A RiverRun success story

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem State University graduate Alece Oxendine stands on the red carpet at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Oxendine, who earned her master in film studies at Columbia University, credits the RiverRun International Film Festival with inspiring her to pursue a career in film. (courtesy photo)

You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost. — Martha Graham

Alece Oxendine’s life story might not be the stuff of a Hollywood movie or even compelling subject matter for a small, independent film, at least not yet. Oxendine’s story, however, offers a testament to the power of art, specifically film festivals, to capture the imagination and change the course of a life.

In the spring of 2008, Oxendine was a senior studying at Winston-Salem State University. Weeks away from graduation, Oxendine was approached by Chevara Orrin, the school’s interim business director, about working as a juror on the RiverRun International Film Festival.

Oxendine said she jumped at the chance to serve on the short films jury, which selects winners in both live action and animated categories.

During the festival, Oxendine attended a panel discussion hosted by film festival directors, and she was struck by the thunderbolt. In a flash of inspiration, Oxendine knew her path in life. She could envision herself running a prestigious film festival like Sundance or Cannes or even RiverRun one day. The fire was ignited.

“RiverRun really put me on the right path,” Oxendine said. “If it wasn’t for Chevara Orrin opening that door for me before I even really knew what a film festival was, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“It was so cool — being in a room with people in the industry,” she continued. “Having that interconnectivity with the community was really important to me. It really changed my life; I can honestly say that.”

Upon graduation from Winston-Salem State, Oxendine was accepted into Columbia University’s film studies program. Once Oxendine made the move to New York and began studying film at the prestigious Ivy League school, her inner flame continued to grow in intensity.

The international flavor of Columbia’s Master of Arts program captured Oxendine’s attention. She is fluent in French and Spanish and boasts a deep love of African cinema. Oxendine’s diverse background should serve her well as she works toward her goal of landing a job as a film festival programmer and eventually, executive director.

“Film is an international medium so learning a different language puts you in a different realm of programming,” she said. “I really respect programmers who are not afraid to go into the depths of another country and find gems that others are afraid to find. You can find some amazing cinema around the world and you can also find some amazing cinema in your backyard; you just have to do a little digging.”

Oxendine got her first taste of festival programming during her internship at Film Society of Lincoln Center, which runs the New York Film Festival. During the festival, Oxendine routinely worked 14-hour days but didn’t mind the long hours.

“The people that I met that year — Yoko Ono, Clint Eastwood, Mike Lee — you go home every day with a smile on your face,” she said. “Even though it’s hard work, it’s so much fun. Festivals are where films come alive — you just connect with people and that’s what really drew me to film festivals and it all started at RiverRun.”

Oxendine’s experience at Cannes last year solidified her decision to pursue a life in film.

“When you’re at Cannes you live, eat and breathe cinema,” she said. “One of the things I love is that if you attend a screening everyone gets a chance to walk the red carpet; everyone there is a part of the whole film experience.”

On Thursday, Oxendine will return to the place where it all began — the RiverRun International Film Festival, which runs through Sunday. While back in her home state, Oxendine will return to Durham to see friends and family. Perhaps she’ll enjoy a quiet moment or two to reflect on all that has happened since that fateful day three years ago.

Oxendine can surely look back over the arc of her life and see that everything has happened exactly as it was supposed to. Her first love was acting, but by the age of 12, she realized she just didn’t have the natural talent to pursue the craft. By age 14, Oxendine found herself directing Reginald Rose’s classic play, 12 Angry Men while studying at Durham School of the Arts.

Still, Oxendine struggled to find her niche. She wanted to be a film director but realized she lacked the patience. As she neared the end of her undergraduate days at WSSU, she discovered her dream was waiting for her all the time.

“It wasn’t that long ago and to accomplish so many things in three years is an amazing thing,” she said. “Sometimes I sit back and say ‘Wow, this is my life.’” And what a wonderful life it is.