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Hot Springs, Arkansas November 24, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF, Travel Dispatches.
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Hot Springs postcard


What was the first land reserved by the federal government for the protection of a natural resource? If you answered Yosemite (1862) or Yellowstone (1872), you’d be wrong. In 1832 the federal government set aside undefined parcels of land to protect a hot springs in the Ozark Mountains that puts out over 700,000 of odorless water a day.

I’m going to date myself here, but those of a certain generation will remember a really stupid TV show from the 1960s called The Beverly Hillbillies.

Come and listen to a story of a man named Jed.

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is . . . black gold . . . Texas tea.

And so the stereotype of the American rube, the Ozark Arkie, became forever enshrined in American popular culture. I’ve never visited the Ozarks, so I don’t know how distorted the popular conception is, but I can tell you from the four days I spent in Hot Springs for their annual documentary film festival that this town doesn’t adhere to my preconceptions of fundamentalist fear and prognathous facial features. But, because of its history as a spa town, Hot Springs, I suspect, has always been a slightly bluer enclave in a deeply red portion of the country.

Bath House Row

Much of the downtown area is a national park. After the original inhabitants, the Quapaw Indians, generously ceded the land to the United States (no doubt preferring some inhospitable Western reservation in return), the hot springs area was taken over by the federal government in 1832. Up until the late 20th century, federal oversight was lax, and the remarkable springs were commercially exploited in the chaotic and colorful ways of 19th and early 20th century capitalism. The town of Hot Springs grew from a raw frontier outpost, to “sophisticated” European spa wannabee, to Ozark Babylon and gambling haven (a gangster museum celebrates that piece of its heritage), to its current incarnation as a local arts center, camping Mecca, and tacky tourist destination. Although the wonderful 20th century buildings of Bathhouse Row have been preserved, taking the waters is but a minor activity.

The vulgar tourist dimension was visible enough, but since I was there as a guest of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, I had a chance to see the town’s artsy side. And the physical setting is beautiful: tree-covered hills turning into the reds and golds of fall. The National Park service makes sure that the historic bath houses are properly maintained and has turned one of them into a museum of 19thcentury bathing practices, a confounding combination of upper-class fantasy, quackery, and medical practice.

Bathhouse skylight


Oddly enough, I have a family connection to this resort town in the Ozarks: a hospital is named after my paternal great great uncle, Leo N. Levi. (Nobody current knew what the “N” stood for.) Old World Jews were familiar with the idea of spas as places of healing, and both the wealthy and the poor came to Hot Springs in the early 1900s for extended stays. The local Jewish community (now much diminished) was overcome with requests for housing and transportation, so the B’nai B’rith stepped in, authorizing the construction of a hospital facility in 1910. Its illustrious president, Leo N. Levi, had died of a heart attack six years earlier, and the hospital that finally opened its doors in 1914 bore his name.

Hot Springs is a large town, but it’s still a town, and the vaunted six degrees of separation are reduced to two, or at most, three. When I told the film festival volunteer who picked me up at the airport of my family connection, she had her friend, Donna Casparian, who works there, contact me at a reception the evening of that same day. The next morning, I was given the grand tour of Levi Hospital by its CEO, Patrick McCabe.

As you might guess from the CEO’s name, Levi Hospital has drifted away from its Jewish roots. Although there are still Jewish memorabilia in various spots (mezeuzot, a menorah in the window of the old front entrance), I had to explain to this Scotch Irish descendent that the year 5763 inscribed as the erection date referred to the Jewish calendar. With typical Southern hospitality, Patrick, on short notice, took almost two hours out of his schedule to show me around, treated me to lunch at the modest hospital cafeteria, provided me with documents relating to the hospital’s history, and gave me a thin hardback book on the topic as well as a paper weight.

Busted with my great great uncle, Leo N. Levi

As for the family connection, you will see a picture of me with the bust of my great great uncle. [Leo and me.] Also the same multi-generational family portrait of the Levi patriarch, Abrahahm (Victoria, TX), which I had framed for my stairwell also hangs in the hospital meeting room. Other than that, not much.

In 2003, motivated by curiosity about the Texas branch of my family (my father never talked about our Texas relatives), I took a trip to San Antonio, Victoria, Galveston, and Houston to do some research in the local libraries. On the Levi side of things, Uncle Leo is far and away the most prominent of my ancestors.  Though his father was a typical Jewish-merchant-turned-banker, Leo was sent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to be turned into an American gentleman. It worked. Even though he remained Jewish, Uncle Leo hewed closely to the model of American cultural and business success. (His classmate, writer Thomas Nelson Page, based the character of the noble Jew, Wolfert, on Levi.) He settled in Galveston as a prominent lawyer when that town was the biggest and most important in Texas. Elected national president of B’nai Brith in 1900, Levi moved to New York in that year, thereby missing the hurricane that still counts as the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. (some 2500 dead).

