According to a detailed manifesto on its website, the Oxford Film Festival began in 2003 "as a project of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council... committed to celebrating the art of independent cinema." What the festival actually is, however, is so much more: a four-day celebration where filmmakers, industry professionals, critics, and cinephiles gather together, get to know one another, and share in a community's collective appreciation for film in all of its forms. Cozily entrenched in the businesses and residences of Oxford, Mississippi, the town that the picturesque college Ole Miss calls home, OFF is a modest, maturing sibling of mainstay festivals like Sundance and South By Southwest whose smalltown charm bypasses superficial spectacle in favor of more substantial rewards.
The festival runs four days and features more than 80 different offerings, including narrative features, documentaries, short films, animated works, and experimental projects. I was enlisted at the last minute to serve as a member of OFF's documentary jury, so I was unfortunately unable to attend the Opening Night screening of director Joshua Goldin's Wonderful World, but took a break from some 20 hours of verite filmmaking to attend a party at Oxford's Southside Gallery. In attendance were several of the filmmakers who brought their movies to the fest, as well as an array of other participants and locals without whose presence the festival simply wouldn't have its singularly intimate feel.
On Friday, juries met in the morning to deliberate and choose winners in each of the festival categories, including Best Narrative Feature, Best Short Film, Best Experimental Short, and of course Best Documentary. After some spirited debate with my fellow jurors, we picked The Last Survivor, a staggeringly powerful film about survivors of genocide around the world and through recent history, for the fest's Hoka Award (their equivalent of an Oscar). Additionally, we awarded an honorable mention to Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist, an hourlong look at the lives of a group of graduate student as they attempt to complete experiments and make discoveries.
With only one official award to hand out per category, however, there were more than a handful of other terrific documentaries screened at OFF, among them Wheedle's Groove, a hugely entertaining chronicle of Seattle's oft-overlooked history as a hotbed of soul music; Playground, a revealing look at child sex trafficking in America; and Mississippi Queen, a sensitive, deeply personal portrait of one woman coming to terms with her family – and her Southern heritage – after coming out as a homosexual. Less impressive was For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a self-explanatory but seemingly outdated history of criticism, and Streets of Plenty, a look at Vancouver, British Columbia's homelessness problem that feels too staged and self-righteous to offer objective insights into its subject.
In the afternoon, I sat with Cinematical's own Jen Yamato, The Oregonian's Shawn Levy and NPR's Elvis Mitchell for a panel entitled "Art of the Celebrity Interview" which was moderated by former US Weekly contributor Lisa Rosman. Thanks to the diversity of panelists and their individual experiences, the panel proved to be a fun and enlightening chat about celebrity culture and the challenges (both personal and professional) that film critics and reporters face when facing down actors and filmmakers. Meanwhile, throughout the day attendees saw a number of eclectic and entertaining films, many of which were paired with noteworthy short films or preceded q&as with the filmmakers.
Audiences saw Jeffrey Ruggles' Bicycle Lane, the story of a carless Los Angeleno named Don who makes his way from Santa Monica to Echo Park to attend the birthday party of a coworker with whom he's smitten; Dive!, Jeremy Seifert's attempt to expose the egregious volumes of perfectly-good food that are thrown away on a daily basis by grocery stores; and A Quiet Little Marriage, about a couple whose differing opinions on having a child cause a rupture in the relationship.
Following a celebration at Oak Hill Stables (thankfully not in the stables themselves) on Friday night, I had the rest of the festival to catch up on films I hadn't seen, starting with The Scenesters. A remarkably sophisticated and effective comedy-cum-thriller, the film follows a crime-scene custodian who gets embroiled in a murder mystery after agreeing to be the subject of a documentary made by a pair of hipster filmmakers. Saturday night, awards were handed out to winners in all categories, but Best Narrative Feature went to Tom Huckabee's Carried Away, the seriocomic tale of a Hollywood wannabe who rescues his ailing grandmother from a nursing home as his family slides into irreparable dysfunction.
As OFF came quietly to a close Sunday, filmmakers who spent the rest of the festival networking and promoting their own films took the time to see some of the entries of their colleagues and competitors. What's most remarkable about this is the fact that even in the span of just a few days, most of the filmmakers and actors in attendance – many of them first-timers – already made friends and formed their own little creative community; not merely there to win awards, gain recognition or secure distribution deals, people took the opportunity to get to know one another, watch films, and offer sincere support for independent filmmaking.
For example, Ruggles' Bicycle Lane screened a second time on Sunday morning to a densely-populated crowd, but it was his fellow filmmakers who truly helped the post-film q&a get underneath the creative process. At the same time, their questions weren't seeking insider secrets or superfluous personal digressions, but engendering a space and atmosphere where real discussions about moviemaking could entertain and enlighten.
The final film I saw before departing Sunday afternoon was The Mountain, The River and The Road, an impressionistic slice of mumblecore cinema that found a loyal audience despite some mixed initial reactions from earlier screenings. Again, however, what felt reassuring and even inspiring was the sense of enthusiasm and affection participants and attendees showed to every entry – not blindly or because of star wattage, but because the boundaries were broken down between filmmakers and their fans, Hollywood and the heartland. There are certainly bigger, more prominent, and better known festivals, but OFF is less interested in keeping some machine moving and reaffirming the earliest moments in a movie's marketing campaign than celebrating the films themselves, and it's that unhurried, immersive, even interactive feel that makes Oxford not just a great place to see films, but experience them.
(Check back on Cinematical this week for more detailed reviews of some of the films screened at the Oxford Film Festival.)