Now in its eighth year, the Oxford Film Festival continues to be one of the most fun and invigorating regional film festivals in the country. Coming soon after the commercial blitz of Sundance and ahead of the hipster hustle of South By Southwest, Oxford offers an intimacy and a sense of family that its larger brethren don't, while still providing film fans with enough worthwhile content to more than make it worth attending.
In 2010, the OFF organizers asked me to join their panel of judges for the documentary competition. While serving as a moderator for their annual "Speed Pitch" panel, as well as a few question and answer sessions with attending filmmakers, I found the experience to be just as rewarding and fun, giving me an additional perspective on the festival's charms and revealing that OFF is a more diverse and interesting experience than attendees of larger festivals might expect.
Arriving on Wednesday evening, February 9, the Memphis airport was snowed in; almost an hour and a half away from Oxford, MS, I was stranded at a Memphis hotel overnight while the programmers tried to dig themselves (much less arriving participants) out of a storm that blanketed roads for hundreds of miles and left local commuters unable to travel. While I was eager to soak up some of Oxford's local hospitality, the additional downtime gave me an opportunity to adjust to the time change and settle into the rhythms of the festival's flexible, relaxed sense of momentum. Thankfully, however, the storm relented by early Thursday, allowing local company Rock Star Taxis, whose vehicles resemble such iconic rides as the A-Team van and the Mystery Machine, to ferry me and former Cinematical contributor Jen Yamato into downtown Oxford.
My first official experience with OFF was the 2011 "Speed Pitch" panel, where I served as timekeeper and game show host as a long list of young filmmakers sat down in front of a fairly intimidating cross-section of industry professionals and offered their ideas for features they want to make. Many of the filmmakers who showed up to offer pitches had not only produced films in the past but submitted them to the festival, so it was interesting to see how experts with actual industry experience reacted to and analyzed to filmmakers who were in various stages of their own artistic evolution. Perhaps more valuable however was the panel's advice to submitting filmmakers, which included having a clear idea what your film is about, explaining it in a way that draws the listener into your story (rather than reducing it to larger themes or ideas), and absolutely having a sense of who the film is for.
Perhaps inevitably, the discussion digressed into an analysis of Kevin Smith's four-wall 'Red State' campaign, which some defended and others decried but all observed was not as revolutionary not universally transformative as he has suggested. But the panel provided a great opportunity for young filmmakers to get a taste of what the process is for pitching their stories, and how they can do that more successfully.
Meanwhile, although my duties as a judge in 2010 afforded me the chance to see more features last year, this year I was able to watch many of the festival's short films, which perhaps understandably are more limited in their commercial potential but offer a different, and in some cases more interesting perspective on the development and nurturing of new creative voices. In fact, I'd say the most immediately "commercial" short of the festival, Neil LaBute's 'Sexting,' was far from its best; indeed, the black and white piece starring Julia Stiles felt more like a restless creative exercise than a full-fledged concept that felt best-communicated via the short film format. On the other hand, a variety of local and regional filmmakers, as well as a handful of returning ones, fleshed out categories often overlooked in favor of feature-length projects.
For example, the OFF winner for Best Narrative Short, Josh and Miles Miller's 'Pillow,' followed a creepily hilarious, gothic tale of two brothers trying to make their unseen misanthrope of a mother happy; beyond even its conceptual merits, it bore the saturated, gorgeous look of a film shot by someone like Roger Deakins, and offered glimpses at directorial and storytelling potential that reached far beyond the limits of its running time. But even the fledgling efforts of local students, such as 'Blood Feud,' 'The Mistake,' 'Lukos,' and 'Treat Or Eat,' a block of shorts co-produced in various capacities by April Wren, Johnson Thomasson and Michael Williams, showed how Hollywood was influencing young filmmakers in other parts of the country, and how they were filtering those conventions through their own creativity.
Simultaneously, the return of a number of attendees from previous years, such as writer-director Jeffrey Ruggles and actor Don Black, highlighted the ways in which their own artistic talents had evolved. In Chad Hartigan's 'Untitled,' Black plays a jilted boyfriend reacting to the news that his lady wants to take a break; returning to the post-mumblecore territory he and Ruggles charted in 'Bicycle Lane,' the actor finds the oddly humorous dimensions of a sad and awkward situation, not only giving the story genuine emotional substance but legitimizing the short film form as a place where filmmakers can explore tonal rather than narrative ideas.
In addition to proving to be a terrific filmmaker, Ruggles is also quickly proving himself to be an expert judge of talent: In 'Queen's Day,' he directs and stars opposite newcomer Kristin Slaysman, who plays the kind of girl whose luminous presence alone eliminates all of the reasons a guy might feel inclined to get out of a bed that she happens to be in. In addition to having one of the single most charming and natural on screen laughs I've heard in a long time, Slaaysman gives Ruggles' brunchtime romance an authentic sense of the budding seriousness that emerges between fledgling couples courting the possibility of deeper feelings, and enhances the short's Downy-fresh production values with emotional substance more than equal to her director's technical proficiency.
Sadly, there weren't a whole lot of other films I was able to see, although I admired David R. Lipson's 'Our Time Together,' a film that captures the feeling you have when you don't want to hang out with the person who will have you, but you desperately want to be with almost any person who won't. Although perhaps more accurate to the way that twenty-somethings want to believe their emotional lives are than in the way they actually are, Lipson finds some authentic moments of longing and eagerness, and offers a heartfelt look at the thin line between selfishness and self-actualization that often exerts so much influence over our relationships.
In a larger sense, however, a film like 'Our Time Together' seems to reflect on the growth that attendees can witness in filmmakers by attending intimate and more personal fests like OFF, and not just because its title is an on-the-nose encapsulation of the fleeting shared moments of a festival experience. Seeing where a filmmaker comes from, where he or she started, and what he or she accomplishes over time – be it maturing technically, growing up emotionally, or just settling into a routine that is more comfortable than challenging – is a truly exciting process to behold.
Overall, the Oxford Film Festival doesn't merely create a snapshot of films being produced by certain people at a certain time, but of who those people are, and can become, because of sharing their work with an audience in a more open, comfortable and accepting setting. And this year's festival was Oxford's most welcoming to date, ensuring that filmgoers, filmmakers, and if they're lucky enough, volunteers and participants return for years to come, not only to see how everyone else grows up, but how they themselves do as well.