By Talbert Toole
*Editor’s Note: In light of the annual Oxford Film Festival (OFF), Hottytoddy.com conducted a series of Q&A’s with some of this year’s local filmmakers to highlight the work that will be shown at this year’s festival (Feb. 6-10).
The OFF was founded in 2003 by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and by 2008 was adapted as an independent nonprofit organization with the intent to celebrate the art of independent cinema.
The festival screens more than 200 films each year from across the globe in a variety of categories that includes: animated and experimental and new media, documentary and narratives features and shorts, music video and documentary, LGBTQ films, and the kid film festival.
One of this year’s filmmakers is the University of Mississippi’s very own John Rash. Rash, a North Carolina native, is an instructional assistant professor for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss and is a director/producer for the Southern Documentary Project.
In addition to his work at the university, Rash has worked as a photo and video educator for more than 15 years in both the United States and China.
His award-winning films have been screened internationally at festivals that include Full Frame, Brooklyn Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Indie Memphis, Indie Grits, Green Film Festival in Seoul, and the Shanghai International Film Festival.
This is Rash’s first year submitting films to the Oxford Film Festival—”Negro Terror” and “Nomad Chapter.”
Hottytoddy: How many films have you submitted to the film festival or is this the first one to be submitted? Explain your experience and process of being a part of the festival.
Rash: This is my first year submitting films to the Oxford Film Festival and I am very fortunate as a local filmmaker to have a feature-length documentary (“Negro Terror”) as well as a short documentary (“Nomad Chapter”) both included in this year’s festival. It means a lot to me seeing a town like Oxford so enthusiastic about supporting independent cinema and I am very much looking forward to this year’s festival.
Hottytoddy: Describe the process of making your film.
Rash: “Negro Terror” is a film about a band of the same name from Memphis who I discovered while searching weekend event listings on the web in the summer of 2017. After doing a bit of research online and attending one of their shows I brought up the idea of making a film about the band, despite the fact they had not recorded an album or played outside of Memphis at that time. As a filmmaker that was a real dream opportunity as I was able to follow the band and document their development from playing in house parties in midtown Memphis to shooting their first music video and playing at large music festivals. In the film you will see a more personal story, however, about the three men in this band and how they function creatively despite very different personalities and world views. My job was to be there as often as possible when they were rehearsing and playing to gather the best moments for the documentary and to tell a story that might not always glorify the band but does let you know more about who they are as people.
“Nomad Chapter” was much different process because this film was shot in North Carolina over the course of multiple visits. In fact, I never planned to make this film and picked up all the material on the weekends or days off while shooting in North Carolina for other projects. However, Diarra’s story about how he became an unlikely business owner by running what he calls “a food truck, but for books” was far too interesting to ignore. The opening sequence in this film benefits tremendously from the terribly cold and rainy weather the day I happened to be filming the book mobile because you can see how much passion Diarra has for this project to be out in such miserable conditions just to meet his customers in their neighborhood.
Hottytoddy: What, if any, was the significance that the Oxford community had in your film?
Rash: ’Negro Terror’ is a very interesting project in the sense that it’s not just a film but also includes the band (Negro Terror) playing a live-score and a set of their songs as part of the program. So the first of the two screenings at Oxford Film Festival will be at Proud Larry’s on Feb. 6 with the band actually playing along with the film in an event that can only be described as half-concert half-cinema, or as some filmmakers call these type events “expanded cinema”. What that means is that the Oxford community has an opportunity to be part of the show and to bring their energy to the event that night, with is very different from sitting in a dark and quiet movie theatre for a couple of hours. We hope everyone comes out to cheers and dances and has a chance to interact with the band while at the same time getting to know about their story through the film.
Hottytoddy: What do you want the audience to experience or take away from your film?
Rash: A documentary is always a curated journey into someone else’s world as described to the audience by the filmmaker. So I don’t pretend that by watching my films at the Oxford Film Festival you will know everything about the people on screen or have an experience similar to meeting them yourself. However, I would like to think these films open the minds and ideas of the audience about the fantastic and beautiful choices different people make in terms of how they spend their lives. The guys in ’Negro Terror’ are true Memphis musicians, however on first look you might dismiss them as just another punk band and not on the same level as the blues players and hip-hop artists that also come from that city. The story of the bookmobile in ’Nomad Chapter’ is similar in that you know the business isn’t providing a living wage for Diarra, however his life and career has been dedicated to a love of books and community outreach. Those are really inspiring stories and even if told through my lens, I hope others can take away the heart that attracted me to them at offset.
Hottytoddy: What do you look forward to at the festival?
Rash: I look forward to being inspired by the films of other filmmakers and then having the chance to speak to them directly about their works and ideas. When we sit at home and watch Netflix we never have the chance to interact with the filmmakers but at a film festival everyone has that kind of access to the creative forces behind these projects and that is an invaluable experience that the festival brings to this community.
Hottytoddy: Tell us one thing about your film that you would want others to know.
Rash: I had only moved to Oxford a few months prior to starting to film ’Negro Terror’ and really felt curious and overwhelmed by the city of Memphis. I learned so much about Memphis through this project and really learned to love Memphis eternally through the eyes of the guys in ’Negro Terror’. I hope some of that comes through in the documentary, or at least inspires others to make the short drive to check out some of the wonderful cultural events happening in Memphis almost on a daily basis.