Next Steps for the Oxford Film Festival

Third-year event continues to evolve and get noticed

The Oxford International Film Festival (OIFF) is in a transitional year. Founded by a small group of college students three years ago, it’s evolved into a reasonably well-programmed festival with access to a full-fledged movie house (the Esquire Theatre in Clifton) and growing interest from filmmakers lured by a Moviemaker magazine article pimping OIFF as one of “25 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.”

But growing pains persist. By my count, only 14 of the festival’s 63 films are of the full-length variety (eight narrative and six documentary features). Of those, just three were foreign, which makes the “International” part of the festival’s title wishful thinking. (On the other hand, that’s about 21 percent of the full-length features.)

Then there’s the question of attendance. The late-developing move to the Esquire, which led to a still later-developing marketing and promotion push, clearly impacted awareness.

I caught 10 screenings last weekend. Average attendance was about 25 in a house that holds 220, which is a shame given that several of the festival’s films were better than the “commercial” movies playing the Esquire (yes, I’m talking about you, Bruno).

Yet the sparse turnout didn’t seem to impact the enthusiasm of those who did show up, including several independent filmmakers who accompanied their works. In fact, a director’s panel July 25 afternoon was a festival highlight, full of useful advice to aspiring filmmakers and laden with amusing industry war stories.

But enough of the preliminaries — let’s get to some of the films.

French writer/director Jerome Cohen Olivar’s Kandisha kicked off my festival in rather ominous fashion — just eight people showed up to the 4:30 p.m. screening July 24. They didn’t miss much. Shot on location in Morroco, Olivar’s slow-burning thriller centers on Nyla Jayde (Amira Casar), a successful criminal defense attorney who stumbles upon a mysterious murder case involving a woman (The Visitor’s Hiam Abbass) who claims a 14th-century spirit actually killed her abusive husband.

While deftly edited, atmospheric and curiously cast — the late David Carradine, dubbed simply “The American,” makes a brief cameo as a mentally ill soothsayer — the film’s supernatural elements fail to persuade.

First-time writer/director Jeff Mizushima’s Etienne! spins off into an entirely different tonal dimension to tell the sweet-natured story of Richard (an understated and un-ironically mustachioed Richard Vallejas) and his pet hamster Etienne, who’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Determined to give his little buddy a proper send-off, Richard takes Etienne on a bicycle road trip where the duo crosses paths with, among others, a backpacking European scientist who makes superglue from banana slug extract; a couple of traveling musicians (Rachel Stolte and Solon Bixler of Indie Pop band Great Northern) who use the glue to fix their tour van’s broken timing belt; an odd, soft-spoken guy with a pinhole camera (Caveh Zahedi); and a young woman stung by an unexpected breakup (Megan Harvey). .

Given its whimsical premise and scruffy, lo-fi aesthetic, one can easily imagine Entienne! descending into irony-laden camp. But Mizushima plays it straight, yielding a bemusing and oddly touching tale that brings to mind a kids’ movie as conjured by a less mannered Jim Jarmusch.

Veteran actor and television director John Putch is back at the festival for a third consecutive year, this time with a scattershot comedy called Route 30. Broken into three separate stories, all of which have a certain Pennsylvania roadway in common, the film gets less compelling as it goes on, leading one’s mind to wander off before inevitably being brought back by its parade of familiar faces.

In fact, the most curious thing about Route 30 is its cast, a collection of television and film veterans whose careers have seen better days: Dana Delany (China Beach), Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds), Christine Elise (Brandon’s loose-cannon girlfriend on 90210), Robert Romanus (Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Lee Wilkof (whose acting debut was 1978’s immortal Disco Beaver in Outer Space).

Speaking of familiar casts, first-time writer/director Jake Goldberger’s Don McKay features Thomas Haden Church as a lonely janitor who returns to his hometown for the first time in 25 years to comfort his high school sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue), who’s dying of cancer. Recent Oscar nominee Melissa Leo (Frozen River), James Rebhorn, M. Emmet Walsh, Keith David and Pruitt Taylor Vince also show up in supporting roles that give this character-driven thriller added depth.

