Southern hospitality is all it’s cracked up to be and then some at the Magnolia Independent Film Festival. The annual festival, impertinent and idiosyncratic, is now in its seventh year of celebrating the independent spirit in the cinema. For three days every February, filmmakers, educators, film professionals, knowledgeable film lovers, and adventurous locals who just want to get in on the fun gather to watch, listen, question, reflect (and party a little!). For these three days it seems as if all of Starkville, Mississippi, the festival’s current home, is tuned to making the event as wonderful for visitors and as rewarding for the many filmmaker participants as possible.
The festival is the brainchild and principal passion of Ron Tibbett, who launched it in 1998 when he couldn’t find anywhere to show his own independent work. It’s moved a few times within the Starkville-West point area, but has maintained a consistent identity as a filmmaker friendly event, willing to take chances and challenge local audiences. Tibbett receives help from a number of sources in the community. Hollywood Premier Cinemas donates two screens for the entire three-day event. Next year, Tibbett will move into Premier’s new multi-screen facility, still totally rent-free.
The Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau, a member of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, hosts a lavish opening night reception for visiting filmmakers, festival special guests—including directors of other festivals in the region, local civic and government leadership, and the general public. Arma de la Cruz, Vice President for Tourism, says the festival “puts Starkville on the map as a center for artistic innovation.” She is the perfect ambassador for the community, making sure to tell visitors about local attractions they “can’t miss” while in town. Official guests of the festival stay in villas at the Old Waverly Resort and Golf Course in nearby West Point, also provided free of charge courtesy of the Bryan family, as in Bryan meats. Making the festival happen challenges local communities to cooperate and both Starkville and West Point take pride in their roles as hosts.
The festival is an extremely relaxed affair where introductions just aren’t necessary. The person in the seat next to you quickly becomes a friend as you discuss what you liked, or didn’t like, about the last film. Tell a veteran attendee that this is your first “Mag” and he’ll be quick to give you a history, focusing equally on the festival’s early struggles and recent accomplishments.
The festival’s line-up is heavy with Mississippi and regional films; nearly half of the 47 total films screened have some tie to the Magnolia State. This “local hero” element generates strong participation, but it is the diversity and the quality of the films that brings the crowds back year after year. Tibbett seeks entries from far afield, screens all of the entries and makes most of the selections himself, and partners with the likes of the American Film Institute to find unseen treasures he can unveil.
The line-up ranges from one minute animated works by local high school students to widely praised full-length features by established filmmakers just returned from Sundance. Many of the festival’s most compelling works come from the generally neglected world of the short film. Here are five of the most original works from this year’s batch of short films:
Seven’s Eleven A brilliant spoof of “Ocean’s Eleven,” written and directed by Amy Iorio (sic). Iorio gets amazing performances from a group of pre-teens who stage a candy store heist. Expect to hear more from this first-time director who uses every tick of the clock in the 13-minute homage to the caper genre.
October Written and directed by Thad Lee. 20 minutes. A charming and insightful variation on the “You Can’t Go Home Again” theme for the Friends generation.
Hexama, Hexama First-time filmmaker Fetzer Mills Jr. (a political consultant in real-life) took a true story of a woman who finds herself in a mental institution because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding her husband’s death and created a chilling, 13-minute masterpiece.
South Dakota Trilogy A three-minute roller coaster ride through the peculiarities of a state we know too little about, or maybe too much. By Memphis teacher and filmmaker Will O’Loughlen.
The Brothers Pratt, One At-Bat An experimental tour de farce (sic) that pulls out all the stops as it examines a curious asterisk in major league baseball’s record book. 16 minutes. Written and directed by Steve Mitchell.
Several extremely worthwhile features also found their way to Starkville for “The Mag.” The Watershed, an official selection at the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival, is a deeply moving documentary about seven siblings forced to raise themselves after their father splits and their mother drinks herself into a four-year stupor. Made by one of the siblings with the help of several others, the film allows the audience privileged access to the siblings’ cathartic journey. Searching for Wooden Watermelons is a “follow your dreams” comedy/drama interwoven with a “last picture show” subplot. Three strong female performances define this richly textured tale of loving and leaving. The buzz at the festival centered on this film’s impending cable deal. Craig Brewer’s “The Poor and Hungry,” about a Memphis car thief who falls in love with one of his victims, a young cellist, has already found a home on cable and can be seen on the Independent Film Channel. Brewer’s low-budget digital feature had already won awards at the Hollywood Film Festival, Nashville Independent Film Festival, and Indie Memphis. Brewer is a filmmaker who will be around for a while and the film is well worth tracking down.
The festival is crammed with screenings, panels, lunches, and brunches—leaving little time for checking out the sights and sounds of Starkville. Fortunately, the Hotel Chester is nearby in the Old Main historic district and houses both Big Daddy’s Espresso Etc. and the Landmark Café. The former serves excellent espresso drinks, wine, desserts, sandwiches, and salads. The elegant furnishings, relaxed ambience, board games and gourmet food and travel magazines for longer stays, and meticulous attention to service make it worth one, maybe two stops. The Landmark Café staff proudly boasts that their chef is the only CIA graduate—that’s Culinary Institute of America—within 200 miles. Wherever he studied, Chef Chad Motes paid attention. He combines a light touch with classic French sauces with a bold combination of Mediterranean and Asian influences, clearly insisting upon freshest produce and seafood available. Two visits to the Landmark included Basil Seared Sea Bass, Gingered Chicken and Bok Choy Spring Rolls, Spiced Pork Ribs in a Carmelized Mongolian Barbecue Glaze, and a remarkable Crushed Mustard Grilled Half Chicken. Sorbet for dessert makes it possible to make it back for another round of films. The Landmark easily compares with the finest restaurants in Memphis or Little Rock, but at meaningfully lower prices.
Lucky’s Lounge above the Courthouse Grill, just down the street, is an energetic college town hangout and a good spot to recharge the batteries and do a little people watching. Nearby West Point, about 20 minutes from Starkville, is home to Arthur’s, a fabled “down home” restaurant where the “Three C’s” of southern cooking—catfish, cobbler, and cole slaw—are all A+. Just a few doors away, the Davis Gallery is a welcoming place to check out work by the area’s many artists.
The glamour film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and even Toronto may get all the headlines and be featured on Entertainment Tonight, but if you really care about films, good films of all shapes and sizes, a festival like “The Mag” offers more access, more variety, and infinitely more respect for your time and your money. You may not be able to tell your friends that you (and 800 other people) were in the same hotel ballroom as the star of a film you couldn’t get in to see, but you will remember the movies—good and not quite as good, near misses and stunning surprises.
A full day pass at “The Mag” is only $7 on Thursdays and Fridays, $10 on Saturdays. I’m told you can’t get coffee for that much at Sundance. I don’t know for sure about the coffee; I’d rather spend my time and my dimes at festivals like “The Mag,” where the filmmakers and the audience live on the same planet, uses the same restrooms, and swap tales like only newfound friends can do.
Bob Pest of Locust Grove is co-founder and president of Ozark Foothills FilmFest and an irregular contributor to Arkansas Weekly. He teaches film courses two evenings a week at UACCB and ASU-Newport and spends his days as director of corporate relations for the Arkansas Educational Television Network.