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The Rejuvenating Effect of Reality: The Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute

By John Lovett

Documentaries seem to have latched onto the public conscience in a big way in recent years, thanks in large part to passionate filmmakers with a message, and liberal, yet discernible venues like the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute

However, the entertainment/education mission of the institute doesn't end with the week-long festival in late October, where nearly 24,000 showed up last year for great films like A Tribe of His Own: The Journalism of P. Sainath (Joe Moulins, prod./dir.), and Horns and Halos (Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, prods./dirs.; David Beilinson, prod.), on renegade publisher Sander Hicks and his struggle to republish the exposé on then-Texas Governor and presidential candidate George W. Bush, Fortunate Son by Arkansan J.H. Hatfield. Along with about 80 other filmmakers from around the world, Ken Burns and Harry Thomason flew in for the festival. Thomason showed a rough-cut version of The Hunting of the President, and Burns screened Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip, before giving encouraging lectures in the filmmaking workshops.

 Highlighting the film institute's education mission is What's Up Docs?, a short film festival in the spring for children. All the local elementary schools get a chance to come. Three smart kids, ranging in age from 5 to12, serve as the screening committee, and many of the films that they choose typically have an environmental message.

It's surely a lot of fun to get out of school and go to the movies as part of class, but the application of these children's films into education doesn't end when the credits roll. Jim Bledsoe, principal of Lakeside Primary in Hot Springs, says he uses What's Up Docs? as a writing tool. His first-grade classes must also write about their favorite film--be it Bush Bikes (David S. Vadiveloo, dir.) from Australia and Journey of the Blob (Bill Maylone, dir.) from Canada--for a grade.

Kerry Lockwood Owen, a communications teacher at Lakeside High School for 17 years, agrees that the documentary format has become more popular in educational curriculums. It's not just about watching documentaries. With today's younger generations being much more adept with technology, filmmaking broadens the curriculum of fine arts and is the future of preserving history, she says. So HSDFI is not only a film library for schools local and out-of-state (Massachusetts Institute of Technology called recently), but it has also set its sites on becoming a minor film school.

Some filmmakers, like Ken Mandel of Dallas, whose most recent film is America's Deadliest Storm: Galveston Island, 1900, have become regulars with the institute. He helps organize weeklong workshops during the festival and was recently flown in to lead a class of high school students through documenting the history of Central Avenue in Hot Springs. The short film was part of an Arkansas Department of Heritage project called Main Streets and was shown in May at the Malco Theater, HSDFI's home base on Central Avenue. Mandel gave the dozen students a tutorial on interview skills, how to operate the cameras on manual, how to use a boom mic, and some basic photography ideas on framing.

"Reaching new audiences and advancing documentaries as an educational tool are primary elements of our vision," HSDFI Outreach Coordinator Karen Simons says. "That is why our institute is focusing on teaching filmmaking through hands-on workshops, more frequent screenings throughout the year in our theater and increased outreach programming aimed at groups and demographics that typically don't participate in our annual festivals."

To further amp up its mission, HSDFI has teamed up with the IDA and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Having started in the early 1990s, HSDFI has gone through a growth spurt in its early teens, and street cred is forging. For the past two years, the institute has hosted the Little Rock leg of the four-city tour of IDA's InFACT Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which helps qualify documentaries for Academy Award consideration.

The institute has also collaborated for the past year with the Hot Springs Music Festival by holding events and screenings for "Symphony Sam," a program that fosters children's interes in classical music with a little cut-out animation and a lot of enthusiasm from tuba professor Kabin Thomas of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Outreach programs also include mini-festivals at Fayetteville and El Dorado, and out of state in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Memphis, Tennessee. When the new Clinton Presidential Library opens in November in Little Rock, HSDFI will be there will another mini-film festival.

On the first Friday of every month, during the Hot Springs Gallery Walk, the institute holds a screening pertinent to the times. In February, for example, HSDFI collaborated with the local NAACP for a screening of Oscar nominee Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks (Robert Hudson, prod.; Bobby Houston, dir.), as well as some short films honoring Black History Month like Boogie Woogie Blues (William Alexander, prod.) and Broken Earth (Roman Freulich, dir.).

The institute fields over a thousand documentary entries each year. The diverse crew of about 30 film buffs from Hot Springs and Little Rock make up the screening committee. There's no political agenda, and no awards are given at this festival. If it's good, it's in. And the filmmakers are well taken care of when they get here. Old Southern hospitality has been a cornerstone of the festival since its inception.

John Lovett, an Arkansas native, is the arts and entertainment writer for The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs, and occasionally takes on freelance assignments when not enjoying the great outdoors.