Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incompletely described the UM Theatre & Film Department as the UM theatre department. It also should have reported that all four of the founders of Deer Run Media are former students of Alan Arrivée, not just one of the founders.
When most people think about film and Ole Miss, they think of “The Blind Side.” But for high school and college students in Oxford, there is an opportunity for them to showcase their work in this fall’s UM Cinema Festival until they can create their own blockbuster hits.
The film festival’s development is one of the many aspects of the theatre & film department’s growth on campus. Two years ago, the encompassing department was simply called theater arts, but has since changed to theatre and film. In addition to growing the theatre & film department, a new cinema-related major, B.F.A. in film production, was introduced in 2018.
The major is headed by Alan Arrivée, a professor who has been at the university since 2010. He created the original version of the UM Film Festival, called an Evening of Cinema, during his first year at Ole Miss. While there was just a handful of students at that event, one of the films went on to win a prize at the Oxford Film Festival.
Since then, the UM Film Festival has expanded with help from assistant professors Sarah Hennigan and Harrison Witt, the latter of whom was particularly involved the year prior. Arrivée said that approximately 300 people were in attendance last fall.
The free event will be held Oct. 11-12 at Fulton Chapel, where short films created by university students, faculty, and alumni will be shown. The one-minute film competition will be making a comeback, which is also open to high school students. The second day will include two workshops and panels, including founders of the production company Deer Run Media, who are Ole Miss graduates. All of the founders took classes with Arrivée.
Alex Watson, research and instruction librarian at the J.D. Williams library, has been involved with the theatre & film department for years.
“One of the great things about having the cinema program here is that we got a practical way (for students) to act on what they learn, in the form of the films that they make,” Watson said.
Cray Pennison is a senior English major with a minor in film, and he went to one of the festival events as a part of his introduction to cinema studies course. He was surprised by how professional some of the films were.
Pennison loved discussing and analyzing the submissions with friends and fellow audience members; a high school film about “giant juice” was particularly memorable.
“The way they did camera angles, it looks like one of them is a giant standing on the football field,” said Pennison. “And in part of the end scene, he leans down to give a dude a high five…they had to fiddle with some movie magic to make it seem realistic, in a sense.”
Extending the competition to high schoolers offers them a way to become involved with Ole Miss cinematography and potentially kickstart their ambitions.
Watson said he has been impressed by how efficiently the theatre & film department has been able to take the basic elements of the major and minor and create a fully functioning film festival. He explained that in most other colleges’ film programs, undergraduate students are not given access to many materials or resources.
“You have to be a senior or even a graduate to get any studio time,” Watson said. “We’re moving to change that.”
The film and theatre department will also be gaining a new space at the South Oxford Center, the former Baptist memorial hospital that has been bought by the university. The new location will include two sound stages, one for production and one for teaching, a sound recording sector built to industry standards, and editing lab and suites, totaling to about 7,000 square feet, according to Arrivée.
Watson was given a tour before renovations and was able to see the location of the first-floor studio as well as the morgue that is being restructured into a green room, which is a lounge for performers before and after their events.
“We went in to see morgue, and there was a little billboard with a bunch of scarecrows on it, and it said ‘happy harvest’.” According to Watson, “that place is haunted as heck.” Which is in perfect spirits for the festival’s annual Halloween proximity.
Pennison said that while the cinema scene may have once been underground, the growth of the academic department has helped evolve passion into skillset and establish greater interest among the student body.
Arrivée hopes that the growth of theatre & film department and associated events will inspire a true film identity in Mississippi. “I think the real transition, when it won’t be something lacking identity, will be when things are made from the ground up,” he said.
Watson said that while he thought people like film, he worries that people think they can’t be a part of film. “Giving people more opportunities to interact with (film), both as majors and minor but also as participants — going to the film festival, or knowing about the studio space, or chilling in the green room that used to be the morgue — I think that will bring it to the forefront,” Watson said.