Why The Oxford Film Festival Matters

The major film festivals of the world, such as Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto, have two obvious purposes. One is to allow movie lovers to gather in one place to see dozens of films before they're released to the general public; the other is to give film distributors a marketplace to find new products to put in the multiplexes and art houses.

But those major fests have a hundred or more features playing over the course of a couple weeks. What about the small-town festivals that have sprouted like daisies all over America and throughout the world? What purpose do they serve? And more importantly, what kind of food do they have at their parties?

The Oxford Film Festival, in the northern Mississippi town that William Faulkner and John Grisham have both called home, is a prime example of the good that these minor fests can do on a local level. For Oxford residents (known as Oxonians -- really! Look it up!) it's a rare opportunity to see movies that normally might not even play at the local art house, even if Oxford HAD a local art house. The nearest big city is Memphis, an hour north, and who wants to drive that far to see a documentary, no matter how good it is?

Oxford just wrapped up its sixth edition, with 29 features and more than 50 shorts unspooling over the course of a long weekend at the local cineplex, and festival organizers say attendance has been steadily increasing with each passing year. It's easy for outsiders to assume that a festival in a small town -- especially, let's not beat around the bush here, one in Mississippi -- would be of little interest to average moviegoers, but that hasn't been the case. The screenings tend to be full, with students from Oxford's University of Mississippi comprising part of the audience, along with plenty of regular ol' local residents.

They snagged some good titles, too. The opening-night film was Sunshine Cleaning, a star-studded Sundance favorite from last year that is finally about to get theatrical distribution. Crude Independence and Make-Out with Violence won prizes and are already on the slate for South By Southwest next month. Morgan Freeman's documentary Prom Night in Mississippi, about a small town's first integrated prom, played to packed audiences after premiering at Sundance a few weeks ago, with Freeman and several of the students from the film attending the Oxford debut.

One of the festival's sponsors is Donna Ruth Roberts, a spry, folksy old gal who opens up her beautiful home every year for the opening-night party and also serves on the festival's screening committee. Though she's not what you'd expect to be the typical audience for austere documentaries and racy indie comedies, she told me she loves being involved. She's like a patron saint of Oxford, the festival's semi-official grandmother.

Most small festivals are run by people like Donna Ruth: enthusiastic, passionate movie-lovers who dedicate their free time (it's almost never a paying gig) to the fest. This labor-of-love quality translates into a zealousness that the audience can easily pick up on, and it makes them feel fired-up, too. Compare this to, say, Toronto, where everybody's just slogging from one screening to the next out of a sense of duty.

For visiting journalists and panelists, a smaller fest like Oxford is attractive for different reasons. It's not the movies -- we can see (or have seen) many of them at other festivals, and the fact remains that the very biggest, brightest gems will premiere at a fest with more name recognition. Not to say that smaller fests don't have some hidden treasures -- they do -- only that Oxford and its brethren can't afford to be as picky as Sundance.

What out-of-towners find refreshing is the atmosphere. Where Toronto and Cannes often feel sterilized, a local festival has local color. Oxford is small enough that its parties (of which there are many) can be held in people's houses, with food prepared by local restaurants and private citizens, rather than mass-produced (or, as at Sundance parties, non-existent). The local restaurants are not overcrowded, nor are the streets clogged with rental cars. For someone invited to the festival, as I was last weekend, to appear on a panel and help select the winners in the short-film competition, it's like a mini-vacation. The movies are almost beside the point.

This combination of purposes is why Oxford and similar festivals could be destined for greatness. Locals get a chance to see films they wouldn't see otherwise, while visiting media types can relax and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and Southern hospitality. If you live near one of these small fests, you should check it out. It won't be Cannes (unless you live near Cannes), but it will probably be special in its own way.