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The Hot Springs Documentary Festival

By David Haugland

This is a completely biased festival report: I really like the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Any film festival where I can 1) get in to see three or four documentaries a day without standing in line at 6 a.m., 2) meet and talk with filmmakers and other interesting people, 3) eat well, and 4) have a little time left for hedonist pleasures is my kind of festival. Hot Springs hits the mark on all of the above and more. Read on.

Sometime last summer, I got a telephone call from Marlys Moodie, Filmmaker Relations Coordinator for Hot Springs, inviting me to attend the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in mid­ October. Now, I've known Marlys for a few years, having first attended Hot Springs as a filmmaker with my documentary, Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, so I was looking forward to a return visit. This time, how­ever, I was being invited to represent IDA.

It didn't take me long to accept the invitation to Hot Springs. There are a number of exceptional qualities about this small mountain town in Arkansas. The Documentary Film Festival is one whose reputation grows exponentially every year. (Another is the shoot out on main street; but you have to go there to hear that story!) Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Hot Springs Festival is that it focuses solely on the documentary form. And this year more than 60 films were featured in 9 days of screenings from October 11 to 19. While documentaries are screened in both film and video, all are shown in a duplex theater, The Malco, which will soon become the home of the parent organization of the festival, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute.

While the festival is only 6 years old, the community has its sights set high and intends to use the Documentary Festival as a centerpiece for year-round educational and entertainment activities related to film. This year, for example, the festival included inter­national programming, humanities forums, experimental programming and a lecture series along side the screening program. In the future, there are plans to completely renovate the Malco Theater to house the Festival, Institute staff and programs, and to serve as a center for documentary film in Arkansas.

This year Hot Springs opened with a tribute to Vittorio De Seta, showcasing several of his short documentaries. Mr. De Seta, one of Italy's internationally-renowned documentary filmmakers, attended two screenings and discussed his work about the lives of Sicilian and Sardinian fisherman and shepherds with audiences.

Programming at Hot Springs since its inception has been from two sources: the current year's Academy Award® short and feature documentary nominees and the IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award-winning films. With these twenty-some films as a solid curatorial base, other documentaries are selected from literally hundreds of submissions that begin in late spring each year. The screening committees work for months as at any other festival to program films which will both entertain and inform a growing audience for documentaries.

The festival programs a full range of documentaries, including biographic, historical, natural history, personal, performance and art films. The films are predominantly from North America, but foreign documentaries are becoming an emerging presence. This year's program included a wide spectrum of both short and feature length documentaries on subjects of interest to adults, young people and children.

Hot Springs does not shy away from films which may be controversial. This year Dorothy Fadiman returned to Hot Springs with the third film in her series about abortion, The Fragile Promise of Choice: Abortion in the U.S. Today.

Blue-Eyed, a film by German filmmaker (and IDA member) Bertram Verhaag, is a piercing look at the confrontational tactics taken by retired Michigan school teacher Jane Elliott as she trains corporate employees about discrimination. Another film on racism, Blood in the Face, goes inside the Ku Klux Klan and Posse Comi­atus to examine the views of people whose goal is to transform North America into one Aryan nation.

Another view of prejudice, Out at Work by Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson, chronicles three stories of lesbians and gay men fighting for their jobs when discriminated against in the workplace. Gay issues inside the schoolhouse are examined in It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in Schools by IDA member Deborah Chasnoff.

Women were well represented in this year's festival. Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed, Mary Baker Eddy: Soul of a Wom­an, Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse and The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl all capture the influence, grace and power of women during this century.

Mandela, The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story, Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism, I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs and Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant Garde were among the films screened which focused on the men of this century.

Taking on life and death, the festival programmed Before You Go: A Daughter's Diary by Nicole Betancourt, where she tells the story of her father's approaching death from AIDS. IDA member Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien explores the unique world of a poet-journalist who lives in an iron lung. And for good measure, there was Paul Davids' Timothy Leary's Dead.

Add to these films others about East Indian potters, a high school basketball team, teenage freight-train riders, gospel choirs and cowgirls on the women's rodeo circuit and you end up with more than five dozen documentaries filling nine days in a delightful community.

