Eric Snider and I spent this past weekend in lovely Oxford, Mississippi with our friend Jen Yamato from Rotten Tomatoes, where the three of us participated in a panel on Film and New Media for the Oxford Film Festival. I also served on the documentary features jury for the fest. Scott Weinberg was supposed to have been here with me and Jen, but a serious tooth issue kept him home in Philly. Scott still pulled duty on the dramatic features jury for the fest, and Eric very kindly dropped things on a moment's notice the other day to fly to Oxford in Scott's stead.

The three of us had an absolute blast in Oxford. I love these small town film festivals ... everyone is so nice, the pace is laid-back and mellow -- a nice change coming off the craziness of Sundance. We got into Memphis on Thursday, and Jen and I had some yummy BBQ at Corky's -- Memphis-style "dry" ribs and brisket that was to die for. Mmmm. After Eric got in, we drove the hour or so trip to Oxford.



We drove past some of the damage from the tornadoes that came through earlier this week -- huge piles of twisted sheet metal siding that looked like some sort of bizarre art sculpture installation until we got close enough to realize that it was clean-up from the storm. Wow.

Thursday night we went to the Opening Night film, Kabluey by Scott Prendergast, who was at the fest and is just the nicest guy you'd ever hope to meet. Prendergast stars in the film along with Lisa Kudrow. Prior to the film, the audience got a nice surprise -- Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who lives near Oxford, stopped by to give the fest an official kick-off. Freeman looked very dapper; he came in to huge applause, said a few words about the fest and independent film, and then had to take off because he had an early flight the next day.

Kabluey is about a wife and mother (Kudrow) who's having a hard time dealing with her husband's deployment to Iraq and the impact her depression and disconnect is having on their two young sons. Prendergast plays her brother-in-law, Salman, a dorky bumbler who can't seem to do anything right, until he takes a side job wearing the giant, bright blue mascot costume for a local company. Inside the costume, Salman finds he suddenly can do things he never thought he could do -- like reach out past his nephews' anger and resentment to the little boys they are inside. Kabluey, which ended up winning the Jury Award for narrative feature, is a sweet, touching film and will be out in theaters soon.

Friday we had our panel. Also on the panel with us were Gary Meyers, a professor in the journalism department at Ole Miss and Godfrey Cheshire, film critic and filmmaker, whose film Moving Midway played in the docs competition at the fest. The panel was moderated by journalism department head Samir Husni, aka Mr. Magazine. I think it went pretty well, we had some engaging questions from the audience and the panel was lively -- especially when Eric Snider and I went toe-to-toe talking about Tyler Perry films and whether a white film critic can even "get" Perry's films. Interesting discussion ranged from rights issues and pay for online journalists, to the perception that bloggers aren't "real" journalists, to whether film bloggers have an impact on a film getting fest acceptance or distrib.

I have to say a word here about the fest in general, which was great. Packed theaters at almost every screening, enthusiastic crowds, and then there were the parties. Those Oxford Film Fest folks (headed by co-directors Michelle Emanuel and Melanie Addington) have gotten well over the learning curve that fests sometimes have to hurdle in their early years. This was the fifth year of the fest, and they were supremely well-organized and took great care of the panelists, jurors and filmmakers throughout. Thursday, Friday and Saturday night boasted both regular parties and after-parties, all with spectacular food and great company.

Thursday night's party was in the lovely home of festival patron Donna Ruth Roberts, a spritely, delightful woman with a passion for independent film. Donna Ruth's home embodies the idea of "Southern charm" -- the house was impeccably decorated and had the most incredible smell of French Tulips that just blew you away. We finally tracked the source of the heady scent to a single candle in the foyer -- hard to believe one candle can do that to a house, but good golly, it smelled great. The food for the Opening Night party was cooked on the patio by a chef from a local restaurant -- delish stir-fry in an wide range of combinations, and short ribs so tender the meat fell off the bones. Plenty of beer and wine kept folks happy as well. We skipped the after party on the first night, since we were all tired from flying in that day and had our panel the next day.

