When pandemic concerns made it clear that Oxford Film Festival (OFF) had to cancel its March 2020 schedule — just days before the annual event was to begin — festival director Melanie Addington set out to ease the pain and frustration of disheartened filmmakers whose work was scheduled to screen at OFF, and to protect the future of what is one of our nation’s most vital regional hubs for truly independent film.
Addington has served OFF in various capacities since 2004, when she signed on as a full time volunteer. She became the festivals executive director in 2015, and manages all aspects of the operation, ranging from programming and filmmaker relations to scheduling events and the festival’s online presence.
This year, she made the 2020 festival’s entire cancelled program completely available to participants and the public by transferring theatrical screenings, Q&As, panel discussions, filmmaker chat sessions, parties and other events — including the awards ceremony — to online platforms, hosting and moderating many of the events herself. Under Addington’s guidance, OFF was one of the first festivals to go virtual, thereby not only promoting its films and filmmakers, but also satisfying the annual event’s expansive community of patrons and supporters.
Additionally, Addington forged alliances with other regional festivals — particularly those that are members of the Film Festival Alliance — to successfully set up an impressive, appealing and affordable roster of online ‘theatrical’ screenings, with revenue from ticket sales to be split between filmmakers and local independent cinemas and art houses that are at risk of permanent closure due to the pandemic.
Furthermore, she introduced actual theatrical screenings for Oxford film fans at a local drive-in, where families and friends could enjoy OFF films and selected classics on the big screen while observing social distancing protocols, and snacking on pizza and other treats delivered to their cars.
True, Addington didn’t achieved all this by herself, and she’d be the last person to claim credit for it. That said, she’s been extraordinarily innovative in problem solving and unfailingly generous in working with others to save the entire regional film festivals network from pandemic disaster.
FOR THE LOVE OF FILM
During her full time tenure at OFF, she’s actually produced several indie films and worked as writer, actor, editor and unsung techie on a dozen others, she’s been a film journalist and critic for local newspapers and online at HammertoNail.com and AWFJ.org’s The Female Gaze, she’s taught film studies at the University of Mississippi, she founded the OxFilm Society to attract and facilitate local film production, she’s served on local film commissions, festival collective coordinating committees and been a juror at dozens of film festivals around the nation.
Addington’s family wasn’t involved in cinema but she discovered and fell in love with movies when she she was a child. “The first movie I remember seeing on the big screen was Popeye when I was four years old.”
“But I really got hooked on movies when I saw Howard the Duck. I tried to understand how adults could say that film was a failure when it was so entertaining. Trying to understand the difference between audience and industry opinion has been a lifelong interest to me because of that film, but at age 9 or 10, I just wanted to know HOW that duck suit worked,” says Addington.
“I loved watching movies, pausing the VCR and rewatching and breaking down scenes, but there was no one in my life to fuel that passion. My family moved a lot, first from Upland, CA, to Indiana and then back to Upland and then to San Diego, then to Minnesota, then to Georgia, then back to California all before I was 20. The only thing I really had as constants were books and movies.”
“My brother died of a brain tumor when I was in the first grade. After that tragedy and with our constant moving, other people felt very temporary to me and hard to connect with, so I withdrew often. Movies kept me going, but I didn’t think about making them until I was 20.”
Addington’s path to her profession hasn’t been direct but in following it, she’s always been driven by her obsessive (that’s her word) love of movies. She was enrolled at Palomar Community College to study education, but found her way into a fun class in film analysis and met a group of equally passionate peers with whom to discuss the movies. “I still remember an in depth conversation about the God shot.” she says.
“And, discovering how printed words can be transformed by a visual artist into powerful images absolutely changed things for me. When I transferred to Cal State San Marcos, I joined the college newspaper to write about film. I became Chief Editor of the paper quickly and realized my love was not in education as much as in film and journalism, and I changed my major to literature and writing, with a minor in Film. My career outlook shifted very rapidly. I had a side job at a coffee shop which was the center of the arts community for our area and found myself surrounded with creative people.”
“Luckily our university had several special guests, one of them was Angela Davis who was a true inspiration. The other was Denise Shaw, producer of the film Bed of Roses. Until I met her, I didn’t fully comprehend that there was even a role for someone like me in the film world. The power of someone who looks like you being in this industry has ALWAYS mattered to me because of this interaction. Without her telling me what a producer did and advising me to just figure out moviemaking, I am not sure my life would have headed in the trajectory it has.” says Addington.
MAKING IT IN MISSISSIPPI
Addington moved to Mississippi intending to attend Ole Miss as a journalism grad student, but wound up earning a Master’s Degree in Higher Education in 2009. But, when she began writing film criticism for the local newspaper, she landed a full time job as a reporter. At the same time, she became a full time volunteer at OFF, working closely with the festival’s volunteer co-directors and learning every aspect of the operation.
“It is there that I found my tribe, meeting with filmmakers from all over and getting to talk to them about movies. One filmmaker in particular, Don Black, who was there as an actor in someone else’s project, called me out for telling him the same idea after a year had passed — about how I wanted to make a movie. He pushed me past my fear barrier and I got actively involved in production,” she continues.
“Another OFF alum who asked for my help with his script moved the production from Kentucky to Oxford where I helped produce. I had no idea what I was doing and learned a LOT of lessons on that set — including how to cope with the director’s poor ethical choices. It was a lot and should have scared me off film sets, but I wanted to understand more so I started volunteering on other projects, getting hired for casting, location scouting, a lot of pre-production work.
