Oxford Film Festival 2019 

The annual event brings diverse, hard hitting cinema to Mississippi

The Oxford Film Festival always gives Mid-South cinephiles something to look forward to as the winter doldrums set in at the multiplex. This year's festivities run from Wednesday, February 6th to Sunday, February 10th at venues all around Oxford, Mississippi.

The packed schedule kicks off on Wednesday night at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center with a program of locally focused short films by community filmmakers including festival vets Rebekah Flake and Maggie Bushway. Then, at the storied venue Proud Larry's, a don't-miss event: John Rash's documentary Negro Terror, about Memphis' anti-racist, hardcore punk band will screen with the band playing along live. The doc will repeat on Sunday afternoon in the more conventional venue of Malco Oxford Commons, but when Negro Terror and Rash premiered this innovative scoring arrangement at last year's Indie Memphis, it made for a profoundly powerful theatrical experience, so catch it with the band if you can.

click to enlarge Ghost Light
  • Ghost Light

Ghost Light by writer/director John Stimpson, the official opening night gala screening, bows Thursday at the University of Mississippi's Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Arts. As a past president of Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatricals, it seems like Stimpson should have been more frightened to make a comedy based on theater's darkest superstitions surrounding the Scottish Play, but here we are. Cary Elwes stars as a faded soap opera star relegated to touring rural Massachusetts with Shakespeare on Wheels. Fellow Princess Bride alumnae Carol Kane gets to go big as a diva Weird Sister.

Aspiring filmmakers would do well to get an early start on festival Friday by checking out the My First Film panel with Zia Anger. The New York-based music video artist will screen some of her half-finished and abandoned works, including her unreleased first feature, while providing live commentary on her process and hindsight on what didn't go right.

In Friday afternoon's documentary The Gospel of Eureka, directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher find connection between the actors in the world's largest Christian passion play and the drag performers who have carved out a niche in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Memphis-born filmmaker Suzannah Herbert and her directing partner Lauren Belfer took home the Ron Tibbett Excellence in Filmmaking Award at Indie Memphis '18 for Wrestle, screening Friday night at Malco Oxford Commons. It's a sometimes-gut-wrenching film verite documentary about the wrestling team at J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Alabama. These poor, mostly African-American kids see the wrestling team as their only way out of their failing school and dead-end neighborhoods, but their stories are much messier than Rocky.

While I Breathe, I Hope starts off Saturday with a candid look at the state of racial politics in the South. Emily Harrold's documentary follows Bakari Sellers as he runs for congress, trying to become the first black man elected to a statewide office in South Caroline since the Jim Crow era.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, a block of winners from the Louisiana and Memphis Film Prize festivals includes "Last Day" by Kevin Brooks, which won the award at last year's Memphis Film Prize. Starring Ricky D. Smith as a loving father and Rosalyn Ross as his wife, Brooks' story takes us through the last day of freedom for a man facing trial for a crime he didn't commit.

Saturday night in prime time brings a pair of films from Mississippi directors. "Jesus and Jimmy Ray," a Southern Gothic comedy about murder and redemption, is the second short from 2016 Memphis Film Prize winner McGhee Monteith. After that warm up comes the world premiere of director Glenn Payne's Driven. A rideshare driver named Emerson Graham is just trying to get through a typical night of rudeness, crazy people, and drunks, until a mysterious rider hails her car and takes her on a whirlwind adventure, all while the meter is running.

click to enlarge Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season is the festival’s closing night gala feature.
  • Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season is the festival’s closing night gala feature.

After a Saturday night awards ceremony that is usually a raucous party, Sunday will feature encore screenings of the winners in the documentary, narrative, LBGTQ, music doc, and Mississippi feature categories. The festival's closing night gala feature, Always in Season, is a documentary by Jacqueline Olive that uses the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy in North Carolina as a lens to examine the history of racist lynching in America. It's the unflinching finish to a festival full of films that have something to say.

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