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Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival 1999

By Timothy Lyons

One of the unique aspects of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is the lack of distraction. The historic district where the Malco Theatre is located runs along side the (country's first) national park, with the famous bathhouse row from the turn of the century. There are souvenir shops, restaurants and some unusual art galleries; but if you're in town for the festival, that's pretty much all you'll have time to do. Two theatres are housed in the Malco, next to the festival office, each seating maybe 300 or so, and I'd bet that 75% of the screenings this past October were sold out, standing room only. And this is for a ten-day festival featuring more than 70 films! Probably half the audience members are from around the country, having arrived in Hot Springs solely to attend screenings and other activities of the festival. A number of these out-of­ towners discovered the festival in its first or second year and haven't missed an offering since. The gracious spirit of the Film Festival invites that kind loyalty and following: this is a casual, sincere lovefest for documentaries, old and new, difficult not to enjoy each and every minute.

Another appeal of the Hot Springs fest is its timeliness. No other festival that I know of has been able to capture the current state of the documentary in such a concise way. The core of the festival, since its inception, has been the previous year's Academy Award® nominees, in short and feature documentary categories, and the winners of the IDA Distinguished Docu­mentary Achievement Awards; these join winning titles from other festivals to make up perhaps half of the offerings. Added to these are submissions invited for selection by an active screening committee from the community whose eclectic tastes and genuine curiosity bring delightful—some­ times, off the wall-pieces; probably a third of the films screened were gathered from more than 400 submissions. Making up the remaining dozen or so films are the retrospectives, "classics" of the documen tary form that the festival organizers simply wanted to rescreen. The result of this mixture is a tremendous sense of the road that the documentary has traveled, where it's now moving and the genuine changes going on in the form itself. The recent introduction of television and cable consideration within the IDA Awards­ and the caveat against these by the Academy-complements the fact that most of the open submissions were "digitally filmed," another indication of how contemporary the selections at Hot Springs actually are.

Given the predominance of Oscar® and IDA Award winners, many of the films screened have already received healthy coverage in the pages of this magazine. I especially enjoyed the chance to see Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center again. This awesome document, from the eyes and ears of Susan Froemke, Bob Eisenhardt and Albert Maysles, seems as complex and inspiring in construction as the edifice it observes. And the short films, threatened now to be disenfranchised from Academy consideration: Terri Randall 's sensitive and humorous portrait of her mother as a December bride (in Daughter of the Bride); Mark Becker's remarkable presentation of an eight-year-old jazz/ blues guitarist in Jules at Eight; the heart­ warming, life-affirming take on some senior citizens in the chorus line, Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, from Andrea Blaugrund and Mel Damski; the haunting memories of a peaceful, uncomplicated rural America evoked in The Burning Barrel, by Tim Schwab and Christina Craton; and Chris Sheridan's Walk This Way, an irreverent documentary on the filmmaker's adjustment to life with a wheelchair. As with so many of the other shorts shown at Hot Springs, these that I've mentioned draw strength from an honest and heartfelt commitment to the subject(s) in front of the camera, a com­pelling quality of the short documentary.

One might expect some conservatism in a festival held in the heartland, with a spectre of Bible-thumping fundamental­ism pervading the selections. Not so—in fact just the opposite. Tim Kirkman's Dear Jesse evoked gales of laughter as the gay filmmaker probed the politics of Senator Jesse Helms; choking that laughter was the realization that the Senator's tirades can actually deprive human beings of life itself. William Glazecki's Waco: The Rules of Engagement offered little comfort to those of us seeking some security and confidence in our elected officials. The harshness and inhumanity of prison life, as detailed in The Farm from Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, questioned the enlightenment of the society in which we're living. The continuing struggles in the Israeli­ Palestinian conflict (Simcha Jacobvici's Deadly Currents) and the daily violence in Notthern Ireland (A Leap of Faith, from Jennifer McShane and Tricia Reagan) joined such issues as the exploitation of female models (Katari na Otto's Beautopia) , the struggles by "at risk" youths (Michele Ohayon 's Colors Straight Up) and the desperate situation for health care in developing nations (Donka, X-Ray of an African Hospital, from Thierry Michel and Christine Pireaux). Focus on controversial subjects so peculiar to the documentary heritage was widely in evidence at the festival.

