The Oxford Film Festival is pulling out all the f-stops for its 20th anniversary edition March 1-5.
“20 years ago, all our films were on VHS tapes,” said festival director Matt Wymer. “The first festival was held at the Ford Center with just a VCR and projector. We’ve come from those humble beginnings to become one of the biggest film festivals in the southeast. We’re celebrating that history this year with an overall theme of past, present and future.”
The festival will feature 143 films and media projects, including 32 features (15 narrative and 18 documentary), 93 short films (narrative, documentary, LGBTQIA+, animation and experimental, student and Mississippi-based productions), 18 music videos, and one multi-media project.
And of course, there are the ever-popular nightly theme parties the festival is known for.
“We have a saying in Oxford that we never lose a party,” Wymer said. “We’re celebrating the audiences that allowed the Oxford Film Festival to inspire and entertain our community for the past two decades. To show our appreciation, we are providing more free screenings, more panels and bigger parties than ever before. We start off strong on Wednesday with our birthday party, a kid-friendly street party free and open to the public.”
Another highlight from Wednesday is Fire Bones, an interactive multimedia experience that includes podcasts, short films, music videos, poems and still images. The night closes out with Butterfly in the Sky, a feature documentary about the classic educational TV show Reading Rainbow.
Thursday’s opening night selection is Little Richard: I Am Everything, a feature documentary about the rock ‘n’ roll legend that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. That evening is the Music Video Block Party, when artists featured in music videos screening at the festival on Friday will perform live at clubs around Oxford.
Then on Friday, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Mississippi Film Office along with the Selig Polyscope Company is sponsoring a special screening of the 1916 silent film The Crisis, which was filmed in Vicksburg and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Mississippi.
“We’re turning 50, but we’re still young in the grand scheme of things—movies have been made in Mississippi for well over 100 years,” said Mississippi Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “What better way to celebrate that rich history than with one of the films that started it all.”
The Crisis was produced by William N. Selig, who in 1896 founded the Selig Polyscope Company, one of the first film companies in the U.S. The company was reestablished in Dallas in 2008, and today provides digital cinema package (DCP) services to filmmakers and film festivals including the Oxford Film Festival.
In addition to The Crisis, the Selig Polyscope Co. produced what is believed to be the first film ever made in Mississippi.
“We are proud to be the first major studio to film in the state back in 1903 with the documentary short Mississippi River,” said Dev Shapiro, president of the Selig Polyscope Co. “The reason our company came to Mississippi in the early 1900s to make several films is authenticity. William Selig wanted his films to allow audiences to see new places and things they may never get to see in their lifetime.
“With The Crisis, Selig wanted to film where the Battle of Vicksburg actually took place. He hired locals for in front of the camera and behind the camera. He even convinced the governor at the time to deploy the entire National Guard to play troops on both sides of the war.”
A new musical score by Oxford composer Damein Wash performed by a live ensemble will accompany the film.
“The score will be period-appropriate, to recreate the theater experience of the silent era,” Wymer said.
Also Friday, Faulkner: The Past is Never Dead, a feature documentary about the famed Oxford author’s life and works by Jackson native filmmaker Michael Modak-Truran, will premiere at the festival. The film features dramatic sequences starring Biloxi-born Oscar-nominated actor Eric Roberts as Faulkner. Modak-Truran explained this was partly out of necessity.
“Firstly, Faulkner was a very private person,” he said. “There’s not a lot of archival material or recorded interviews, particularly from his earlier life. He also famously never wrote an autobiography, although his fiction has many moments that feel like they really draw from his life. We had all his great words, so the idea was to create visuals to give his words life. I’m really proud of the fact that we did a lot of research using archival photos to ensure historical accuracy in the production design. And we were able to film a lot of it in places where these scenes presumably happened, like Rowan Oak and his childhood home.”
