By Coop Cooper
The more film festivals I attend, the more I learn to appreciate the unique qualities of each. For instance, small and friendly can be just as rewarding as big and bustling.
The Tupelo Festival (May 11-14) takes place at the Lyric Theater in the historic downtown area of the city and runs primarily on the theater’s single screen. Like the Clarksdale Film Fest, it has a more intimate setting than the Oxford or Crossroads fests as it is free of the distractions inherent in a multiplex theater trying to balance regular movie-going patrons with festival attendees. It also has the advantage of allowing every attendee unlimited access to the filmmakers and festival events. I was delighted to discover a press badge was not necessary as everyone mingled and networked out in the open with no VIP lounge, green room or velvet rope in sight. By the conclusion of the weekend, everyone knew each other by name, not just by name tag.
Among the many pleasant surprises at this year’s Tupelo Film Festival, I met filmmakers representing my undergraduate university, my graduate film school and one artist who has deep roots here in Clarksdale…
Brandon Scott Murphree, A Tupelo native whose family originated in Clarksdale, received his training from the Douglas Education Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he studied special effects makeup under the legendary makeup and horror icon, Tom Savini. Brandon provided the makeup work for the short film “The Trader” which screened during the festival’s Crime Short Films Block. His proud mother, Denise McWilliams; his brother, David and grandmother, Linda Carter were all present to show their support.
Cinematographer Bartosz Pawlowski trekked from Toronto, Canada to attend the screening of his film school thesis short “The Trials of Kenneth.” I was pleasantly surprised to learn Bartosz had attended the American Film Institute Conservatory in Hollywood, CA, the same school where I had earned my MFA in Screenwriting. Running into him in a town like Tupelo reminded me of how small the world of filmmakers can be.
Then it suddenly got smaller. Also in attendance was writer/director Juan Francisco de la Guardia who traveled to Tupelo from Dallas to screen his sci-fi/fantasy thriller “I Become Gilgamesh” which won the award for Best Narrative Feature. Juan had recently graduated from Southern Methodist University film school, where I had majored in Cinema as an undergraduate. Producers Chad Windham, Danny Nguyen and the film’s star Gregory Lush (an Ole Miss grad) made the trip as well and no doubt they all went back home feeling like winners.
Prolific filmmaker Daniel Lee of Blue Springs won the Music Video Audience Award for the song “976-Evil” played by his gothic punk band “Astrocasket” who also performed live after the Friday night Horror Block at Goodlett Manor. Some might remember Lee’s poetic short film “Faithfully Departed” at the Clarksdale Film Festival earlier this year.
The hard-working Michael Williams of West Point, whose short werewolf film “Lukos” screened at the Clarksdale Film Fest, appeared at the screening of the same film during the Horror Block. Stars Cameron Spann and Casey Dillard were also in attendance. This film always gets a strong, positive reaction and I expect even more ambitious, high-quality films from Williams in the near future.
“Murderabilia,” my favorite award-winning short film from both the Oxford and Crossroad film fests, screened in Tupelo as well. Producer Michael Usry, writer Ryan Roy and star (also lawyer/sports radio personality) Kevin Broughton attended. Although they did not win an award this time, they were certainly some the most highly complimented filmmakers at the event. Broughton plays intimidating serial killer Gordon Wymms in the film and his chilling performance seems to have a profound effect on the more timid audience members. Despite his friendly and outgoing demeanor, I have witnessed many a festival attendee approach him to congratulate him on his memorable performance, then confess how much he now frightens them in person. Broughton graciously laughs it off, but his next role as a depression-era death row convict in the upcoming short film “Old Oak” will no doubt elicit a similar audience reaction when it premieres in festivals toward the end of the year.
Festival director Pat Rasberry told me one of the inspirational figures she looks up to when planning the Tupelo Film Fest is Clarksdale’s own Juke Joint Music Festival and Clarksdale Film Festival creator, Roger Stolle. She cites Stolle’s ability to create successful festivals out of his own love for music and film as an example that she intends to continue following as she coordinates future Tupelo Film Festivals. So far, I’d say she is doing a fine job.