Friday night's party was at an art gallery in "the Square," which is pretty much the social center of Oxford. Translation: It's where the frat boys and sorority sisters hang out, and the art gallery is sandwiched between two restaurants/bars that apparently are very popular for that crowd, so we had an abundance of what we lovingly referred to as "that frat boy ambiance." Lots of loud shouting of brilliant things like "Wooooo!" and "Heyyyyy, baby!" ensued. We saw a couple of frat boy altercations with much chest puffing and bad-ass frat boy talk, and even, at the end of the evening, a girl fight in what appeared to be Oxford's sorority girl equivalent of a Red Light District (i.e., many very drunk girls in very revealing clothes and stiletto heels, standing hand-on-hip for the benefit of the drunk fraternity boys passing by.) It was ... quite the college town scene.

The Friday night party itself was lovely, with more incredible food and a local microbrew added to the mix. A gaggle of frat boys was hovering outside the door when we got there, debating whether they might be able to crash the party and score some beer without being ID'd. Later on, a pack of drunk sorority girls wandered in to graze the buffet, before bolting when asked by a fest official which film they were there with.

The after party, at the home of another local, was equally fun. This house was more artsy-hippy in decor than Donna Ruth's digs, and the hosts were very gracious about opening their home (though I think maybe a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who convened on their house at 1AM!). They had these dessert bars laid out when we got there -- chess bars. If you've never tasted a chess bar and ever have the opportunity to try one, don't pass it by, even if you're low-carbing like I am right now. It's a concoction of cream cheese, cake mix, powdered sugar, god knows what else. The probably have 2,000 calories a bite, but man were they good. The hosts had a nice fire going in an outdoor fireplace on the front yard, where we hung out with filmmakers and fest attendees and just had a ball chatting about the films and the food. Fortunately we did not set anything on fire, although sparks were flying around at one point.

Saturday night brought us to the awards ceremony and after party. The ceremony was fun and blissfully brief, with an incredible performance in there by The Jones Sisters, an a capella gospel quintet whose music has been in A Time to Kill and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Their performance brought the house down, moved folks to tears, and got them a well-deserved standing ovation. The big winners of the night were Kabluey (narrative feature), The Listening Project (documentary feature) and The Elephant King (Audience Award). Shorts winners were Aquarium (narrative) and Gimme Green (documentary). Sorry, We're Open, by local favorite Joe York, won the Mississippi award, and other winners were Voodoo Bayou (animation) and Temporary Virgin (music video). More great food, an open bar keeping the booze flowing, and great dance music inside kept the party hopping until after midnight, when everyone trooped over for the after party at the home of another resident.

Our crew hung out at the after party for a while, chatting up Scott Prendergast about his award, "Now I'm important, I'm really someone!" he quipped, while lovingly caressing his award statue (the fest's statue, the Hoka, pictured above, is modeled after a famous Chickasaw Indian princess, Hoka). I suggested that he should buy an infant carrier and transport his Hoka back to Los Angeles strapped into the seat next to him, so he could talk to it on the flight. We heard that quite a crowd of folks made the 34-mile drive from the after party to check out Graceland Too, a local landmark. Apparently the guy who lives there has covered every inch with Elvis memorabilia, and is quite the character. Much as we would have liked to top off our trip with a Graceland Too visit, we were just too wiped at that point and had to fly out the next day. Maybe next year.

Sunday we headed back to Memphis, leaving in time to stop in at Interstate BBQ for one more Memphis barbecue meal for the road. All in all, Oxford Film Fest was a really nice fest, and we very much enjoyed our time there. Good eats, great folks -- oh, and we even managed to catch a couple of films while we were there. Here are a few pics from around Oxford. I couldn't find my digital camera for the trip, but Jen Yamato scored a shiny new one at the Wal-Mart, and as soon as she sends me her pics I'll add them to the gallery.


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