The screening is followed by a Faulkner-themed party at the historic Cedar Oaks antebellum home. But that’s not all Friday: in addition to the aforementioned music video blocks, several Mississippi-made films will be presented in blocks of narrative shorts and documentary shorts, as well as the feature documentary Educational Divide: The Story of East Side High, about the consolidation of two racially divided high schools in Cleveland, Miss. There’s also a “mini student film fest” of works by University of Mississippi film production program students in the afternoon.
Friday is also stacked with feature-length documentaries including Oklahoma Breakdown, a music documentary about obscure one-man-band musician Mike Hosty, who found somewhat unwelcome fame when his titular song was made into a no. 1 hit by Stoney Larue in 2007 and later recorded by Okie country superstar Toby Keith.
“He’s quite honestly the most talented musician and performer I’ve ever seen in my life,” said filmmaker Christopher Fitzpatrick, adding that he was driven to make the film to share Hosty’s talent with the world.
“This is my first time going through the festival process, I’ve never really even done a short film and submitted to a festival before,” he said. “Getting selected is a big deal. You look at some of the biggest festivals in the South and you kind of put Nashville and New Orleans and Oxford in the same breath. Those are those are big festivals that everybody knows about.”
Friday also features several narrative feature films: Loren & Rose, a drama starring Jacqueline Bisset from award-winning indie filmmaker Russell Brown; Shudderbugs, the feature debut of writer-director Johanna Putnam; Youtopia, a sci-fi comedy written by and starring actress Scout Durwood; and iMordecai, a comedy starring Judd Hirsch as a Holocaust survivor in Florida who adjusts to modern technology when he gets an iPhone. It also stars Sean Astin, Carol Kane and, in her feature debut, newcomer Azia Dinea Hale, who has been enjoying her introduction to the film festival circuit.
“So far I’ve been to some really incredible film festivals,” Hale said. “We’re doing a bit of a tour right now. I was in Miami last week, and we just had our New York premiere. I’ve never been to Mississippi and I’ve never been to Oxford, obviously. I’ve heard amazing things about the festival. All of us involved in this film are so invested in it on a such a personal level that I really hope that it connects with the audience as much as it has connected to us.”
Saturday features several industry panel discussions: highlights include stunt acting hosted by Ole Miss theatre alum Ned Yousef, who has performed stunts in films like Logan and Green Lantern; and distribution with leading industry strategist Peter Broderick; and screenwriting with Mississippi native David Sheffield, former Saturday Night Live writer and screenwriter of the comedy classic Coming to America.
Also on Saturday, one screen will be dedicated to comedy, with a block of comedy shorts followed by the hit festival circuit feature Hundreds of Beavers and Show Business is My Life (But I Can’t Prove It): A Film About Gary Mule Deer, a documentary about the musical comedian who was a staple of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Gong Show.
Some other Saturday highlights include Belief: The Season, Ole Miss Baseball, a feature documentary about the team’s historic 2022 championship run; Dogleg, a comedy by Jackson native writer-director-star Al Warren that was partially shot in north Mississippi; and the festival’s closing night selection, The Banality, a feature film shot in the Delta co-written and directed by Strack Azar (son of Greenville native country star Steve Azar) and Canadian filmmaker Michael Stevantoni. The evening’s party will be a nostalgia-fest: the BlOXbuster Video Party at the Powerhouse that celebrates the video store heyday of the ‘90s.
Things close out Sunday afternoon with four more features, including Bolan’s Shoes, the feature directing debut of BAFTA Award-nominated screenwriter and actor Ian Puleston-Davies, along with blocks of documentary shorts, including some Mississippi-made sports documentaries.
Wymer says that supporting filmmaking in Mississippi has always been a big part of the Oxford Film Festival’s mission, and one that he would like to focus on in the future.
“This year we’re giving away a $10,000 camera package to one of our Mississippi filmmakers to make their next film in Mississippi,” Wymer said. “We’re changing the focus of our prizes to help support our filmmakers’ next artistic endeavors so that they hopefully make them in Mississippi. And that’s my goal for the future, to provide the support for filmmakers to come back to Mississippi to maybe make a feature version of their award-winning short or something along those lines.”
For a full schedule of films and events, visit ox-film.com.