27th Annual Magnolia Independent Film Festival celebrates ‘the art of filmmaking’

 The Magnolia Independent Film Festival has built a strong reputation as being an intimate and interactive event for filmmakers and film fans alike.

“It’s not like other events where you might feel like the filmmakers are put under glass and you only get to tap on the glass,” said festival director Chris Misun. “We encourage the filmmakers to interact with the people that come to the film festival.”

For its 27th annual installment to be held in Starkville Feb. 22-24 at the UEC Starkville Hollywood Premiere Cinemas, the festival will host more visiting filmmakers than ever. Sixteen will be in attendance to discuss their work from the over 30 films from around the world that are screening.

“Filmmakers love talking about films and they love watching everybody else’s films,” Misun said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to connect with the other filmmakers in attendance. I think it’s just as enjoyable for the filmmakers to get out and meet people and watch other people’s projects as it is be put up on a pedestal for a little while when their work is screening.”

In the interest of maintaining that spirit of connectivity, the festival has stayed true to its roots by limiting its scope.

“We don’t do multiple screens at multiple locations,” Misun said. “Our focus is on making sure that our audience can experience all the films that we screen at the festival. That can be a challenge on our end because we must be more selective because we’re not trying to fill 100 slots. We’re showing 36 films, and we want to make sure each is of the highest quality.”

Ashley Heathcock

The festival also features a workshop and a panel discussion, both free and open to the public.

“The theme of the festival this year is ‘The Art of Filmmaking,’” said MAG Board President Michael Williams. “The panel discussion’s guests include a writer, actor, director, producer and editor, so we can have a conversation about how the art of filmmaking is present in all those different parts of it and how it all works together.”

Williams himself is moderating the panel on Saturday afternoon and providing the director’s perspective, and he’s joined by Waynesboro native actor Artrial Clark, Birmingham producer Colby Leopard, Hattiesburg-based editor Jared Hollingsworth and Raymond-based writer Michele Mathis.

Also on Saturday is the workshop, “Costume Design: The Process from Script to Production.” It will be presented by Natchez-based costume designer Ashley Heathcock, whose credits include TV’s Magnum P.I. reboot, American Horror Story and Venom.

And for those that want to experience all the festival has to offer, a VIP pass includes more than ever this year.

“We’ve really expanded our VIP experience,” said Williams. “So if you get a VIP pass, we have an opening reception and a VIP refreshment room all weekend. In the past, we’d give the festival awards in the theater right after the last film. This year, we’re having an official awards party that’s got live music, catered food, drinks and all of that. It’s going to be our biggest closing night party ever.”

Don’t Die

Speaking of closing night, one of the highlights of the festival is the closing night film Don’t Die, a thriller having its Mississippi premiere. Shot mainly in Tennessee, several Mississippians worked on its crew, including Williams, who served as cinematographer.

“Michael and I kind of knew each other in college and kept up with each other since we both made our first feature films around the same time,” said Alabama-based filmmaker Benjamin Stark, director and co-writer of Don’t Die. “When I had a short film called Dead Saturday that I wanted to produce in 2014, I knew Michael had been doing a lot of cinematography in addition to writing and directing his own films, so I got him on board and we had a great experience working together. And so, whenever it came time to put together Don’t Die, he was high on the list of people to talk to about coming on.”

The film tells the story of a man who robs a pharmacy to get life-saving medicine but things go horribly wrong.

“It’s designed to entertain an audience, to take them on a ride, but then also leave them with a little bit of something to talk about in terms of where we are with health care and the high costs associated with it,” Stark said.

Carys Glynne in Io’s Lament

Also having its premiere is the narrative short Io’s Lament, a project that was supported by the Mississippi Film Alliance’s Emerging Filmmakers Grant, which is funded by the Mississippi Film Office.

“It’s always a treat to hear when films the grant has supported are selected for festivals,” said Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “It’s doubly rewarding to know that they’re getting to be seen by the people involved with making them in the communities where they were made.”

Grant recipient Carys Glynne, who wrote, produced and stars in Io’s Lament, is a native of Starkville where it was filmed.

“I think the Golden Triangle Region and my hometown Starkville in particular are underutilized by the film industry compared to the rest of the state, despite having lots of young creatives and good infrastructure, so we were really happy to be able to bring a film there to shoot,” Glynne said. “It feels very fitting that we get to premiere the film where it was made and hopefully encourage other Starkvillians to participate in film and other films to come to Starkville.”

Our Rebellious Hearts

Another Mississippi-centric highlight of the festival is the short documentary Our Rebellious Hearts, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the work of Jackson singer-songwriter Teneia Sanders. The film is directed by Jackson filmmaker Talamieka Brice, who made her feature directing debut in 2021 with the introspective documentary Five: A Mother’s Journey. The journey to making that film in many ways started with the MAG for Brice, an artist, graphic designer and photographer with her own media company.

“She was a judge in 2019 for us,” Williams said. “She got to meet filmmakers who encouraged her to make her own films. So, if it wasn’t for her coming to the MAG, she may not have had that kickstart to be the talented and prolific documentary filmmaker she is today.”

These films are just a sampling of the MAG’s diverse lineup.

“We’ve got 10 countries and 12 different states represented between our films,” Misun said. “We have eight Mississippi films that are eligible for our Best Homegrown award.”

The films run the gamut from serious documentaries to music videos to queer cinema to animation and everything in-between. It’s that dedication to bring audiences films they might not be able to see anywhere else that Misun attributes much of the festival’s success.

“We’re in our 27th year and still going strong, and I think that’s a testament to the community that shows up and supports us every year,” Misun said. “The MAG is always an exciting way for film lovers to see something different. The films can get a little crazy at times and even be experimental. I think that’s just the kind of option audiences are looking for—a real filmgoing adventure.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit magnoliafilmfestival.com.