Full disclaimer: I’ve lived in Oxford, Mississippi and have attended the festival for the past 3 years. As a result, I know many of the local filmmakers pretty well, and, as an act of both preventing an explicit conflict of interest while not punishing those who’ve befriended me, the following reviews will be presented with a minimum of evaluative language. Instead, these articles will seek to promote the Oxford Film Festival in the context of acknowledging Mississippi’s willingness to both create and screen its own brand of independent film.
For those who seek it, the small college town of Oxford in north Mississippi can be a mecca of creative culture. Bars pump out hipsters, both good and bad, the local music scene dominated by local label Fat Possum and the satellite bands and music types. The literary scene is just as prominent, although academic and reserved. Nearly weekly poetry and chapter readings promote local writers while several series dedicated to William Faulkner appreciation make the citizens well-aware of its former giant. Square Books, the local world-renowned bookstore, dedicates a full section of its store to Faulkner works and analysis. The spirit of these well-founded and well-promoted cultural institutions make Oxford an atypical Mississippi town while reserving a rural charm provided by a sense of romantic Southern pride. This has informed its growing film scene, the film festival in its 11th iteration now brings in the entire town, surrounding Southern film-lovers, as well as people like Eric D. Snider, with whom I had the pleasure of talking shop. The creative scene has also expanded thanks to Ole Miss’s growing cinema program, the brainchild of educator and filmmaker Alan Arrivée, allowing and encouraging student work to enter the festival. This prompts a further diverse status, being placed into the mix alongside experimental films, music videos, documentaries, and full-length features from global filmmakers. I managed to see more than a handful of the works, although given the ranging plethora of films offered, my reviews will only skim the surface of what was presented. Therefore, each of the following should be seen as films that stood out as quality work from promising rising talent.
Breaking Through (Cindy L. Abel, 2013)
Presented alongside a short entitled “Dance Like No One’s Watching” about a line-dancing, cowboy-hat-wearing group providing a safe environment for homosexual dancers, Breaking Through provides a conglomeration of stories about gay politicians and other public leaders who had to battle adversity to receive the kind of comfort the dancers enjoy. The power of the documentary is the sheer number of people interviewed: while not concentrating on a single, powerful subject, its multi-perspective approach seeks to promote a positive-LGBT notion that it isn’t just possible for an openly gay or transgendered person to hold office, but that many do and have done so for many years. Familiar figures appear, such as Massachusetts representative Barney Frank, who discusses living as a politician with media gossip in the 1980s, eventually coming to terms with his frustration of keeping his public and private life separate only to publicly announce his sexual orientation to eventual acceptance from his constituents. Atlanta city council member Alex Wan discusses his being bullied for his effeminate attitude as a child in the Deep South, only to come out to warmly accepting parents. The film often plays with a tone of a scare-tactic political-issue doc — quick edits and ominous music often places one in a horror movie — but its overtly positive message relays acceptance and a welcome environment for social-climbing LGBT identifying people.
Safety (Rory Uphold, 2013)
Having just fled an exhausting breakup, Andy (Rory Uphold) confides in close friend Morgan (Ben York Jones), hoping to score sympathy and perhaps some rebound sex, thanks to advice from a friend. It’s a classic set-up amongst indie films, awkward tensions rising as one character initiates sex out of emotional duty, the other responding out of true affection or boyish lust. Yet Uphold’s scenario manages a delicate balance between intention and action, the twentysomethings engaged in an emotional dance, questioning the nature of the human value of sex and modern relationships along the way. Its blunt nature presents itself as an anti-Swanberg setup, with the same degree of payoff thanks to the natural, sometimes whimsical dialogue and range of performance from the two leads. Sometimes, awkwardness in film can easily come off as painful and forced, but Safety‘s presentation comes directly from the subject material and the way it’s delivered. The film won the jury award for best narrative short, and it’s not hard to figure out why: these two actors will surely be rising talent in Indiewood.
Six Letter Word (Lisanne Sartor, 2012)
Being a parent of a child with autism (not that I can speak from a personal frame of reference) can be a mounting challenge and unique experience at all times. Add to that working as a call girl, and you’re guaranteed more challenging and unique scenarios. That’s where Zoe (Rumer Willis) finds herself, a loving mother who cares deeply about her son Jax (Rio Mangini), yet reaching beyond her means to gain independence from her controlling, disapproving mother, Marilyn (Suzanne Cryer). She places her son in a special needs program under the reign of Pete (Josh Braaten), who Zoe recognizes as a former, albeit more compassionate, john. They form an awkward union, each under the guise of not exposing the other, to make a better environment for Jax despite Zoe’s increasingly dangerous job, yet trying to never yield to Marilyn’s offers of parenting given her rough past with Zoe. Jax’s mode of communication is made through his obsession with crossword puzzles, an activity toward which Zoe shows great patience and understanding, a kind of rough, complicated compassion that punctuates the miserablist atmosphere. Six Letter Word builds upon its layers of misfortune for an opportunity at commentary upon the strengths and trials of motherhood: full of dread but ultimately affirming.