While I admit to seeing as many as four films a day during my brief visit to Hot Springs, I also took advantage of the local hospitality. I arrived with a friendly volunteer who had met me at the Little Rock airport, just in time to attend the annual reception for filmmakers at The Art Foundation. This party is legendary for the gracious hospitality of celebrated local artist Benini and the current President of the Festival Lorraine Benini; the extraordinary buffet was served in the Beninis' spacious downtown loft.

Documentary filmmakers love delicious food and this reception never disappoints. By the time I had arrived, Anne Belle and Catherine Tambini, Dorothy Fadiman and Richard Kaplan, Nick Redman and Jessica Yu were all getting a generous helping of Hot Springs hospitality from the patrons and documentary buffs attending. In fact, one of the first people I met at the sumptuous buffet was fellow IDA board member John Mason, attending the festival on behalf of Eastman Kodak. We didn't chat long, though: he was off to another screening. These social gatherings are a great time to talk about films but just as importantly, it's here where one learns about Hot Springs and gets recommendations for non-film activities. It's important to find out which massage therapists are recommended, and back row: Nick Redman, which bath house is in favor. Remember, this is HOT Springs. The natural springs here are world famous and what documentarian worth his/her salt doesn't enjoy the stress release of being pampered at a festival, and a good mineral bath and massage?! (When you attend you will learn the secret of the Arlington's late night open air hot tub.)

October is a beautiful time of year in Arkansas, and anyone attending the Festival would be remiss not to take in a bit of the National Forest in which this town is built. There are literally hiking paths just across the street from the Arlington Hotel which is "home" to filmmakers during the Festival. The leaves had not yet begun to tum during my visit, but the clear, crisp fall air made morning walks and delicious breakfasts at the Pancake House a great strut to each clay.

On Friday evening, the board of directors hosts another informal party for the filmmakers at a local pub. This event is casual, with people stopping in before and after screenings. This year it was held next door to The Malco, so that filmmakers could rush back to conduct a post-screening Q&A and audiences cou ld continue infor­ mal conversations with filmmakers from previous screenings.

This year's honorary chairperson was actress Geraldine Chaplin. Ms. Chaplin attended the entire week of activities. She made Saturday morning a highlight of the week with a screening of The Unknown Chaplin, the three-part documentary about Charlie Chaplin produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for British television. Ms. Chaplin hosted the screening and talked with the over-capacity audience. Her dedication to documentaries was unabashed in her remarks following the screening and later that evening during the annual gala banquet saluting the filmmakers.

By the time the Saturday evening banquet rolled around, I felt I had been adopted by another home town. The filmmakers and I passed one another quickly as we went from conversation to con­versation with recently made, life long friends! And while the food, entertainment and cordiality were delightful, this festival actually likes to listen to its filmmakers!

After welcomes and remarks from Festival Chairman Jerry Tanenbaum and President Lorraine Benini, the podium was turned over to the filmmakers. During this open mike, Ms. Chaplin and each of the attending filmmakers took a few moments to reflect on the Festival. Every time I hear documentarians speak, I am impressed with how articulate, concise and funny we can be! If the proliferation of cable continues exponentially, there may some day be a documentary comedian network.

Sunday morning arrives too early for the filmmakers as well as for our hosts. But there is another tradition in Hot Springs—the Sunday debriefing between the board and the filmmakers during—you guessed it—brunch. I believe this was the only time I saw Executive Director Patricia Dooley sit down during my visit, and that was because she was taking notes on comments from the visiting filmmakers.

From the programming to the care and feeding of filmmakers, Hot Springs has a good thing going. Also a success on their hands. This year the audience for the festival surpassed 12,000 people. Congratulations to everyone involved for having put Hot Springs and documentaries on the map together with an exceptional Documentary Film Festival.

(P.S. On my way back to the airport, we made a short detour to enjoy one last taste of hospitality: Jim Williams's home-made pecan pancakes served at his stone cottage carved into the mountainside. I 'm looking forward to returning to the Hot Springs Documentary Festival again real soon!)


DAVID HAUGLAND is an Academy Award-nominated.filmmaker whose work includes films made in China, Latin America, South Africa and the U.S. His work includes documentaries, music videos, nature programs, television movies and dramatic feature films. He serves as President of the International Documentary Association.