The Oxford Film Festival, like many film events around the world, had to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The past two years have been challenging, especially 2020, when they basically had to roll up the festival five days before it began and go virtual,” said interim festival director Jim Brunzell.
The 19th annual OFF will be held March 23-27, with most events taking place at the Malco Cinema Grill in Oxford. Attending filmmakers, organizers and filmgoers alike can look forward to the festival bringing back in-person screenings and events for the first time since 2019.
“The idea of having a film festival is that you get to engage with the artists and filmmakers, and you just don’t get that experience from your couch,” Brunzell said. “It’s that communal experience that we’re all trying to get back to.”
The festival will feature 118 films, encompassing features, documentaries, shorts, animation and music videos. And there will be 75 visiting filmmakers in attendance.
“It’s like summer camp, where I get to see friends I haven’t seen in a while,” said director Wally Chung of New York, whose animated short “In the Mountains” will have its world premiere at the festival.
Chung will be returning to the festival for the fourth time.
“Seeing how people react to my film and doing a live Q&A again will be a lot of fun,” he said. “Virtual Q&As have been fun too, but now nobody has to look at my bedroom over Zoom.”
The OFF will also continue to include a virtual option for those not comfortable with returning to a theater. A large selection of films will be available to watch online from March 27 until April 3. Virtual badges are $50, while a $150 VIP pass gives access to all in-person screenings and includes a complimentary virtual badge.
“The virtual badge gives the flexibility to watch at your leisure, and for people who may not be able to attend the full five days of the festival,” Brunzell said.
The reputation of the OFF has continued to grow over the years. It’s now Mississippi’s largest yearly festival, and it attracts filmmakers from all over the world.
“Oxford is widely regarded as one of the top film festivals in the country,” said producer/writer/director Dan Mirvish. “It was a natural to submit anything I have to it and an honor to get selected.”
Mirvish is one of the co-founders of the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the author of the book “The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking.” Mirvish’s feature film “18 ½” will screen at the festival. It’s a comedic dramatization of the Watergate scandal and stars Willia Fitzgerald, Richard Kind and Bruce Campbell.
Though Mirvish is unable to attend this year, he has fond memories of being a featured filmmaker in 2018 for “Bernard and Huey.”
“It was my first time in Mississippi,” he said. “But I’d heard about the festival for many years. We had a really wonderful time just walking around the square and going to the bookstore there and meeting folks.”
The OFF has also become a showcase for top and up-and-coming Mississippi filmmakers, with over 30 films being screened.
“It’s really exciting to be able to show my latest and greatest work at the festival,” said Senatobia native filmmaker West Givens. “I grew up near Oxford and made my very first movie at age 14, back when I was looking up to the filmmakers at the festival and aspiring to be there myself.”
Givens, who now lives in Atlanta, will premiere the short film “Blueberries,” his thesis for the Savannah College of Art and Design. He says it’s a very personal story of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
“Everything that I have written and directed has been shot in Mississippi,” Givens said. “That’s very important to me because the person that I am and the stories I want to tell are rooted in my experience growing up there.”
The OFF will also pay tribute to two luminaries of the local film scene who recently passed away.
Barton Segal, a longtime Oxford resident and movie lover who booked films for the city’s famous Hoka Theatre in its heyday, passed in November. He also helped establish the OFF, curating the “Barton Block” of notable films in its early years.
“We are naming an award in his honor, the Barton Segal Audience Award,” Brunzell said. “He was a force in the film community here in Oxford.”
And Saturday at 3 p.m., a tribute event honoring Clarksdale native Bill Luckett will be held at the festival. Luckett, who died in October, was a lawyer, a former mayor of Clarksdale, proprietor of the Ground Zero Blues Club with business partner Morgan Freeman and a film actor and champion of filmmaking in Mississippi.
“Bill was one of our strongest advocates,” said Mississippi Film Office director Nina Parikh. “From hosting gatherings in his home with his wife, Francine, to driving filmmakers around Clarksdale to find locations, nurturing relationships with film executives around the world, to playing roles as sheriff, barkeeper or lawyer in movies around the state—Bill was part of the fabric of filmmaking here. His presence is greatly missed and celebrating his life and contributions at the festival he loved and supported is a fitting tribute.”
This year is something of a new beginning for the OFF, and not just because of the return to in-person events.
Melanie Addington, who served as executive director since 2015, left to work with the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas. That’s when interim director Brunzell, who has years of experience with film festivals, stepped in.
“I sort of got the ‘bat signal’ from Melanie when she was leaving because I had been running a festival in Austin for seven years called aGLIFF, which is the All Genders, Lifestyles and Identities Film Festival,” Brunzell said. “I’ve been working with different festivals since 2005. I had never set foot in Mississippi before I got this job.
“But I knew the festival had a great reputation, thanks to things Melanie and others put in place far before I got here. The filmmakers have a great time. They love the bonding experience with other filmmakers. They like going to the Oxford square. They like trying the food at the different restaurants. Filmmakers enjoy coming to Oxford for the welcoming and hospitality experience.”
For a full schedule of OFF events, visit ox-film.com.