With a reputation for its filmmaker focus and intimate atmosphere, the Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville, Miss., embarks on its 26th year with a lineup both international and state-specific, along with a welcome that embraces returning alums, fresh voices, emerging creatives and experimental forays.
The festival takes place from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25 this year at UEC Hollywood Premier Cinema (101 Hollywood Blvd., Starkville), with a workshop and panel on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 25, at Hobie’s on Main (217 E. Main St.)—formerly the State Theatre—in downtown Starkville.
Mississippi’s first and oldest film festival, known as The Mag for short, has come a long way since its initial outing in 1997 in West Point, Miss., when audiences huddled in jackets and under blankets in the cold auditorium of Central School, with only shared enthusiasm and space heaters to warm the room. The festival got its start when Chicago-born poet, journalist, and filmmaker Ron Tibbett moved to West Point in the 1990s and discovered the dearth of outlets in the state.
“He realized there were no film festivals in Mississippi, or even in the surrounding states, really,” Michael Williams, board president for the Magnolia Film Festival, says. Tibbett decided to found one in West Point, where he lived. The event grew from there, moved to Starkville within a few years, and still considers itself the Golden Triangle’s film festival, serving the Columbus-Starkville-West Point area.
“He actually helped start the Tupelo Film Festival and the Oxford Film Festival, and he helped out with the Indie Memphis Film Festival,” Williams says of Tibbett, who died in 2004. “We always try to keep Ron’s legacy as part of the film festival because he was very much a filmmaker lover, and he loved having the audience interaction. So, we always make sure that our festival feels very intimate, very filmmaker-friendly.”
Challenging cinema is another festival hallmark. “It’s not things that you would typically see in Mississippi,” the board president says. “There’s queer films; there’s films that are political. We are not afraid to show things, as long as we feel like it’s a story worth telling.”
“That was something that Ron really pioneered,” Williams adds. “He wanted to make sure that they weren’t just showing films he knew Mississippi would like—maybe it was films Mississippi needed to see, and filmmakers whose voices needed to be heard.”
‘The Mississippi Experience’
Nearly 50 filmmakers are expected for the weekend event this year, festival director Chris Misun says—a nice bump up from previous years, particularly after COVID-19 swept the world in 2020. “A lot of these filmmakers are bringing larger groups. … This year, I think people are excited to get back out, go and promote their films.”
“I think the reputation of The Mag is also a part of that,” Misun says. “We have several alumni coming back, and we have a reputation for being a very hospitable and fun festival.”
“We bring people from all over the country and a lot of the international filmmakers come as well,” Williams says. “We like to bring them to Mississippi, show them the Mississippi experience, and by the time they leave, everyone is friends. That’s our goal every year.”
Selected films are shown on a single screen on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and on Saturday morning during the festival’s run, with music videos, animated films, documentaries, shorts and feature films in the mix. That single-screen focus means films will not be competing for blocks, which lets everybody see one another’s works without having to pick and choose.
The craft of filmmaking is one theme at work at this year’s festival. “We really tried to find a variety of different films that highlight different crafts, different animation styles,” Misun says, such as filmmaker Nate Dorr’s A.I.-created music video “Algorithmia,” adding, “It’s very trippy. I thought something was wrong with my computer screen when I first started watching it.”
Stories centered around struggle are another connecting thread among many featured films. Clint Till’s comedy, “The Milky Way,” relays a tale about a husband and wife navigating their way through breastfeeding, and films such as “The Wheel” and “Murder Tongue” demonstrate difficulties faced in Turkey and Pakistan, respectively, during the 1990s.Till, who first screened a short film at The Mag in 2020, says in an email that he was impressed with the festival from start to finish, from its programming to its professional feel. “It’s very well organized, full of wonderful, genuine people that care a lot about the films they screen and the filmmakers they host,” he writes.
Kurt St. Thomas, another festival alum (and a winner at The Mag in 2000), is back this year with “D.O.A.,” a loose remake of the 1950 film noir classic. “(My first screening) was a crazy experience. It was the first time I felt like a filmmaker,” St. Thomas says over email. “I can’t express how excited and honored (I am) to be invited back to one of my favorite film festivals.”
‘This Whole Other World of Films’
Dozens of films are slated for festival screenings this year. On Thursday night, The Mag will screen Jason Osborne’s documentary “Love Languages,” set in an Afro-Caribbean barber shop in the United Kingdom that serves as a hub and safe space for men to talk about life, love and personal struggles. Friday’s nighttime highlight will be “Unpacking” from directors Alexandra Clayton and Michal Sinnott, a feature film about six women whom a social-media influencer and guru convinces to travel to Bali for vacation, wherein they messily confront their issue.
Saturday morning showcases family-friendly films. For a closer look at and background on some of the films featured at The Mag this year, follow the Magnolia Independent Film Festival on Facebook and Instagram.
On Saturday afternoon, the workshop and panel discussion in downtown Starkville at Hobie’s on Main are free and open to the public. Writer and producer Jeremy Burgess hosts a workshop at 1 p.m. on “The Production Value of Collaborative Screenwriting,” a crash course in boosting a script’s chances of getting made into a final product.
At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Eyevox Studios’ Rick Moore, makeup artist and actress Casey Heflin, filmmaker Ben Powell, and director-cinematographer Antonio Tarrell weigh in during a panel on the topic of making a living in the film industry in Mississippi and beyond. An RSVP is requested, to anticipate a headcount and receive any updates.
Saturday evening will feature a slew of projects with Mississippi connections. The night’s lineup begins with a music video, “Insolitude,” from Mississippi State University graduate Chase Lee.
Then, attendees can tune into three finalist projects from The Mag’s 48-hour film competition last fall: Ron Negron’s “The Gift”; Jon Tackett, Dylan Scott and Adam Maddox’ “Stache”; and Angeliki Efantis and David Hintz’ “The Wind and I.” The documentary “XIII,” which James Parker directed and produced at MSU, follows this trio of short films. Parker’s work follows the story of two MSU graduates who were pivotal in the design and craft of the object used to save the astronauts in the Apollo 13 mission.
Misun points to awareness as a key lasting legacy of the festival.
“There’s this whole other world of films that aren’t the ones being advertised during the Super Bowl, and so they get this opportunity to see other amazing work being done that’s under the radar,” he says. “And they don’t have to go to Sundance to see it. … We are bringing some amazing films, just to Starkville and the Golden Triangle area. That’s a really important thing that we need to continue doing.”
From a filmmaker’s perspective, “Honestly, it changes lives, and it builds careers,” Williams says of the festival. He began attending The Mag in 2007, and one of his films had been featured in nearly every year’s festival until he became the board president.
“That was where I created the most impactful connections that I’ve ever had at any film festival,” Williams says, citing The Mag’s intimate atmosphere, its parties and filmmaker retreat luncheon that all foster easy social contacts and fast friendships.
“By the end of the festival, you’ve made great networking connections, you’ve made friends, and they’re the people whom you’ll either support their careers along the way, or you’ll end up collaborating and making films together,” he continues.
“Sometimes at those bigger festivals, you kind of lose that intimacy, where you may not get to meet everyone, or you might only have brief encounters with people,” Williams adds. “But The Mag, it’s almost like summer camp. You get to make lifelong friends in just a few days.”
To learn more about the Magnolia Independent Film Festival or to purchase tickets to its events and screenings, visit magnoliafilmfest.com. Tickets will also be available at the venue during the festival.