It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Oxford Film Festival launched in 2003 with a series of films including GENGHIS BLUES produced by Adrian Belic, THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL and 61 other films along with 4 panels about screenwriting, animation and documentary. It was a huge feat for a town that had lost its independent theater years before and had only a 4-screen movie theater. There was no You Tube, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime or VOD. Fast forward 14 years later and this now teenage festival has grown leaps and bounds from where it began while keeping its roots in hospitality and celebrating and championing independent film.
For those unfamiliar with the town of Oxford, Mississippi, the stereotypes of what Mississippi is and represents often are broken once they visit. In 2010 the population was about 20,000 outside of students which comprise another 10,000. On football weekends the population swells to about 100,000. The town is consistently named in national publications as a top city to retire or live in, a top college town, etc. The schools are all high ranking and the University of Mississippi provides an international experience to those who live here. As I grew up in Los Angeles and San Diego, I don’t say this lightly, but Oxford has a ton of opportunities and activities for what appears on paper to be such a small town. And if you visit you see the Old School charm of the Historic Square (downtown) and the rapidly growing outskirts being annexed as the city expands. Yes, it does have a history that is thorny, including the integration of James Meredith in 1962 and the riots that ensued and the fact that the Governor fought against the federal government during that entire process. The town and school has fought hard to banish old ways of thinking with ongoing fights to get rid of monuments to a past riddled with hate. One of the more cherished moments and signs of progress occurred recently, when in 2008 we held one of the presidential debates with President Obama participating.
The people that launched the film festival including the Yoknapatawpha (named after Faulkner’s fictional county for Oxford) Arts Council, publisher Neil White and the former Executive Director Molly Fergusson and countless other volunteers had a dream to be able to bring the art of the movies back to Oxford. And it worked. Initially, it was a small event, but it had a certain magic to it. I attended that first year as a film fan. I didn’t go to any of the parties or the panels, but only to sit in the theater to see the films. I saw GENGHIS BLUES and became a fan of Belic – a filmmaker we have brought back throughout the years. I saw some narrative shorts and some animation and was hooked instantly.
I became a volunteer after that because I believed in the festival and the idea of bringing a wide range of independent film to the town and I also thought that Oxford could and should be a place to make movies as well. With my persistent attitude, volunteer co-director Michelle Emanuel let me take on more duties until eventually I was also named a co-director. In 2015 the three other co-directors stepped down due to changing life responsibilities and a new board of directors was formed that realized the festival was in growing pains mode and needed either full time direction or to be ended. Luckily, Oxford recognized the need for the festival and decided to find the funds to hire a full time employee, its first in 12 years. I was very lucky that they asked me to take on this position and to help advance the festival into its new year-round mode. Finally, I could focus full time on the vision of what Oxford should be, yes – an arts town, but more so – a movie town.
Oxford, a mecca for artists, writers and musicians since the 1970s, had not been much of a movie town, but Hollywood had seen its potential in the past. With films such as INTRUDER IN THE DUST in 1949, to HOME FROM THE HILL in 1960, to THE GUN IN BETTY LOU’S HANDBAG in 1992, Oxford had been and continued to be a destination for movie makers. But even more so, writers from here have seen their works translated to screen often, from Faulkner to Willie Morris with MY DOG SKIP, to Larry Brown with BIG BAD LOVE (filmed in Oxford as well), to the JOE, starring Nicolas Cage.
Despite the rich history of film in Oxford, other than a handful of people who had moved away to become filmmakers and then moved back again, Oxford was not known as or thought of as a home for filmmakers. My goal as executive director was to change that. With a new film minor at the University of Mississippi and a growing film industry in the South, Oxford was ripe to help focus on the art of filmmaking.
So, three years ago we launched OxFilm Society in partnership with Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, where we do year round workshops for filmmakers, act as a resource for locations, casting and any information filmmakers need, as well as provide low cost equipment rentals to about 30 to 40 productions in Oxford each year. When we started, only 17 people rented the equipment the first year. Since then it has doubled and numerous projects that are screened and seen at our festival or online were made because of OxFilm Society. Now, OxFilm Society provides all of the Oxford Film Festival workshops for free to the entire community and also helps produce the annual community film that we screen at the festival. Every summer we make a movie with locals to help show them what it takes to get something from script to screen. It has helped deepen the involvement and appreciation of festival attendees at the festival.
This year our festival (being held February 14-19, 2017) has 151 films including three new categories: LGBTQ, music documentaries and new media. We have grown from 60 films and a few panels each year to averaging about 150 films and about 10-12 panels during the week of the festival.
We provide partnerships with many local organizations such as the University Museum, Thacker Mountain Radio, Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, and so on. We provide all of our virtual reality programming for free and added a new kid film fest this year. We also are doing the second year of our food and film festival where you eat what you see on screen. We expanded from one venue in 2003 to seven venues this year. We have 120 films represented of the 151 films, the most ever in our history.
On top of that we now have monthly movie series that we provide free to the community. But maybe most important of all is our newest initiative: paying filmmakers to make movies.
Our newest launch this year was our filmmaker grants. We provided funding through partnerships with the The Magnifying Glass Fellowship and North Mississippi Hills Heritage Alliance to pay three filmmakers to make movies which we are world premiering at our festival.
Greg Earnest and Louis Bourgeois of Oxford received grants, as did a filmmaker from Jackson, Mississippi. We will show their films alongside our community film as part of our community film night on February 15. It is a way to pre-start the festival focusing on Oxford before we kick off our focus on filmmakers from across the globe that visit us for a few days.
But like I said, we are only 14, still young and navigating our way through the dense film festival population to figure out exactly who we are. With the myriad of ways to see independent film online these days, our challenge, like many festivals, is how to not just be relevant but to grow beyond just movie screenings and to support filmmakers’ entire careers, not just for one weekend at our film festival. However, our goals to help people make movies and to help people champion and celebrate independent film remain the same. How we can do it on a larger scale is what’s next as we begin our teenage years.