An audience chatters, munching on buttery popcorn and sipping delicious soda when the lights begin to dim.
As images flicker across the silver screen and sound ignites the aisles, an electricity fills the air. Mystery meets majesty, as if anything can happen.
Movies are the memories of our lifetime, and there is almost no better place to form these memories than at a film festival. A communal viewing environment, where films are often experiencing their first or second runs, forcing audiences to leave their expectations at the door.
Preparing for its 20th year, the Oxford Film Festival welcomes new executive director Matt Wymer, bridging the past, present and future, with the aim of leaving this year’s audience with plenty of lasting movie memories.
Wymer began working in earnest with the Oxford Film Festival in 2015, both as a volunteer and as a red-carpet interviewer, but his love of film, as well as his fervor for filmmaking, began years earlier.
“My dad was a VCR repairman, so we always had electronics … we were always on the edge of technology and movies were a big part of that,” Wymer said.
From his mother taking him to see “Return of the Jedi” as a baby to experimenting with his BetaMax home video recorder as a teenager, cinema and artistic expression became an integral part of Wymer’s everyday life, a sanctimonious ritual.
During his high school years, Wymer found this passion for the arts often funneling directly through the HOKA, an eclectic and charming communal space open in Oxford from 1976-1996. His place of worship, so to speak.
The HOKA, founded by the late-great Oxford legend Ron Shapiro, served as part coffee house, part theater, part restaurant and part music venue, welcoming customers with a sign that humorously read, “Sorry, we’re Open.”
Many notable names, from novelist Kurt Vonnegut to Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s Magazine, drifted through the HOKA during its two-decade run, sharing unique stories of their respective professions, as well as insights into the arts and culture scene at large.
To Wymer, these pivotal interactions served as both a breath of fresh air and familiar, as well as familial, territory.
“I come from a long line of storytellers,” Wymer said. “Everyone at my family reunions is always talking at the same time.”
While the HOKA was forced to shut its doors near the turn of the century, the Oxford Film Festival opened its doors a mere few years later.
With the help of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and founders Neil White and Elaine Abadie, the Oxford Film Festival sought to expand the artistic scene in North Mississippi, serving as an almost direct companion (and, in some ways, direct competition) to the Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville, Mississippi.
As Wymer entered the University of Mississippi, vacillating between the theater department and southern studies department, he also became one of the first in line for Oxford’s newest artistic enterprise, with the film festival commencing in 2003.
This widespread support of the arts remains the driving force behind Wymer’s career trajectory.
“I know art doesn’t immediately scream ‘help your community,’ but it creates jobs. It can be used to relieve anxiety and other therapeutic purposes,” Wymer said. “It’s very important to support the arts.”
Within this trajectory, Wymer found himself working as an audio engineer, traveling in an out of Oxford and exploring the rich history of Mississippi.
Concurrently, the Oxford Film Festival became its own piece of state history, transforming into an independent non-profit organization in 2008.
“The fact that we are a non-profit that is able to support our community is great,” Wymer said. “And as an arts non-profit in the state of Mississippi, making it 20 years is a big deal.”
Throughout the previous decade, Wymer worked on-and-off with the festival, before eventually becoming a year-round programming director in 2019.
Through the position, he sought to expand OxFilm’s overall reach, harkening back to his nights spent at the HOKA.
In many ways, film serves as the ultimate artform, a collaboration between individuals and coalescence of art, literature, music, poetry, etc., making Wymer an ideal fit to transition into the role of executive director.
While primarily focused on the annual spring festival, this reach also involved expanding OxFilm into a year-round institution, appealing to children and adults alike.
“We are actively trying to change our approach to make the festival experience, the cinema experience something more accessible to everybody,” Wymer said.
For example, the organization recently partnered with the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation and Coolidge Theater to present the “Science on Screen” series, expanding its educational opportunities for all ages.
“The series allows us to pair a feature film with a scientific speaker to help promote moviegoing and celebrate STEM,” Wymer said.
The “Science on Screen” series joins OxFilm’s highly popular community drive-in screenings, as well as youth summer film programs to round out an arsenal of year-long artistic fare.
As for the future of OxFilm, Wymer aims to partner with other local non-profits to keep these opportunities alive, programming with audience in mind first and, in turn, maintaining his childlike fervor for the arts.
“Go out and see live music. Go see a comedy show. Go see your friend’s independent film,” Wymer said. “The arts in all forms make life worth living.”
More information on the Oxford Film Festival, occurring March 1-5, can be found on its website.