From Sundance to Spa City: Hot Springs 2023
“Everything old is new again” was the phrase that kept coming to mind during this year’s 32nd edition of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (October 6–14). The first time I attended the Arkansas festival was for the 22nd edition, a much smaller affair. Southern hospitality and charm, it seems, cannot be outgrown in Hot Springs.
That sentiment applied to the inaugural two-day Filmmaker Forum, a refreshingly laidback series of panels and one-on-one meetings that took place at the Arlington Hotel, a nearly 150-year-old structure that has long hosted the “longest-running all-documentary film festival in North America.” The Arlington has also hosted everyone from Al Capone to Hot Springs homeboy Bill Clinton, who ensconced himself and his entourage in a private suite to catch a Razorbacks game the sole year I took the role of Hot Spring’s director of programming, causing a wave of autograph hounds to clear out that afternoon’s screening. What was a bit more unexpected was the widely diverse roster of veteran insiders that appeared onstage and via Zoom to dispense well-earned wisdom to the equally diverse and engaged audiences. With eight in-depth discussions running from morning through mid-afternoon, an emerging documentarian could learn about everything from fact-checking (“Check Your Facts! Fact-checking for Documentary Film,” session three) to multiplatform programming (“Meeting Audiences Where They Are: New Multiplatform Initiatives,” session six).
In “Check Your Facts!” Sky Dylan-Robbins, founder and ED of the Video Consortium, served as moderator for a panel (inspired by IDA and VC’s first Documentary Journalism Summit) featuring the all-star lineup of Marcia Apperson (Associate Director of Standards and Practices at PBS), Sean Lavery (former Head of Fact Checking at the New Yorker who is now back in school at Yale Law), and Andrés Cediel (a Frontline producer behind Rape in the Fields and Rape on the Night Shift). Cediel provided such inspirational aphorisms as “fall in love with your facts” and “dance like everybody is watching” to describe the approach every filmmaker should take—that all involved in the film will eventually see it. Lavery chimed in with advice like leaning into the “uncomfortable or curious.” Apperson suggested building a “truth sandwich” if you choose to include any false statements unintentionally (or intentionally) uttered by a protagonist. The discussion ultimately proved riveting enough to keep a sleepy listener like myself alert even after a nonstop AM followed by an info-filled lunch (titled “Relaxed Fit Luncheon: How to Get Your Doc on PBS with Wendy Linas”).
The just-as-insightful “Meeting Audiences Where They Are: New Multiplatform Initiatives” was moderated by the aforementioned Wendy Linas (Senior Director of Programming and Development at PBS). The panel featured Chloë Walters-Wallace (Director of Regional Initiatives for Firelight Media), Linda Midgett (EP of Louisiana Public Broadcasting), Adam Dylewski (Senior Director, Multiplatform Programming at PBS), and notably Courtney Pledger (CEO of Arkansas PBS and EP of Southern Storytellers and Southern Sounds—and former ED of HSDFF back when I programmed for the fest), and Arkansas native Craig Renaud (the multi-award-winning force behind Southern Storytellers, which he directed, and Southern Sounds, which he EP’d, as well as the sadly defunct Little Rock Film Festival). Though Renaud unfortunately had to participate via audio, he would appear later in the week in person for the packed Southern Storytellers screening and panel, alongside several of the series’ participants. The top-notch festival team had to hastily scramble to bring in extra chairs.
While Walters-Wallace focused mostly on Firelight’s eight-episode series Homegrown, and the importance of funding filmmakers of color from outside hubs like NYC or LA so creatives “don’t have to leave where they live,” Midgett touted LPB’s embrace of French-language programming (La Veille went from 13-minute episodes aired once a week locally to France and Canada). For his part, Dylewski was more concerned with the ins and outs—or perhaps ups and downs—of reaching new audiences. Video podcasts and social video may seem exciting and fruitful, until Elon Musk takes over and PBS steps away. That said, Midgett pointed out that for state-run broadcasters, TikTok has always been social media non grata.
And while Renaud, a self-described long-format storyteller, spoke of his anxiety tackling a broadcast series, I couldn’t help but be hyperaware of another challenge, far greater but left unspoken. Renaud expressed how he had to “maintain a consistent style while being unique enough to serve different purposes” and “change his brain” to accommodate the shorter form. But Southern Storytellers is a Renaud Brothers series, and now, thanks to a Russian ambush at the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, half that partnership is a silent presence—with Brent’s fingerprints on a work he was never able to see to completion. Thankfully, the festival did acknowledge his impressive legacy. Indigenous visual artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka received this year’s Brent Renaud Career Achievement Award alongside a retrospective, which ended up infusing the 32nd edition of the fest with a most unexpected poignancy.
And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the docs themselves—and give a warm shoutout to first-year HSDFF ED Ken Jacobson and the stellar programming team (including senior programmers Robin Robinson and Robert John Torres, and programmer Colleen Thurston). It was quite a thrill to find so many of the films I’d been championing throughout the year, especially unconventional Scandinavian fare such as Maria Fredriksson’s The Gullspång Miracle and Margreth Olin’s Songs of Earth, had made their way to rural Arkansas. In fact, nine of these eclectic selections were in contention for the Critics Jury prize, which I had the honor of serving on alongside Variety’s Peter Debruge and Deadline’s Matt Carey. Though we ultimately went with Tatiana Huezo’s Berlinale hit The Echo, it was nevertheless a tough call. Or as our (Debruge-Carey written) jury statement put it, we were “impressed by the level of innovation and engagement across the board in this year’s competition.” In other words, cinematic nonfiction is alive and well, from Sundance to Spa City.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.