With my debut feature, Gold Star, accepted to the Oxford Film Festival, my experience began before my plane wheels even touched the ground.

I’ve spent very little time in the South, yet the cliché of regional friendliness and hospitality seemed especially true at Oxford. The festival organizers and attendees were genuinely interested in cinema, and wanted to discover new films and voices. Executive Director Melanie Addington and her team communicated early and often to answer any and all questions, even going so far as to start a private Facebook group to connect with their filmmakers.

One of my soon-to-be-friends from the festival astutely commented about the awkwardness of networking at film festivals: “When you first arrive, you’re unsure who to talk to and, by the time you leave, you wish you could have that first night back so you could hang out with your new friends more.” Networking can be overwhelming, but everyone at Oxford was approachable and the usual anxieties quickly vanished. A much-buzzed-about “White House” party was like a frat party for film nerds in a huge Southern mansion. The party had good food and endless bourbon, complete with a fortune-teller in the basement (whom I never got to visit, due to an extremely long line).

And oh, right, the screenings! The main theater at Oxford, the Malco Oxford Commons, served as a de facto base camp, with a VIP food/drink tent hangout situated out back. I was lucky enough to do an extensive sound and projection test before my screening—a luxury in the fast-paced world of film festivals.

The audiences were lovely. I had in-depth conversations with new fans of my film, who both applauded craftwork like editing and writing, and opened up about their personal connections to my own very personal film (about a young woman becoming primary caregiver to her ailing father). They told me about their own experiences of caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, and losing one’s parents at a young age.

I never expect awards at festivals. I attend in order to show my film, network, grow my audience and have a bit of fun, so winning the Lisa Blount Memorial Award for Acting for my performance in Gold Star came as a complete surprise. This meant an encore screening and more promotion for screening number two.

Gold Star‘s Victoria Negri and composer Ben Levin at Oxford Film Festival 2017

Landing back in New York post-festival, after the adrenaline wore off, I immediately started brainstorming ways to get myself back to Oxford next year, to celebrate and support film with old friends and a good glass of bourbon. And maybe I’ll even get to check out that fortune-teller next time. MM

Victoria Negri is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and actor currently on the festival circuit with her award-winning debut feature film Gold Star.

Oxford Film Festival 2017 ran February 15-19, 2017. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Top photograph: Victoria Negri with her Hoka statuette, given to her as the winner of Oxford Film Festival’s 2017 Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award.