A lot of my work was word of mouth and through our Film Office who list opportunities and network for key players in our state. Some work came through attending film festivals. In 2011, I had the opportunity to AD for the first time in Seattle because my OFF friend, film-critic-turned-filmmaker Kim Voynar, asked for help with Bunker. On Kim’s set, I learned a lot that has helped me beyond just how to be a better AD, but also how to use my voice to make sure people listen, which is a skill needed for a lot of things.”
CAREER, COMMUNITY AND CREDO
“I enjoy helping with the initial vision of a film and I think my talents lie in seeing possibilities. While helping others realize their visions, I found myself wanting to try to direct. So I have directed a few shorts with mixed results, and one long form documentary that is currently in process of being turned into a series (fingers crossed).”
“My love of seeing possibilities matches up with running a film festival which is for many of us at the smaller regional level, a passion project that is basically like producing a new film each year. Starting from scratch with no funds and rebuilding over and over.”
OFF currently consumes most of Addington’s time and she hasn’t directed her own film in two years. But she says she gets tremendous personal satisfaction producing OFF’s annual community film project, giving others learning opportunities that she didn’t have when she was younger.
“It’s almost like a test kitchen to support new filmmakers in our community, get their stories told and help train new crew members.” she says. It’s also an enticement for people to come to the festival to see themselves on the big screen. Some who get involved want to become filmmakers, but others want to learn how the puzzle comes together so they can better appreciate the art of film. For me, it is a way to tie together all of the things I love: education, film, community building and producing into one big project.”
ADVOCACY FOR REGIONAL CINEMA
Addington is fiercely committed to promoting regionalism as a critical factor in the independent film movement. During her years at OFF, she’s strengthened the festival’s stature in the Oxford community and strengthened Oxford’s community-wide involvement with film. Win. Win.
“The handful of people who started the festival had a vision that Oxford could be a center for film, as it was for the literary arts. The festival helped shape the culture, and local people began making films, realizing the power of storytelling on film. The University of Mississippi had a program — and still has — called SouthDocs — which began documenting the south, and Southern Foodways Culture began cultivating filmmakers to tell food stories. Then a film minor emerged at Ole Miss, and then a film major. Our festival has been part of a larger collaboration to make filmmaking a vital tool for local storytellers, not just in Oxford, but in many places. When OFF started, there were only four film festivals in the state of Mississippi. Now there are at least a dozen, if not more. I have seen that emerge across the country as film exhibition outside of the tent poles is vital to rural America,” says Addington.
Recognizing the importance of audiences seeing themselves and their own stories on screen, Addington advocates strongly for better representation of women in films helmed by female filmmakers. “There is that magic you feel when you’re completely swept away by a film, enthralled by the characters and story. Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire does that for me. Jane Campion’s Piano does that for me. Lynn Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance does that for me. What is satisfying about their work is their strong voices, but the one movie moment that had particular impact for me was Diane Keaton’s abortion speech in Godfather 2. That was the first time I saw a woman on screen use her voice and really take her power back. For me, in my role as a festival director, I see movies as bridge builders to understanding a larger world outside of your own with the hope of creating more empathy, more dialogue, more understanding.
Consistent with her commitment to helping others, Addington is an activist for inclusion of persons with disabilities. Her advocacy is deeply personal. In 2018, after years of struggling with unexplained (and mistreated) physical difficulties, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She began intensive therapies that counter progression of the disease. Still, there are days when weakness, pain and other physical symptoms prevent her from doing all she wants to do.
“I can’t work on sets the way I used to, not in the heat of Mississippi in the summer. I believe it will greatly impact me as the pandemic unfolds as others go back to film fest travel and I have to wait for a dead vaccine to happen before I can even think of stepping foot on a plane again,” Addington confides.
“But, I am real stubborn. I have a team of doctors and physical therapists and my husband’s really good health insurance. If he loses that, my ability to function will crumble. Because I’m married, I’m unable to receive disability support. so I have to work. So I just navigate the hard days from my couch and the good days take on a much more important meaning.”
Additionally, Addington has experienced discrimination because her disability isn’t one that displays itself, and her special needs are sometimes questioned or denied. She’s keenly aware that her situation is far from unique.
“The festival, when I took over, became 100% physically accessible. We launched a committee this year to make it 100% accessible in other ways that are greatly needed including captioning, ASL interpretation, sensory quiet zones, better access to those who are blind and more. It is a full time commitment and one that should not be ignored by the independent film world. We aren’t there yet and I am making sure to see beyond my own needs to make sure other’s needs are met.” says Addington.
“Disability is one of the last representation-on-film-issues that the studio system must be made willing to consider. I see Crip Camp opening doors to opportunities that were not there in 2019. I so appreciate those who have been doing the hard work such as Reel Abilities and many others well before me and I learn from them daily.”
Addington’s valuable advice to filmmakers and audience members who are disabled is really applicable to all who’ve been marginalized by mainstream moviemaking: “You are valid and important and you should ask for what you need to make sure you are not left out of the room. And, if a door closes, go find a new door, or build a door. Your stories matter.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER: Melanie Addington is an unstoppable cinema activist and advocate. As festival director and programmer, she’s constantly and tirelessly pushing for positive change — for greater diversity and inclusion, better representation of marginalized people, and filmmaking that tells the stories of the various regions and cultures that enrich our American life. She is constantly learning by doing and, in the face of hardship and adversity, she steps up to find and realize solutions. Characteristically, rather than seek the limelight for herself, Melanie Addington illuminates the way for others to progress towards success. She is an iconic filmenista, and AWFJ feels that she truly deserves our SPOTLIGHT recognition. — Jennifer Merin