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The 1996 Hot Springs Documentary Festival

By Melinda Levin

<em>Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern</em>

"Amazing." A fitting adjective for the unfolding of the 1996 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in mid-October. From one documentarian: "You don't understand what it feels like not to be pushed off into some sidebar event. At this fes­tival, we're honored for our commitment to the documentary form. It's amazing." And from an audience member: "I've never been so moved or so challenged." For residents of Arkansas and for others who travel from around the country to this national park setting, the event is a bold invitation to celebrate glimpses of lives and cultures in sharp contrast to this genteel venue.

In its fifth year, Hot Springs is maturing and gaining recognition from filmmakers nationwide. This year's schedule included back-to-back screenings of 44 films over six days (October 15-20). There were no awards­ festival organizers have made the commitment to non-competitive screenings and a celebration of the documentary form; distribution and marketing are left for other occasions. Many of the featured films are nominees and winners­ from last spring's Academy Awards, in the best documentary short and best documentary feature categories; also, nominees and winners from the International Documentary Association's Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards. Steven Ross, director of Black Diamonds, Blue City Trou and second-year attendee at the festival, told an audience of supporters and fellow filmmakers that, although he had been invited to accompany his film to a screening the same weekend in Los Angeles, he chose to travel instead to Hot Springs. Ross was one of many filmmakers accompanying their films and engaging in open, honest discussion with audiences and colleagues. At times, Southern politeness takes a temporary back seat to challenging dialogue about content and structure in the documentary, as filmmakers and audience alike grapple with the role of truth in this genre of life and experience.

Besides selections from the Oscar and IDA competitions, films and videos are solicited in select publications (including the festival's new home page: http:/ and screened by a committee of local citizens dedicated to the seriousness of their task. As producer/director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision; Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper ) commented: "These are people who in other communities might be giving support to a hospital or some other worthy local cause. In this case, they have embraced the documentary film." The 1996 selection showed an openness for the wide diversity in culture, gender, age and experience, as reflected in the documentary mode.

The theme for this year's festival was "Something for Everyone." Baseball, ski patrols, compulsive pet owners, environmental destruction. Musicians, artists, Orson Welles, the Muppets. Hong Kong's reintegration with the PRC, racial stereotypes, the Holocaust. Schizophrenia, brutal murder, contemplation of suicide, and the process of filmmaking itself. An extensive palette of topics.

Some clear favorites included Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, an engrossing film by Steven M. Martin, highlighting the world's first electrical musical instrument and the strange career of its inventor. The complexities of genius and political intrigue, the integration of art with technology, the contextualization of memory: these aspects prompted an enthusiastic audience response.

Pam Walton's Family Values played to a packed audience. This 56-minute video is an intense my personal portrait of a family torn apart by political and religious extremism. The film has voyeuristic allure as a lesbian filmmaker takes an emotional journey to seek reconciliation with her father, a leading figure in the radical religious right. A mostly older audience was captivated by this film on the fourth day of the festival. The films comment on the definition of family and the role ideologies play in the construction of identities prompted one audience member to turn to his wife and say, "This isn't necessarily about lesbianism or the Religious Right. It's about families, you and me, and all of us right now in America."

Another audience favorite was Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher's Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, troublesome Creek: A Midwestern nominee for the 1995 Academy Award, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, and most recently recipient of a Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award from IDA. Composed more conventionally than some of the other offerings, this finely edited film focuses on the demise of Jordan's parents' family farm in Iowa; certain universal yet specific symbols truly capture facets of family life and loss—a mother's concerned glance, the icons of childhood, the hazy definition of home as one grows older.

When the Festival earlier this year expanded to become the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, the mission statement declared three major goals: to establish the festival as the premiere documentary film festival in the world; to advance the documentary genre as a meaningful art form; and, to provide unique educational and cultural opportunities. Educating and cultivating not only informed audiences but also documentary filmmaking potential among students-these were responsible for instituting a lecture series in the 1995 Festivals events. Lecture topics in 1996 included: "New Technologies and the Independent Documentary," explored by Barton Weiss, Director of the Dallas Video Festival; "Making and Marketing of Non-Fiction Feature Films" by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary team responsible for Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost; "In the Belly of the Beast: The Documentary Film In Hollywood," with reflections by Dr. Betsy McLane, IDA Executive Director; "Documentary Watching in England," on the 700 hours of documentary programming each year on Britain's four television channels, surveyed by Ben Levin and Melinda Levin, filmmakers who teach at the University of North Texas; and "The Power of Images and Sound: What Makes a Film Moving," a presentation by Dorothy Fadiman, director of From Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion. Also included in the lineup were sessions on creative camcorder techniques, producing special interest videos, and the "one-man-band" approach to documentary production.

For some, the mention of Hot Springs simply signifies the "Boyhood Home of President Bill Clinton." Or, perhaps, a resort city with art galleries, good restaurants and horse racing. Even, a locale with European-style public baths where one is led around to various tubs, saunas, massages and relaxation tables while clad in only toga sheet. But for participants in the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, this city is rapidly becoming the documentary capital of the United States. Long range goals for the Festival/Institute include a documentary archive; a documentary film/video sales and rental facility for a vast reservoir of nonfiction film; on-going documentary seminars and workshops; a two-screen theatre where documentaries are screened throughout the year; seed money for documentary production; and rental of post-production equipment for documentarians. Lofty goals, high ambitions, perhaps: but, nonetheless, amazing.

For information on the Hot Springs Documentary Institute or on the 1997 festival, contact Executive Director Patricia Dooley at 501-321-4747 or e-mail at

C. MELINDA LEVIN is an independent documentary filmmaker and Assistant Professor of Radio, Television and Film at the University of North Texas.