melting pot full of regional flavor and creative talent. With 16 years under its belt, it stands as a cultural beacon within the state, showcasing local moviemakers and screening some of the best new cinema on the circuit.
Since I had a documentary short (“Thou Shall Not Tailgate”) playing in one of the many blocks, I was drawn in by the non-fiction on the schedule. Of the films I saw, the ones that captured my imagination were about people looking to create, perform, and explode expectations.
At the top of the heap (and winner of Best Documentary Feature) was the powerful and nuanced doc Wrestle from the directing team of Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer. Following the day-to-day trials and successes of four high school wrestlers from Alabama, Wrestle has relentless energy, heart, and has won honors at Hot Springs, Indie Memphis, and Denver International.
The Mississippi high school show choir in Melissa Pace Overholt’s Attache crackles with musical verve and competitive tension. It spotlights a homegrown performance program that inspires and thrives in the midst of statewide school budget cuts. It’s also a must for all you choir nerds out there.
In a similar approach, but different vein, Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway blurs the line of commerce and entertainment as it captures comedy writer Steve Young and his obsession with the weird and wonderful world of corporate musicals. It’s terrific fun and a great peek at the entertaining underbelly of business culture.
In a final demonstrative stroke, the specter of weirdness rises in Skizz Cyzyk’s incredibly entertaining Icepick to the Moon, which captures the music and prankster aesthetic of the Rev. Fred Lane, a cult hero who lives to mess with the dominant paradigm. Irreverent and unpredictable, this one had me laughing from beginning to end.
As in previous years, Oxford has drawn a focus on LGBTQ cinema and women moviemakers, both of which were strongly represented on the schedule. The Gospel of Eureka from Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, took top honors (Best LGBTQ Film), while All We Are from Will Stewart and The One You Never Forget from Morgan Jon Fox, tied for best LGBTQ Short. Additional recognition came to Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer (Wrestle) who took home the Alice Guy-Blaché Emerging Female Filmmaker Award.
If you’re curious about the perks for moviemakers, Oxford does its very best to offer up heaps of Southern hospitality. Along with the traditional Filmmaker Lounge based in the festival hotel, they go the extra mile by providing a Filmmaker/VIP tent at the nearby Malco multiplex, which serves as the primary venue and HQ. In between screenings, moviemakers can access breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with a well- stocked snack table that helps keeps things rolling during those six-hour viewing binges. The tent also serves as a great spot to mix with fellow moviemakers, trade stories, and survey the landscape.
Since festival events are spread out over town, the festival transportation team does a yeoman’s job running shuttles in a loop to the scheduled venues, including the historic and charming downtown core. Wait 15 minutes and you’ll be to to your next destination or party. It’s that easy.
Speaking of which, if you’re in the mood for mingling, Oxford has got the parties and special events scene covered. Whether it’s a documentary screening/concert featuring Memphis punk band Negro Threat, or an awards night swimming in a lake of sangria dotted with tequila and vodka shooters, the parties here are fun and blanket every night of the festival.
The vibe at Oxford is a fitting echo of the region it calls home. It comes from a place with a complex history, but is driven forward by open, creative minds looking to push boundaries and elevate the art form. Executive Director Melanie Addington and her resourceful team have sought to keep the quality high and the outreach personal, and to deliver a film festival that’s diverse, thoughtful, and vital. 2019 was no exception, which bodes fantastic for this rising Southern star. MM
Oxford Film Festival runs March 18-22, 2020. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured Image: Oxford Film Festival 2019 assistant director Kayleigh Graham presents actor Roger Bart with the Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award for his work in Ghost Light. All images courtesy of Oxford Film Festival