Award-winning actress Dale Dickey, director Max Walker-Silverman and music artist Suzanne Vega will be among the attendees and draws of the 2022 Oxford Film Festival. Starting Wednesday, March 23, 118 films will celebrate the diversity of the art form, the compelling stories it can share, connections it can make and provocative conversations it can spark.
For 2022, a hybrid presentation embraces community camaraderie and in-person fun while still keeping safety top of mind, retaining the wide virtual reach the festival has achieved during the pandemic.
From an opening-night documentary on Memphis’ Stax Music Academy to a must-see Sundance discovery at the close, OFF’s robust slate toasts the power of film with scores of filmmakers expected to attend, participate in Q&As and meet fans.
The festival unfolds in-person from March 23 to 27 and virtually from March 27 to April 3. All in-person screenings will be held at Malco Oxford Commons (206 Commonwealth Blvd., Oxford), with virtual cinema screenings via Eventive. Certain special screenings are in-person only, as tags on the online schedule indicate.
Dickey, whose “Winter’s Bone” performance won an Independent Spirit Award, co-stars with Wes Studi in “A Love Song,” under the direction of Max Walker-Silverman. She’ll be receiving OFF’s Breakthrough Acting Award, and Walker-Silverman will accept the festival’s Rising Star Award.
“It’s a beautiful film, with a certain amount of quirk that hits home,” Justina Walford, lead programmer of the festival, says. “It’s just very real. I felt like I was living someone else’s life when I viewed it.”
Vega stars in Michael Tully’s “Lover, Beloved,” a blend of film, theater and music in which she reinterprets talks from author Carson McCullers.
“Soul Kids,” in the opening-night slot on March 24, focuses on teens learning about soul music and more in the after-school programs of the Stax Music Academy. “This is exactly what we need right now, after a very tough two years, to see these kids light up the screen with their singing,” Walford says.
In other films, a few themes emerged. “The films that are submitted kind of show you what everyone’s thinking about,” Walford, who previously founded and directed the 2016-2020 Women Texas Film Festival, says. “I really thought about the representation in films, and some things stood out.”
The prison system was a recurring subject, from “The First Step,” which centered on efforts to pass prison-reform legislation, to films about people’s experiences with incarceration. “Krimes” shares the story of a man who, while in federal prison, smuggled out panels, piece-by-piece, to create monumental works of art on the outside.
“”I put them together because what’s fascinating is to see the process of trying to do prison reform, but also have a film that represents the people that really need to be seen in a more human way,” Walford says.
Activist and political commentator Van Jones’ quest to bring together a coalition of progressives and conservatives to bridge divisions and to pass landmark criminal-justice reform under the Trump presidency drives the action in “The First Step,” an independent documentary feature from Lance Kramer (producer) and his brother Brandon (director).
“It’s really this quite intense and nuanced but also hopeful look at what it takes to build bridges across the divides in this country and find real solutions to help people impacted by unjust systems,” Lance Kramer, who is looking forward to his first visit to OFF and to Mississippi, says of the film.
“The film takes you very up close and personal with people on the front lines of these fights,” Kramer adds. “You really see the trajectory of how this bill, The First Step, found its way through all the trials and tribulations of getting a bill passed anytime in Washington, D.C., but especially now.”
Since its 2021 premiere at Tribeca, the filmmakers have taken the film to more than 25 festivals in 18 states, across the country and the political spectrum. “It’s really quite moving to see people in very different communities and often very different demographics engaging with the film in a meaningful way,” Kramer says. “We’re really excited to continue that energy and bring it to Mississippi.”
The Middle East was another thread in submitted films, and Walford selected three “amazing” ones to include, she says: the documentary “With this Breath I Fly” about two Afghan women’s fight for freedom; a narrative film “The Falconer” set in Oman; and the comedy “Americanish” about Pakistani American women navigating careers, culture and romance.
“They’re all different parts of the Middle East, but what’s interesting is that there’s a certain theme throughout, and also an amazing representation if you saw all three films,” she says. “We are now seeing many filmmakers showing the universality of the personal experience.”
Walford also spotlighted programmer Brian Whisenant’s selection of LGBTQIA+ films for OFF, including documentary “Being Bebe;” the narrative charmer “Homebody;” and the moving documentary “Mama Bears” about Christian conservative parents of LGBTQ kids.
The slate of 118 films represents 18 countries and, along with documentaries and narratives, includes short films, experimentals, student films and Mississippi-based productions and music videos.
“Dance Till Dawn,” a long-form music video from writer and producer Ayesha Adamo—who also did the choreography—is set in 1919, in a club similar to Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic with characters who echo starlet Marion Davies and Bert Williams, Ziegfeld Follies’ first Black member. “It takes a little glimpse into their lives, as they’re interacting with their times and being performers,” Adamo says.
Though set more than a century ago, Adamo sees modern-day links. “They’d just gotten through the 1918 flu—I didn’t know there was going to be that coincidence when I was writing it. There was the women’s vote, Prohibition passed, and there was a feeling of getting our last drink before the lockdown on it,” she says. “There’s a feeling of time that’s in flux. Our times have a similar feeling. It touches on the fabric of racism, and there are little ‘Me Too’ moments.”
Films are the focal point, but parties, available with a VIP pass, enhance the event’s festive side. It’s the festival’s third year using the hybrid format, but it is the first to offer themed parties, Matt Wymer, associate director of the festival, says.
“This year, we’re kind of upping the ante a little bit—pun intended—because we have a casino party,” he muses. The Casino Royale party is on the festival’s last night in-person, March 26, offering a Rat Pack-era vibe and games of chance for prizes from sponsors.
Leading up to that finale, OFF is hosting an Automat-themed party on Wednesday, March 23, that ties into the film “The Automat;” a Stax Records party in combination with “Soul Kids” on March 24; and a Roaring ’20s party on March 25 with the band Skid Rogues and dance instructors on hand to teach the Charleston.
“It’s five nights of fun, four nights of parties, three days of VIP Green Room access, and it’s too great to miss,” Wymer says.
Other special events include a tribute to the late Bill Luckett, a Mississippi film-industry stalwart, a secret screening of a work-in-progress, a family-focused presentation with a screening of Cheryl Allison’s “Honk,” and a “Pop Up Partnership” with Thacker Mountain Radio featuring Oxford author and screenwriter Michael Farris Smith and the Stax Music Academy’s 926 Alumni Band.
Last year’s festival was the last under the helm of longtime director Melanie Addington, now executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association in Wichita, Kan., but her hard work left a solid base for the future, organizers say.
“Melanie was always really good at trying to get us to in-person safely, but soon. We are definitely continuing that effort to do a hybrid for safety, but also continue to do what makes the film festival so special, which is the in-person part,” Walford says. “She was 24/7 dedicated to the festival. But what’s great about that is that she has left a legacy and a vision that is very clear.”
Safety remains a primary concern.
The virtual option remains for those still not comfortable traveling or gathering in a movie theater. Attendees of in-person events are required to be vaccinated, and OFF highly encourages visitors to wear masks while indoors.
“It’s challenging, trying to strike up an audience after being sequestered,” Jim Brunzell, the festival’s interim director, says. “You have to give people a reason to come back out to the festival, and we hope to do that with 75 filmmakers and parties every night.
“That’s something you’re not going to experience from home.”