words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
For ten days this fall, Hot Springs will become the center of the film universe as the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival returns for its twenty-sixth edition. The event, scheduled for October 6 to 15, will take place at the Arlington Hotel on the city’s iconic Central Avenue. Organizers are expecting the event to again draw thousands of fans and filmmakers to the Spa City.
“We are the longest-running all-documentary film festival in North America,” said Jennifer Gerber, interim executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. “That’s our identity. It really keeps us competitive.”
As in past years, the festival will host several world premiere screenings and will also present awards in the categories Best U.S. Documentary, Best International Documentary, Best Sports Documentary and Best Short Documentary. In the past, the festival has also awarded Audience Choice and other awards as appropriate.
This year’s sidebar categories, which group films along certain themes, include “Hollywood in Hot Springs,” paying tribute to legends of the film industry; “The Show Must Go On,” portraying people overcoming remarkable odds and “Made in Arkansas,” showcasing Natural State films.
In addition, the festival will give fans the opportunity to hear directly from the people behind and in front of the camera through a series of talks, question and answer sessions, and live interviews. Last year that list included documentary directors and producers as well as talent ranging from actor Lou Gossett Jr. of An Officer and A Gentleman fame to burlesque dancer Tempest Storm.
“What I notice with our own viewers in Hot Springs is that there’s just a hunger for knowledge and exposure and a chance to not only see these films from all parts of the world but to also meet those filmmakers and meet the people who come with their movies to Hot Springs,” Jennifer said. “It’s a hunger to see beyond our borders.”
This year, special guests include actor, producer, screenwriter and director Werner Herzog, a giant in the film community.
“This is huge for Hot Springs,” Jennifer said. “Herzog is probably one of the most influential filmmakers of our time, especially in the documentary forum. He will be screening an older film of his, but a personal favorite called Grizzly Man. After that screening he’s going to do a directing workshop master class. We’ll get a front row seat to that, live and in person.”
Returning to this year’s event is the popular family day on Saturday, October 7, which will offer three kid-friendly screenings, live performing acts in the lobby of the Arlington and an art workshop.
A new attraction that is sure to garner a lot of attention is a virtual reality lounge, Jennifer said, a trend that’s becoming more common at larger film festivals around the country.
“It’s our first ever and I think this will be really exciting,” she said. “What that is is a space where our audience members enter the viewing lounge, they put on a headset and headphones and completely step into a 360-degree documentary experience. They can look in any direction and experience the film as they choose. It’s going to be really cool; it’s really something that’s keeping us on the cutting edge.”
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, sponsored by the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, was first held in 1992 and has grown into an event of international importance. The organization is funded by grants from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, National Endowment for the Arts, Deltic Timber and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, as well as sponsorships and patronage from film buffs around the world.
Just ten documentaries were shown the first year, which proved such a success that the following year that number more than quadrupled. In 2017, 100 films will be screened over the ten-day festival, from more than 1,100 submissions and selected by members of the fifty-person HSDFI screening committee. The committee is just one cadre of the more than 300 volunteers it takes to put on the event each year.
There’s a competitive element to the festival, as evidenced by the several awards that are handed out each year. The event is also a qualifier for filmmakers competing for Academy Awards in Best Documentary Short Subject, one of just three dozen such qualifiers among thousands of film festivals worldwide.
Jennifer said the longevity of the Hot Springs film festival, the quality of the submissions and the relative affordability of attending has created an astute local audience, many of whom have attended every single year of its existence. “I think our audience is particularly educated because of what they’ve been exposed to on the process around making a documentary film.
“We’ve been doing this for twenty-six years, which shows we have an audience in Hot Springs that supports and loves the festival and supports the movies. They have an advanced working knowledge of documentaries more than most people.”
Jennifer stepped into the executive director’s role after several years of being involved in other capacities, temporarily filling the vacancy created by longtime chief Courtney Pledger, who was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to direct the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) earlier this year.
A hometown kid, Jennifer moved to Chicago to study documentary filmmaking after graduating from Hot Springs’ Lake Hamilton High School. From there she went to New York and Columbia University where she was encouraged to explore the unique voice that came with her upbringing.
“What Columbia is really focused on is all these personal stories, telling stories that only you can tell,” she said. “Obviously the one thing that set me apart being a filmmaker in New York is that I actually am from Arkansas and have stories that very few people have. So I was writing scripts about Arkansas and then after I graduated I decided to move back to make those movies. That’s what brought me back home.”
Jennifer said she’s noticed a renewed interest in the documentary art form, fed by entertainment services that provide a steady stream of the genre to satisfy modern tastes.
“I think the way we watch content is changing just in general with the way Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are developing that,” she said. “There’s a whole new version of storytelling which is sort of serial storytelling that’s not quite a TV show, not quite a web series. With Netflix and Amazon, shows can be whatever length they want to be. They’re not dictated by a broadcast standard. I think that has just opened the world of filmmaking in general.”
As for why documentaries have gained such favor over other types of programming, Jennifer said it was likely a reaction to the times.
“I think when we look at what our last election looked like, whatever side you’re on, as a country, people are participating and are paying attention to events and to what’s happening around them,” she said. “Maybe before we were looking for more escapism and now maybe we’re looking to be engaged in a different way.”
The festival is just one of HSDFI’s programs of year-around film-centered events and is dedicated to preserving the art form. In February 1997, HSDFI was selected as a stop on the Library of Congress Film Preservation Tour featuring films from the National Film Registry. Over the years, the organization has amassed its own documentary film library which found a new home last year among the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The collection contains not only thousands of films, but artifacts, photographs and memorabilia focusing on art, culture, environmentalism and politics.
Under cool Ouachita skies, the twenty-sixth Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival will once again bring the art and magic of filmmaking to life with new stories for an appreciative audience. The stars will be out, shining down through the crisp October air and flickering on the screen, in a place as old as home.
Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute
659 Ouachita Avenue, Hot Springs
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
October 6 – October 15
Arlington Hotel | 239 Central Ave, Hot Springs