Part of Uncle Leo’s fame stemmed from his windy gifts as a Victorian orator. In a time when public speaking was considered a form of entertainment, Levi’s prose was particularly orotund. I have in my possession an 1879 letter that Leo wrote to his sister, Rosa, upon learning that she was betrothed to the San Antonio merchant, my great grandfather, Moses Haas. And I quote: “… it is natural that I should rejoice when one so near to me as you are has entered the radiant avenue that leads to the temple of Hymen; and I am the more disposed to rejoice at the step you have taken, when I reflect that your chosen spouse is one so eminently fitted to make your life a long succession of happy days.”

Top that, Kanye West!


Such was one of the slogans used to promote the city. But Uncle Sam was a racist. African Americans had to open up their own baths in 1905 because they had no access to the waters otherwise. However, they were extensively used in their familiar menial capacity. And, for those yearning for the pleasures of Jim Crow service, you can still have that experience at the Buckstaff Baths. (Pun intended?) This was an aspect of Southern tourism I couldn’t pass up.

Bathing has sadly fallen out of fashion in Hot Springs. Only two bath houses are currently in operation, one modern one (been there, done that) and the Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912 – hasn’t been upgraded since then either.

The Buckstaff opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 3:00 p.m. Strange hours, but if you want to avoid the crowd, you have the option of going really early. I arrived around 8:30 on a Monday morning and had the place to myself. And it was an odd experience. After dropping off my valuables at the front reception, I was led to an area of small dressing rooms, also with lockers. The Black dressing room attendant then took me back to the bath area where I placed under the care of Jim (!), an older Black man who shepherded me through the various stages of the Traditional Bathing Package ($68) without ever meeting my eyes. I was given towels with which to drape myself, but since the bathing areas are sex segregated, nudity was clearly the norm. The bathing area itself was out of another era: white small-tiled floor, stalls with marble dividers but no doors, iron tables, everything rusty and careworn but spotlessly clean. Everything white white white except for the attendants.

I began with a whirlpool soak in a clawfoot bathtub, made to drink a few cups of the water to demonstrate its lack of mineral taste. At the end of 20 minutes, Jim came with my purchased loofah and scrubbed me down: arms, back, legs. I knew better than to attempt conversation. I was then led to the stall where I enjoyed my sitzbath and an unimpeded view (no doors, as I said) of the bathing area. On to the needle shower, a Jules Verne-looking set of pipes that peppered my body with thin sprays. More drying off, then Jim wrapped me in hot towels as I lay supine on a table. By this time I was ready to give up on the cultural anthropology and just submit to the hedonism of the experience.

After the towel wrap, Jim led me to another part of the building where the massage rooms were located. My masseur was an interesting and voluble émigré from Roumania. I turned a 20-minute massage into a 30-minute one by simply getting him to talk about his life story. I had now left the traditional South and was back in familiar multi-culti territory.


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

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF.
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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.

A Slew of Video Acceptances September 8, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF, ImageOut (Rochester LGBT), Pittsburgh Gay and Lesbian FF.
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picture of film festival laurel leaves

My latest video, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s,” has garnered a bunch of acceptances on the film festival circuit lately. Film festivals tend to bunch up in the fall and spring. I knew the film would do well, and the early spate of acceptances has justified my optimism. As of this writing, the video has been accepted in the following film festivals:

  1. Outflix (Memphis Gay and Lesbian Film Festival)
  2. Pittsburgh Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
  3. Northern Louisiana Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Shreveport)
  4. Austin Gay Lesbian Film Festival
  5. Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (Arkansas)
  6. Some Prefer Cake Lesbian Film Festival (Bologna, Italy)
  7. ImageOut (Rochester Gay and Lesbian Film Festival)
  8. Reel Affirmations (Washington, DC)
  9. Queer Black Cinema Film Festival (New York)

The screening dates for all of these festivals fall in September and October. I’m still waiting to hear from film festivals with later screening dates.

As you’ll note, the vast majority of film festival accepting this film are gay and lesbian ones. This, of course, makes perfect sense given the subject matter. I do not confine myself to submitting  to LGBT film festivals, but those are the ones where I stand the best chance of getting accepted.

I am particularly pleased, however, when one of my videos gets accepted to a film festival outside the LGBT niche. Therefore the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is of particular interest to me. It establishes my bona fides as a documentary director, not just a director of videos only of LGBT interest.