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Hot Springs Eternal--Well, for Ten Years, at Least

By Betsy McLane

Opening Night at the Hot Spring Documentary Film Festival

In 1991, as the new executive director of IDA, I received a telephone call from Hot Springs, Arkansas, seeking advice on starting a documentary film festival. I had no notion of the long-lasting and far-reaching impact this idea would have. Since it was my job to promote documentaries, I was not going to inform the business leaders of Hot Springs that such a festival was not likely to bring tens of thousands of cultural and tourist dollars into their community (I was ultimately wrong about that.). It was my job to do everything possible to help get films seen. Since then, the IDA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have helped Hot Springs for over a decade, and their members and the documentary form have been repaid a thousand fold for this commitment.

The many individuals who worked and sacrificed for what is now the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute (HSDFI) can be extremely proud that they have created a unique regional venue, including a year-round movie theater and an avid public audience for documentary film. Arkansas and its neighboring states have embraced the documentary and documentarians in a way that I never could have imagined. But then, what else but miracles can be expected from a town that is itself America’s first National Park, where the best hotel room is the “Al Capone Suite,” and that is the proudly self-titled “Boyhood Home of Bill Clinton?” Among the many people who deserve special mention for their long-term work at Hot Springs are current HSDFI Board Chair Jerry Tanenbaum; longtime contributors Bill Asti, Marlys Moodie, Lorraine Benini and Bob Pest; current staff members Linda Blackburn and Melanie Masino; and from AMPAS, Mikel Gordon (née Kaufman) and the late Sy Gomberg. Dozens of filmmakers have attended over the years, often returning time and again to see documentaries and enjoy one another’s company in the relaxed and supportive Hot Springs environment. Only in October in Hot Springs, after all, does a giant banner decorate the main street with the words “Welcome Documentary Film Makers.” Only in Hot Springs do documentarians mingle late into the night in a natural hot tub on the hotel roof.

Hot Springs is a non-competitive festival, the core of which has always been to screen the year’s Academy Award©-nominated and IDA Award-winning films and to invite those filmmakers to participate. The festival has grown from this concept to accepting open submissions, which are vetted by a volunteer selection committee. This year, there were approximately 600 documentaries submitted and 80 shown over a ten-day period in the twin-screen Malco Theatre. Audiences ranged from elementary school groups to the crème de la crème of Arkansas society who attend the black tie festival gala. Cost per film for the paying public? $3.00.

Opening Night at the Hot Spring Documentary Film Festival

The institute conducts a range of seminars and workshops, not only during the festival, but throughout the year, serving local filmmakers and the community with depth and diversity.

The festival in 2001 was, like everything else that autumn, touched by the events of September 11 and the ensuing war. Some filmmakers did not want to fly, and a festive atmosphere was not foremost on everyone’s mind. But the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival went forward with both aplomb and sensitivity. The opening night film was the wonderful, and critically overlooked, Life on Jupiter: The Story of Jens Nygaard by Martin Spinelli, an inspiring portrait of classical music legend—and Arkansas native—Jens Nygaard. Just as inspiring was how the festival responded to our nation’s war situation. I expected patriotism; I was not prepared for the full-tilt demonstration of solidarity that marked opening night.

We began with the Pledge of Allegiance, which created an immediate and undeniable sense of unity and purpose. It brought home to me not only how the festival provides a much-needed refuge for documentaries and their makers, but also how each year, the documentary transforms the lives of thousands of people in and around Arkansas. In those first very rough years of the festival, homosexuality was taboo, if not downright illegal, in Arkansas. The festival organizers screened gay subject films and warmly welcomed lesbian couples to Hot Springs. When it was pointed out that the only non-white people seen all week were those serving dinner, the racial mix changed dramatically the next year. When I first saw the then-abandoned Malco Theatre, there was a sign painted on the wall on the second floor: “Colored Entrance.” Now that wall is an exuberant movie mural, but more importantly, there is a screening program featuring work from local African American youth, who are creating videotaped histories of the vibrant Black culture in their town.

These developments, and many others, underscore the immense value of this festival and the caring and the courage of those who make it work. May it move forward into another successful decade. (For more information about the institute’s activities, and for a complete list of films screened at recent festivals, visit


Betsy A. McLane served as IDA’s executive director from 1991 to 2000.