Spa City’s evolving film festival

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If everything goes according to plan, at 9 a.m. today I will be in front of an audience in the ballroom–designated Cinema 1 for the occasion–of the Arlington Hotel, introducing The Story of Plastic, a 90-minute film that’s screening at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. My job is to welcome film-goers, provide a few tempting tidbits about the film they’re about to see, and invite them to stick around afterward for a discussion about the film.

A half-hour later, I’ll do the same thing with a second film, 86-minute China Love, that will show in Cinema 2.

As a longtime volunteer for HSDFF, I’ve played this role many times. It’s not difficult, but there’s time and effort involved in watching the film in advance if possible (if not, I watch the trailer and check out online reviews if they exist), reading comments by the filmmakers, searching for a local connection, and thinking up halfway decent questions to ask in a question-and-answer session afterward.

The process goes pretty well when the schedule is followed and everybody shows up when and where they’re supposed to. There have been times when the moderator has wandered off to Starbucks or the Ohio Club or elsewhere and I’ve been recruited to jump onto the stage of a freshly screened film (which I didn’t see) and handle a Q&A with as many as four filmmakers without any clue of what to ask them. Don’t even start me on trying to remember their names.

Like most journalists, asking questions on the fly is a task that’s in my wheelhouse. It’s only scary for the first few minutes. And eventually I can turn the question-asking over to the audience, which at this festival means I’m putting it in the hands of people who are engaged, involved, and have plenty to say. Disasters are few.

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Another role I’ve played for HSDFF is as a screener of submitted films. Most of the mainliner films are chosen by a programmer. Then there are hundreds of films sent by their makers in hopes of getting into a highly visible festival like this one.

Even with talented and diplomatic screening committee chair Chris Wilks herding a passel of cats in the form of volunteer screeners, this is a challenging job. Each submission needs to be seen by three screeners, who provide comments and grades on each of them. Many of us tend to grab the 12-minute-long productions so we can pretend we’ve muscled our way through more films than others do. But that’s kinda cheating, so I try to snatch a few longer productions and stick with them beyond what we refer to around my film-frenzied house as “the 17-second test.”

Oh, wait. That’s to evaluate music. Film evaluation must take at least five minutes.

This film festival is much improved since my early days with it when screenings of 10-year-old (and older) documentaries were held in the shabby-chic Malco Theater (I took my dad and his girlfriend there once, and they were, to put it mildly, unimpressed, and were much more interested in a post-screening stop at a charming ice cream shop on Central Avenue across from the bathhouses) and budgeting went in great part to financing parties and events for the festival’s benefactors.

The only festival function I miss from, oh, the 2000s was an in-progress workshop where brave filmmakers could bring their work–no matter what stage it was in–and show it to others to hear their praises and pans. That’s where I met Hans Stiritz, an Arkansas-based composer, cinematographer and director, whose visuals in his enigmatic 2005 short Before are still hauntingly clear in my mind.

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Since then, HSDFF has stepped up its game to a professional level thanks to the leadership of Courtney Pledger. During her tenure as executive director from 2012 to 2016, she enabled it to become an official Oscar-qualifier in Documentary Short Subject, as well as building a donor base to sustain the festival into the future.

When she was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to direct the Arkansas Educational Television Network in March 2017, filmmaker Jen Gerber took over; she continues to keep the ball rolling uphill.

The benefits of being a part of all this far outweigh the work it takes to educate and prepare myself. At the top of the list is the chance to talk to some truly fascinating and creative people from across the U.S. and beyond. And it helps that there are often after-parties where the food’s terrific, the drinks are ample, and the local film community is in attendance, as are assorted city movers and shakers and business leaders who often turn out to be much more fun that you’d think from seeing them in their official roles. A couple neat shots of bourbon, some fine music (blues guitarist CeDell Davis among the performers in 2016) and a few canapes can have that effect.

Another bonus: The goofy fun of staying at the Arlington Hotel, where rooms can be quirky, to say the least, and the bygone glamour of the lobby is populated with all sorts of characters.

If you’re curious about some of these submissions, and the parties, and the Arlington, and the overall atmosphere of what’s considered the longest-running all-documentary film festival in North America (it started in 1992 by showing 10 Academy Award-nominated docs), make plans to take a look for yourself. HSDFF continues through Oct. 26. Info can be found at

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Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 10/20/2019



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