Elisabeth Shue and Thomas Haden Church in Don McKay

Goldberger sets an odd, uneasy tone from the get-go — aided by a playfully surreal score and unobtrusive camera work — leading the audience down a mind-twisting rabbit hole that will have many yearning to see Don McKay a second time.

Goldberger was on hand for a post-screening Q&A, during which he mentioned the Coen brothers’ noir Blood Simple and early Brian DePalma films as inspirations — curious name-checks given that he prefers a more understated approach than his highly stylized progenitors, an admirable trait for a first-time genre director trying to make his mark. Expect Don McKay, which won Goldberger OIFF’s “Best Director” award, to get some sort of theatrical release early next year.

Joe Leonard is yet another OIFF writer/director whose debut film shows promise. How I Got Lost uses a distinctive narrative device — it’s set between and impacted by 9/11 and the 2003 New York City blackout — to frame its story of two twentysomething New Yorkers (played by Aaron Stanford and Jacob Fishel) who hit the road in the midst of personal and professional crises.

Jacob Fishel (left) and Aaron Stanford in How I Got Lost

Like Goldberger and Mizushima, Leonard puts a unique, admirably understated spin on material that could easily descend into cliché or worse. How I Got Lost’s subtle sound design, surprisingly spare dialogue and game cast (Nicole Vicius and Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt co-star) give Leonard’s graceful, affecting tale an intimate quality that could only spring from personal experience.

Finally (and appropriately), Paul Osborne’s documentary Official Rejection is an amusing, highly useful primer for independent filmmakers with stardust in their eyes … or should I say Sundance in their eyes? The big daddy of American film festivals remains the Holy Grail for filmmakers like Osborne, and the Sundance rejection of Ten ’Til Noon, a 2007 thriller for which he wrote the screenplay, spurred Official Rejection’s look at life on the festival circuit.

Slickly assembled and featuring a host of familiar (directors Kevin Smith and Bryan Singer), not-so-familiar and unexpected faces (Traci Lords), Osborne’s expose of sorts reveals the behind-the-scenes drama and sometimes fierce politics of the festival circuit, as well as the often costly (both personally and financially) toll it can have on filmmakers chasing the dream.

Paul Osborne, director of Official Rejection

Who better, then, to assess the state of the Oxford International Film Festival than a guy who’s attended many of the small and mid-sized festivals across the U.S. and who’s been around the movie industry for two decades? Osborne, who picked up the prize for “Best Documentary” at the July 26 OIFF Awards Gala in West Chester, says he got to know the festival’s enthusiastic organizers, including Executive Director J.C. Schroder, pretty well during his three-day stay in Cincinnati.

“The festival started out as basically a bunch of students who like movies,” Osborne says. “And what’s interesting is that a lot of them are still students. That said, they started a festival for the best reason of all: They just love movies.”

This was Osborne’s first OIFF. Like many filmmakers on the circuit, he became aware of the festival via the Moviemaker magazine mention. And he arrived just in time for its move to a real movie house in a larger city.

“This year, by moving to the Esquire, it forced them to grow up even more,” Osborne says. “They’ve moved to a place now where the festival can have a proper home. It’s evolved past the college situation, and it’s in a position now to really evolve into a serious regional festival."

He envisions a day when OIFF will become a staple on the festival circuit — a development the local and regional film community will have to support in larger numbers if it’s to come to fruition.

“The only difference between what they are doing this year and, say, what a very successful regional festival like Sidewalk or Phoenix does is that those guys have been doing it for years and these guys have been doing it for a year,” he says. “The only difference is time — time to develop a relationship with a local audience so when it comes everybody is excited and everybody shows up.

“You have time for the press to get wind of it and really catch up and cover the event, which will then lead to more people being aware of it. So it’s really just staying the course and doing what they’re already doing.”

The OXFORD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL continues through Thursday. Details at Read CityBeat's pre-festival interview with J.C. Schroder here.

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