Monday, February 09, 2009

Film Fest Brings in Steady Crowd

Actor Morgan Freeman greets Charleston High School graduates during the question-and-answer session following “Prom Night in Mississippi” on Friday evening.Photo by Lucy Schultze.

2/9/09 - Film fest brings in steady crowd
Lucy Schultze
Senior Staff Writer, The Oxford Eagle

Films exploring modern Mississippi’s catharsis from its troubled racial past were among those taking top honors at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival.

“Neshoba,” about a divided town and delayed justice, and “Mississippi Drug War Blues,” about militarized police tactics and their racial implications, took the “Spirit of Hoka” statuettes for Mississippi film and documentary short, respectively.

Earning accolades as audience favorite was “Prom Night in Mississippi,” a documentary about Charleston’s first integrated high-school prom which drew the four-day festival’s biggest crowds.

“This experience made us realize race is something we treat like we’re walking on eggshells,” said Bucky Smith, featured in the film as Charleston High School’s principal.

He was among a contingent of students, teachers, parents and community members who made the drive up to Oxford for Friday night’s regional premiere of the documentary by Paul Saltzman. It follows a group of 2008 seniors as they prepare for the integrated prom — a step initiated by actor and Charleston native Morgan Freeman, who offered to pay for the prom if black and white students could be together.

The Academy Award-winning actor made an unannounced appearance to take part in the question-and-answer session following the screening, alongside the filmmaker and about a dozen CHS graduates who’d appeared in the film.

“I started to get up and just say how proud I was of them,” said retired teacher Janice Taylor, who’d taught the students in fifth and sixth grade.

She came to the Oxford screening along with her husband, Roosevelt, retired CHS basketball coach. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, comes home to Charleston with a screening tonight at CHS.

Packed house

Crowds waiting to see “Prom Night” spilled out the front door of Malco’s Oxford Studio Cinema Friday evening, as festival organizers shuffled the schedule to show the film on a second screen.

With a third screen showing to the overflow crowd at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, as many as 560 people saw the film Friday night. An encore screening Sunday afternoon was also packed.

Festival organizers had not yet received audience tallies this morning, but said it’s safe to say more people attended this year’s festival than in years past.

“There’s so much satisfaction in putting something together and watching people enjoy it,” said Michelle Emanuel, festival co-director with Micah Ginn and Molly Fergusson.

She likened their task in choosing and arranging the slate of films to a larger-scale version of making someone a CD of mixed tunes.

“Imagine making a 72-hour mix CD for 5,000 people, and that’s putting together a film festival,” Emanuel said.

Nearly half of the more than 90 films in this year’s festival were represented by a filmmaker and, in some cases, actors, producers and other entourage.

Young filmmaker Noah Hutton, whose “Crude Independence” won best documentary feature, was supported by his famous mother, actress Debra Winger. Keeping a low profile, she filmed from her seat in the audience as Hutton and her step-son, Sam Howard (who served as producer and camera operator for the documentary), participated in a question-and-answer session from the audience.

Another next-generation actor, Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter, changed his flight after the screening of his film, “Good Dick,” to stay an extra day and attend more of the festival. Actor Giancarlo Esposito also stayed after the screening of “Gospel Hill,” taking in a catfish dinner at Taylor Grocery Sunday evening.

“What I love most about the festival is just putting a face with a name, and not just with the celebrities,” Emanuel said.

“Getting to meet all the filmmakers and show them the Oxford I love, then knowing when they leave that they love Oxford as much as I do — I feel like we’ve really accomplished something.”

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