When Neil White and Elaine Abadie first hit upon the idea of launching a film festival in Oxford, they knew it wasn’t as far-fetched as some might have believed. “It didn’t feel like a gamble,” White said. “It felt like a slam dunk.”
“What Elaine and I discussed was that Oxford could certainly do a better job producing a film festival when compared to film fests that existed in Mississippi in 2003,” White recalled. “Then, when we announced its launch to the community, volunteers came out in droves. The first festival committee had more than 30 members.”
Fifteen years later, the Oxford Film Festival (OFF)—which runs Feb. 7-11 at the Malco Commons Cinema theater and screens more than 200 films—is a massive and dazzling event, often attracting stars and directors like Morgan Freeman, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Ray McKinnon, Danny Glover and Jason Ritter, along with respected film critics like Elvis Mitchell.
Every year OFF screens feature-length and short films in both showcase and competition settings. It also brings together directors, producers, writers and actors for panel discussions and social events, allowing attendees and volunteers to rub elbows with Hollywood A-listers, independent filmmakers and up-and-coming artists.
For OFF Executive Director Melanie Addington, who became involved with the festival as a screener in its third year, it’s the little moments that turn out to be unforgettable. She recalls hosting cast and crew members from the 2007 documentary, “Darius Goes West,” the true story of teenager Darius Weems, who had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and his cross-country trip to get his wheelchair customized by MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.”
“In the film, Darius tastes wasabi and, for those who haven’t seen it, it is a much-needed comedic moment in a heartbreaking story of courage,” Addington said. “Michelle Emanuel, OFF’s co-director at the time, presented Darius with a gift of wasabi from the festival at their screening and cracked him up. Moments like that, more than those with celebrities, move me.”
But meeting big stars is nothing to sneeze at, Addington admits. She also fondly recalls a trip to Rowan Oak with Franco and Nelson, who screened the Franco-directed film adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” at OFF. “Watching them nerd out about Faulkner was pretty much an all-time Top 10 life moment,” Addington said.
But OFF is less about Tinseltown glitz and glamour than it is about celebrating independent film. This year’s slate boasts 204 films, including 35 features and 169 shorts. More than 60 were directed or co-directed by women.
Eighteen of the films were made by Mississippi artists. Addington herself wrote and directed one of the short films, titled “#fifteen.”
Festival-goers will see some familiar faces in many of the indie films. Jim Rash (“Community”) and David Koechner (“The Office” and both “Anchorman” movies) star in “Bernard and Huey,” directed by Dan Mirvish and based on a screenplay by Jules Fieffer. The comedy-drama, about two old college friends who meet up again 25 years later only to discover that their fortunes have changed and their roles have switched, also stars Richard Kind, Nancy Travis, Mae Whitman, Lauren Miller and Sasha Alexander, among others.
On the documentary side, actress Cady McClain of “All My Children” fame directed the documentary, “Seeing Is Believing: Women Direct.” It’s followed by a panel featuring several female filmmakers discussing the past year’s trending issues regarding female filmmakers and women in general.
This year also brings the 2018 Kid Fest Film Festival, entirely dedicated to films for children. Among many selections, it will feature Brian Michael Stoller’s “The Amazing Wizard of Paws”; Hanneke Schutte’s “Meerkat Moonship”; and a special screening of Niki Caro’s classic adventure film, “Whale Rider.”
The LGBTQ Juried Feature Competition will include Shaz Bennett’s festival favorite, “Alaska Is a Drag”; Jill Salvino’s “Between the Shades”; and Itako’s “Boys For Sale.”
The Documentary Features Juried Competition features a number of intriguing entries, including “Forever ‘B,'” the stranger-than-fiction account of the naive, church-going Brobergs family, whose daughter, Jan, was kidnapped twice by the family’s best friend and neighbor; “Liyana,” about a Swazi girl who sets out on a dangerous quest to rescue her young twin brothers; and “Rodents of Unusual Size,” in which hard-headed Louisiana fisherman Thomas Gonzales must contend with hordes of 20-pound swamp rats.
Weekend passes for the festival cost $75, allowing entrance into all films throughout the event. VIP badges, which sell for $175, give you full access to all films, plus the Green Room, parties, panels and workshops, along with priority line access so you get first chance at seating.
To enjoy the “full experience” of the film festival, you’ll probably want to go for that VIP badge. “It gives you food in the Green Room, parties for five nights and access to celebrities and filmmakers. My mom said she likes it because she can do what she wants with no hassle,” Addington said, with a laugh. “But for those not into the party scene, the weekend pass is a close second in that you don’t have to get tickets [for individual films] and can see as many movies as you want. But there is no priority seating, so you may wait a bit longer in line.”
Attendees can also buy five- and 10-ticket packets to enjoy a good sample of the films or bring friends along to watch. Five-ticket packs cost $50, and 10-ticket packs sell for $100.
Addington noted that it takes around 300 volunteers to run OFF each year. And they don’t just do a ton of work—they are the heart and soul of the festival, she said. “Their dedication and passion and, most importantly, hospitality are what I believe makes filmmakers come back over and over again.”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.