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Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival — Day 1 October 24, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF.
I’m having a bit of a Burning Man experience here: my mind is mildly blown by my introduction into a new world to which I have gained unexpected access. The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, now in its 20th year, is seriously about the documentary genre. All of the film makers are documentarians, documentaries are the principal topic of conversation, and the audience—inhabitants of this middling town in the Ozark Mountains —love documentaries. That’s what blows my mind. For ten days from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. two, sometimes three screens show documentaries simultaneously, and from the shows I’ve been at, they’re well attended, garnering audiences of between 40 and 80 people.
My own screening took place at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. There were 60 to 70 people in the audience. I was part of a program that included a bad short short (6 minutes) and a beautifully shot black-and-white documentary aboutNew York subway performers. The director of the bad short and I fielded questions for a good 15 minutes after the screening, and people continued coming up to me the rest of the day to tell me how much they liked (or wished they had seen) TNB.
The HSDFF is a bit of a shaggy dog, unkempt and extremely lovable. It’s all about the filmmakers and their films. The financial resources are not great, but, this being the South, the hospitality is unparalleled. Filmmakers love coming to this festival. There are parties, workshops, and receptions throughout the week. The festival provides hospitality to broke filmmakers; I’ve been given my own down-at-the-heel condo for the four nights I’m in town. A couple of rooms in the upstairs of “the historic Malco theater” are reserved for filmmakers and well stocked with snacks, refreshments, and even hard liquor. The historic Malco theater itself might be uncharitably described as “old” rather than “historic”: unrenovated, well used, but with two medium sized screening rooms that always have people in them. This year the festival is screening 110 documentaries of various lengths (chosen from over 700 submissions), and each doc receives two screenings.
On any given day there seem to be at least 10 filmmakers in attendance. That’s pretty impressive for such a small film festival. All of us showed up at 6:00 that day in one of the screening room for a visiting filmmakers forum, and we had an audience! The filmmakers range in experience from seasoned pros (one guy from Baltimore worked as a shooter for The Wire) to newbies at their first film festival. And we ended up having a pretty interesting discussion about the documentary as a genre and where it fits in to the current cultural landscape. Love of the genre suffused the room, both in the passion of the filmmakers and the interest of the audience. I was—have I said this before?—blown away. When I am at LGBT or mainstream film festivals, documentaries are usually the stepchildren of the film family. Narrative films are prized above all. Not in Hot Springs. There is a Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute: threadbare offices next to “the historic Malco theater” that operates year ‘round with an archive of 15,000 films.
That evening saw a reception at an art gallery with live music (no tip jar!), lots of delicious food, and the leather art of Winfed Rembert newly installed. More on him later; he was not only in attendance but the subject of a documentary that screened the next day. At the reception I met a woman who works as a physical therapist at the Hot Springs hospital named after my great great uncle, Leo Napoleon Levi. She urged me to call her the next morning so she could arrange for me to be taken around.
I ended the day at a bar hosting a performance of a heavy metal band, Slow Southern Steel, that had been the subject of a documentary screened earlier that evening. Three ear splitting numbers later, I packed it in and called it a night.


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