Two themes in the works featured at Hot Springs 1998 were topics receiving important consideration in more recent films. The struggle for civil rights in America was provoca­tively explored in a screening of two films back-to-back: King, A Filmed Record: From Montgomery to Memphis (1970), by Richard Kaplan, and At the River I Stand (1994), by Steven J. Ross, David Appleby and Allison Graham, a detailed look at the strike in Memphis that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to that city. Kaplan 's film, produced by Eli Landau, restricts itself to newsreel footage only, 1955-68, to compile a totally factual portrait of the public life of Dr. King. The contemporary retrospective by Ross/Appleby/ Graham, however, offers back ground on the 1968 strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, resulting in his assassination. Elsewhere on the program, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls chronicles the personal horror of the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church; producer/editor Sam Pollard was on hand for a discussion after the screening of this Academy Award ®-nominated feature, as was the case the majority of films screened. Some uplifting works on related topics were: Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, Sandra Hubbard's study of the events of 1957-58 in Little Rock, Arkansas; Work Will Win, a history of the Fargo Agricultural School, 1919-49, a private boarding institution providing vocational and academic training for rural Black youths; Gandy Dancers: The Last of the Southern Black Railroad Crews, by Robert C. Dinwiddle and Maggie Hotzberg­ Call; and Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson, a tribute to the legendary blues singer from the 1930s, by Peter Meyer. Not far from this topic was the issue of gays and lesbians struggling for their rights, detailed in All God's Children, celebrating a Black church for gays and lesbians, by Frances Reid, Dr. Silvia Rhue and Dee Mosbacher; and the definitive 1991 documentary from Arthur Dong, on gays and lesbians in the military (Coming Out Under Fire).

The other theme of note at Hot Springs was one that simply doesn't go away. The American experience in Vietnam is a wound not easily healed, an infection seemingly in remission that can suddenly erupt and discomfort so many. One approach to deal with this national trauma is Donna Dewey's A Story of Healing, last year's Oscar winner for documentary short. Her film focuses on a visit by American physicians to Vietnam, an incursion of far more benefit than that of thirty years ago. Similar is Vietnam­—Long Time Coming, from Jeny Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert and Gordon Quinn: while not shown at Hot Springs, this recent feature documents an exhausting 16-day, 1,100 mile bicycle expedition from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, with many participants having been physically disabled during the Vietnam War.

During that era, entertainer Connie Stevens had joined the tours of Bob Hope to support the American servicemen in that part of the world. Mr. Hope of course was known as a vocal hawk on Vietnam, and—one assumed—so were his cohorts on the tours. Now, thirty years later, Stevens has returned to Vietnam, with a two-person camera crew and 100 women veterans, most of them former nurses, to revisit the scenes of their haunting, troubling memories. What is so clear from this intimate voyage is the hell these women experienced, not just in the Board Members before th horrors of the M*A*S*H—like operating rooms, but in the ordeal of explaining to farruly and friends back home what it was like, what they had been through. There was a single moment that for me served as hall mark of the spirit running throughout Stevens's A Healing: Dedicated to the Women Who Served in Vietnam: an Asian-American woman is sitting in the back of a bus, traveling through the Vietnamese countryside, and telling Stevens about how difficult it was to explain to family members what the wartime experience was really like: emotionally overwrought, the woman breaks down into tears, saying to Stevens, "See? No one would listen. They couldn't listen!" and Stevens very gently, with obvious sincerity, simply responds off-camera, "I'll listen."

This moment of respectful support, without judgment but with obvious sympathy, is a quality that Stevens herself injects throughout the film and it allows A Healing to avoid any discussion about the morality of our incursion into Vietnam—a conclusion made in clear-cut negative terms by Barbara Sonnebom's Regret to Inform, a 1998 IDA Award winner and a solid contender for an Oscar this year, not shown at Hot Springs. As with the recent critically-acclaimed Return with Honor, by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, Connie Stevens's A Healing favors the individual over the politics, suggesting that the tortured memory and the damaged soul of a human being are what need our concern, rather than laying blame on the immoral judgments of aging politicians. Mock and Sanders's film, dealing with testimonies from former prisoners of war, also recalls Werner Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an IDA Award winner this past November but not screened at Hot Springs in 1998: both films avoid any John Wayne patriotism other than the obvious presentation of courage, loyalty and endurance; Dieter Dengler, the P.O.W. subject of Herzog's film announces, "I am not a hero... the only heroes are dead." Special guest of the festival, historian Erik Barnouw, weathered the entire ten days of screenings, and presented the retrospective of Pare Lorentz films—Nuremberg, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River—classics that have been packaged (with Lorentz's Fight for Life) by IDA for home video and public perform ance sale.

The 8th Hot Springs festival will be held October 8-17, 1999, and deadline for submission is April 30. Forms are available online (www. or by calling 501-321-4747. A new executive director will be shepherding activities for the 1999 fest: Edwina Fraley, former executive director of the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas, with an extensive background in events, promotions and management, comes to Hot Springs from Houston and Edwina Fraley will join President Lorraine Benini and Chairman Jerry Tanenbaum developing what is rapidly becoming the major U.S. spotlight for documentaries.


TIMOTHY J. LYONS is the Editor of International Documentary.