This week features two long-running film-related events in Starkville and Natchez.
The 26th Annual Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville Feb. 23-25 brings an array of indie films along with a workshop and panel discussion sponsored by the Mississippi Film Office. And the 34th Annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration will be held at the city’s convention center Feb. 23-24 and features screenings of two documentaries along with numerous literary readings and presentations.
The Magnolia International Film Festival
Last year the MAG, as the film festival is affectionately known, celebrated the milestone of 25 years. It is the longest-running film festival in the state. The MAG is the brainchild of late filmmaker Ron Tibbett who started the fest in his native West Point before moving it to Starkville in 2000.
“The MAG was a very cozy experience in the beginning, held in a an auditorium with no heating,” said MAG president Michael Williams. “But it’s remained an intimate experience as it has grown and changed locations. You get to hang out with filmmakers and get to know them, and they get to interact with their audience in a very special way.”
As this year is something of the beginning of a new era, festival director Chris Misun says they have refined the festival in meaningful ways to help it continue to serve the filmmaking community for the future.
“We listened to what filmmakers have said in the past,” Misun said. “We saw the opportunity to make changes this year and see how it works. But we’re not going to reinvent the wheel regarding the hospitality and intimacy our fest offers that keeps people coming back.”
To build on those strengths, the fest’s usual Saturday matinee block of films was cut to allow more time for the filmmaking workshop and the panel discussion.
“The way it works at some festivals is there’s a lot of running around from screening to screening and there’s no way to see everything,” Misun said. “We don’t have multiple screens going at one time. That allows visiting filmmakers to see each other’s work, and through our social events they can build relationships and network, and really talk about the craft of filmmaking together.”
The festival’s free panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, titled “Making a Living in the Film Industry,” is made up entirely of Mississippians who work in film. They include producer Rick Moore of Ridgeland’s Eyevox, Pelahatchie makeup artist and actress Casey Heflin, Delta native filmmaker Ben Powell and Oxford filmmaker Antonio Tarrell. The panel is sponsored by the Mississippi Film Alliance along with the Mississippi Film Office as part of its year-long celebration for its 50th anniversary.
“We’re proud to say that as we turn 50 the film industry in Mississippi is stronger than ever,” said Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “It continues to provide more and more opportunity to Mississippians like the talented filmmakers and crew members on our panel. And we’re happy to support them sharing their experiences to convey the message that yes, you can be a part of this industry right here at home.”
The panel will be moderated by Williams, a West Point native and talented filmmaker in his own right who has written and directed two feature films made in Mississippi.
“All of the people on our panel have found different ways of making it work in Mississippi,” Williams said. “I want to talk about what’s been easy, what’s been hard and what are the keys to success? And to show that there’s many paths to take.”
Before the panel discussion at 1 p.m. is the free workshop entitled “The Production Value of Collaborative Screenwriting” with Jeremy Burgess, a Birmingham Ala.-based writer-producer Williams worked with as cinematographer on the feature film Don’t Die, which is currently in post-production.
“How do you write a script knowing you’re actually going to have it made it one day?” Williams said. “The workshop focuses on writing by anticipating collaborating with other department heads during the production process.”
The workshop and panel discussion are free, but attendees are kindly asked to RSVP in advance HERE.
The films in competition at the MAG this year run the gamut from comedies to dramas to documentaries to animated shorts.
“The films that we have selected have a really good range,” Misun said, adding that the changes made to Saturday’s lineup “makes it a little more competitive because that cut out about six films from our typical schedule.”
In all, the festival will feature 19 shorts (including three animated shorts), three documentaries, five music videos and three features, each closing out a night of the festival. Thursday’s feature is Miss Viborg, a comedy-drama and the feature debut of Danish filmmaker Marianne Blicher. Friday’s offering is Unpacking, a female-driven comedy-drama from the writing-directing team of Alexandra Clayton and Michal Sinnott that was filmed in Bali, Indonesia. And the festival closes out with D.O.A., a black-and-white neo-noir starring actor and punk rocker John Doe of the seminal L.A. band X. It’s directed by Florida filmmaker Kurt St. Thomas, who won Best Feature at the MAG for Captive Audience back in 2000.
“We’ve got everything from people right out of college making films to seasoned filmmakers from as far away as Australia and Denmark,” Williams said. “And we’ve got filmmakers like Kurt who have a long relationship with us and always want to come back.”
Another highlight of the festival is a chance to see the winning films from the MAG’s first-ever 48-Hour Film Competition that was held in November.
“The top three submitted to that are playing on Saturday,” Misun said. “We’re also highlighting other Mississippi-made films that day.”
They include XIII, a documentary about two Mississippi State University graduates who were part of the team that helped save the Apollo 13 astronauts. It was produced and directed by James Parker, creative supervisor of MSU Films, a filmmaking initiative of the university’s Television Center.
“My involvement has helped to build a stronger connection between the MAG and MSU,” said Misun, who is also a broadcast instructor at the university. “Some members of our board and volunteers also work at the university as well as at the W in Columbus. We want to make sure we’re reaching all the educational facilities and letting students know the festival is a great opportunity for them to network and get good information if they’re interested in film.”
For more information about the MAG and a full schedule, visit magnoliafilmfest.com.
The Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration
The film is a “day-in-the-life” portrait of Natchez’s Under the Hill Saloon, housed in a space that has served as a watering hole for the historic city for over 200 years. Givens directed, shot and edited the film by himself.
“I interviewed people visiting the bar from France, Spain and The Netherlands, and that was all over the course of one day of filming,” Givens said. “I want people to watch the film and say, ‘OK, this is what would happen if I went to this bar for a whole day.’ It’s an ode to Natchez in a way, and all the walks of life that have come through the saloon’s doors.”
The film, in a shorter version, won Best Documentary at Meridian’s Rails to Reels Film Festival in 2021, and Givens later edited it into a longer version that is streaming on Amazon Prime. His previous documentary, also available on Amazon Prime, was 2017’s Mississippi Madam: The Life of Nellie Jackson, about the proprietor of a notorious brothel in Natchez. It won Best Feature Documentary at Jackson’s Crossroads Film Festival in 2018.
“I’m honored to have been able to make two films about my hometown because I think everybody should know what a great place it is,” Givens said. “I love telling the untold stories, and Natchez is full of them, as well as mysteries, ghost stories and other tales.”
Also screening at the celebration on Thursday evening is Rhythms of the Land, a documentary by cultural anthropologist Dr. Gail Myers that tells the story of black farmers across 10 southern states, Mississippi included.
For a full list of NLCC events, visit www.colin.edu/community/natchez-literary-and-cinema-celebration.