What is a film festival?
In my ten years attending such events -- sometimes as a critic, other times as a filmmaker and then a programmer -- this is a question I continue to ask every time I step into the gauntlet. I do not ask this with a negative bent. Nor do I hold it in an outright positive fashion. I do not expect to find an all encompassing, definite answer. As an inquiry, this is a reminder to remain aware of the culture and community you find yourself awash in. Perhaps this is a little Taoist in approach. This question offers nothing and everything at the outset. It is the center. It is a compass pointing in all directions and thus none. And so the question then becomes "what is a film festival in this moment?" and quickly in succession: "what is a film festival moving forward?"
I feel this is also a key question and state of awareness for any respectable festival team who is prepping and producing such an event. For a few years now I've had the hunch that executive director Melanie Addington and her staff at the Oxford Film Festival are active in this so-called forever quest; a pursuit that is refined and redefined like the medium itself. It was not until this past weekend, February 7 - 11, when the 15th Oxford Film Festival took place, that I had an opportunity to find out for myself.
As I move further and further away from traditional film journalism (if that is even a thing) and more into what I would currently call personal travelogues and essay's about filmgoing and the culture of filmgoing, attending a plethora of film festivals keeps me attentive to these pursuits and what they mean to me, day in and day out... especially on days like today where I am coming out of the reverie that one can feel at a film fest.
Taking place in the equally quiet and quirky Oxford, Mississippi, the home base of and inspiration for William Faulkner and his writing, the Oxford Film Festival sure enough offered me the perfect platform to ask, again and again, with each new film watched, with each new conversation had, "what is a film festival"? ... and ... "what is a film festival?"
In the fall of 2017, when I attended the Milwaukee Film Festival, I offered the following assessment:
While cinema may be cultivated at heavy hitter fests like Sundance, it is my belief, as someone who attends a plethora of fests far and wide, that the culture of cinema itself only becomes sustainable through regional and mid-sized city festivals. In a digital world where our attention for entertainment and narrative is constantly fractured and divided I cannot emphasize this enough. Why exactly? At a film festival the films come to the people (not the industry) and their appetite for them is absolutely voracious.
I extend this observation and experience to the Oxford Film Festival. Along with a handful of others like Slamdance, Cucalorus, Sidewalk and Fantastic Fest, I can attest that Oxford very mindfully brings the industry inside their doorstep, offering them community building in an environment many of them often feel the most comfortable in (and also don't experience as much as they'd like). At 15 years deep, the fest has also been able to have a major hand in building a local industry with direct extensions to major markets across the globe. Oxford cultivates an inclusive and hospitable environment, where the vibe is seamlessly at ease and smiley (a testament then to the staff and volunteers who do the heavy lifting). During my handful of days in Oxford I was never more than a few steps away from a friend and fellow filmmaker ready for earnest conversation. And nor was I ever far from a new and interesting cinematic experience.
What is a film festival?
So often there seems to be an overwhelming drive to find the next big thing, to ride the buzz and be on the up and up. While I won't pretend that these things aren't important, I believe the major film festivals tend to lean so heavily on these elements that they forget about people power: the resonance and direct community that can be cultivated in such environments for the better. I also believe that when one emphasizes the need to see the next great movie and only the next great movie or else be sorely disappointed, we lose a grasp on the art of filmgoing itself. So, what is a film festival? Why a constant reminder of that nuance, push/pull, ebb and flow of filmgoing. By the very act of it, and not the results, us cinephiles know it to be better than church... and just as profound. This year's Oxford Film Festival proved all this and then some.
Having said that, it is now time for me to share some of my filmgoing highlights from the 2018 Oxford Film Festival in the form of capsule reviews. Click through the illustrated William Faulkner, Nobel Prize winning ghostly mascot of the fest, and enjoy!