When the invite for the 2016 Oaxaca FilmFest came in, I didn’t need much convincing to schedule the trip.

The festival occupies one of the spots on our “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” list, yes—but I would have gone to a laundry soap festival to get to Oaxaca again, having spent one gleaming and succulent winter there about a decade ago. I’m not the first to say it, but there is something decidedly magical about that colorful and sensual colonial city, built just outside of the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. It’s there in the fresh air coming from the pacific over the Sierra Madre del Sur, the golden slant of the sunshine on the patina of aged stone and colorful walls, the many layered smells of stewing spices and roasting corn, the fantastical painted wooden animals in the markets, the daily processions in the street with costume, flowers and puppetry, and in the amazing things they do with fireworks, which if you haven’t seen you may not believe. I once witnessed a 40-foot flaming Jesus made of giant sparklers whose crown of thorns went spinning off into the starry night. But I had never seen a movie there.

Sights and sounds of Oaxaca. Photograph by Jessica Rhys

I had, though, been hearing good things about the Oaxaca FilmFest for several years, and when the opportunity to finally attend came for me last October I was full of pleasant expectations for some good mole, smoky mescal, colorful days and a taste of Mexican film. Yet still I was unprepared for the level of celebration and stimulation that OFF creates. The festival, I found, is more artistically satisfying than that sparkler Jesus, and might even surpass, in my estimation, the traditional evening every year when Oaxacans cover their Zócalo with amazing sculptures and tableaus made from giant radishes.

I should have known that a place as beautiful and full of artistic tradition and cultural integrity as Oaxaca would attract people—namely organizers Ramiz Adeeb Azar and Ana Echenique—who’d build an unusual festival, characterized by creativity, community and education. Refreshingly, they bring festival participants together for a higher-than-average frequency of conversations about art, life, inspiration and story.

Beyond a focus on artistic expression, there’s a strong career track to the festival too, especially for screenwriters and young filmmakers. OFF boasts a renowned script contest that expects 2,500 international submissions this year. Unlike most other film festivals, many screenwriters make a point to attend. Along with the camaraderie and networking from being surrounded by other writers, OFF 2017 will also feature a script market that anticipates offering a high level of individualized support for contest finalists. Representatives from the Sundance Institute, Vimeo and the Redford Center, along with producer Marjorie Bendeck (who offers up a dizzying amount of killer info about arts funding available for international filmmakers), were in attendance for 2016, giving solid presentations and resources for writers and filmmakers. The 2017 festival has every expectation of building upon this precedent.

The film programming is eclectic, with something for everyone, and ambitiously aims to elevate Mexican film, pushing the envelope for Mexican audiences and inspiring a strong Mexican film culture through educating, inspiring and showcasing young Mexican filmmakers. The entire program—and every workshop and event—is fully bilingual in Spanish and English. OFF brought in several international films for their Mexican premieres, including The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A trip Across Latin America (U.K., Paul Dugdale), Personal Shopper (France, Olivier Assayas), Elvis & Nixon (USA, Liza Johnson), By Way of Helena (USA, Matt Cook), Cien años de perdón (Spain, Daniel Calpasoro), Sheep and Wolves (Russia, Andrey Galat) and The Eagle Huntress (U.K.-Mongolia-USA, Otto Bell). All screenings are open to the general public, and all outside of the Cinépolis complex are free, including a family program track. All attendees are welcome at any and all workshops, not just the track that they are assigned. OFF has built a culture here of inclusion and integrity: The city and the festival itself also make a point to have handicapped accessible venues and translators available at presentations for the multilingual and hearing-impaired.

Moviemakers on stage at Oaxaca FilmFest. Photograph by Douglas Favero

Many festivals offer a wonderful cultural destination, a strong workshop program, interesting films and good parties. OFF has all of these elements, but there is something else going on there, too. Something intangible. You can feel it in the loyalty of the returning participants; their glowing FilmFreeway reviews prove that this festival captures hearts. This is a gathering, a building of community, an experience. It is a convergence on writing and art. And eating—can’t forget the eating in Oaxaca. Oh the mole! And mescal!

The festival is still relatively young and it still possesses some undiscovered magic, though it’s suddenly being noticed by many at once. Get there in 2017 and catch a little bit of that magic as it unfolds. MM

The Oaxaca FilmFest took place in October 2016. The next edition runs October 6-13, 2017.

Mentioned This Article: