Skip to main content

Legendary and Budding Filmmakers Share Screentime at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

By Jessica Schoenbaechler

Cinema Vérité: 'The Creators' Panel with Albert Maysles, Nell Cox, Bill Jersey, Richard Wormser, Robert Richter, Richard Leacock and St. Clair Bourne, pioneers of the cinema vérité movement, at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Photo: Joe Correia.

There are few places where a first-time filmmaker can receive the same warm welcome as, say, Richard Leacock, a pioneer of cinema vérité. There are also few places where an emerging documentary filmmaker can screen a work-in-progress alongside that of an award-winning established director. In its 13th year, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, held in October in Arkansas, offered both of these opportunities and a whole lot more: 93 docs, 54 filmmakers, six workshops, a new works-in-progress screening program and a timely celebration of some of the most influential filmmakers in the history of documentary.

To the delight of budding filmmakers and seasoned professionals alike, Leacock, Albert Maysles, Bill Jersey, Robert Richter, Nell Cox and St. Clair Bourne gathered on the stage of the Malco Theater to discuss history, politics, favorite films and their current projects.

Leacock's brief retrospective included clips from his first film, Canary Bananas (1935), which would later impress Robert Flaherty enough to hire him, and examples of his influential handheld cinematography in Jazz Dance (1954, Roger Tilton, dir.), for which he employed the same camera he had used to shoot combat footage during World War II.

Bourne spoke about the role of black producers and public television during the turbulent 1960s with clips from his Afro Dance and Malcolm X, films that sought to convey the complexity of black culture to what producers assumed at the time were white audiences. Sparking discussion about television's obsession with numbers, Bourne said that black filmmakers had to appeal to demographics—specifically, taxpayers—to rationalize content and get their programming on air.

A Time for Burning, Jersey's 1966 film about a Nebraska Lutheran Church and its attempts to integrate its congregation, also struggled to find a place in network programming—until it was nominated for an Academy Award. NBC then showed the film five times. The documentary, which Jersey said is "way too relevant for a 40-year-old film," prompted questions about the role of filmmakers in affecting society. "The only way I know to change the world is to start where you are," he maintained. "Preach, shout, scream, yell, kick, but don't hurt anybody."

The individual sessions also included Cox sharing excerpts from her French Lunch, Five Portraits and the fiction film A to B, and detailing how cinema vérité influenced her fiction film work. Maysles screened his groundbreaking feature film Salesman (1969, with David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, dirs.), which was selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1992, while Richter showed HHH: What Manner of Man, his 1968 film about Hubert Horatio Humphry's rise from small-town pharmacist to become the Democratic Party candidate for President of the United States.

Following their presentations these pioneers and the Hot Springs audience were treated to a slate of exciting, award-winning films. David Ofek's No. 17 (2004, Edna Kowarsky/Elinor Kowarsky, prods.) made its regional premiere after winning Best Film at the Tel Aviv International Film Festival and the Israeli Academy Award for Best Documentary. Through interviews with police, survivors and eye witnesses both questionable and telling, the filmmaker investigates a 2002 Tel Aviv bus bombing, the 17th victim of which remains unidentified. With the goal of solving a crime and perhaps reconciling a tragedy, Ofek allows the film to meander, offering the audience poignant encounters with everyday Israelis.

Other award-winning films screened at Hot Springs included the 2003 Academy Award-winners The Fog of War (Errol Morris, prod./dir.) and Chernobyl Heart (Maryann DeLeo, prod./dir.); the 2004 festival and box office hits Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, prod./dir.; Hani Salama, Rosadel Varela, prods.), The Corporation (Mark Achbar, prod./dir.; Jennifer Abbott, dir.; Bart Simpson, prod.) and Born into Brothels (Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski, prods./dirs.); and the recent releases Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (Xan Cassavetes, dir.; Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, prods.) and The Political Dr. Seuss (Ron Lamothe, prod./dir.).

Texas, Arkansas' neighbor to the west, had a strong presence in the festival, with many films by and about Texans. Audience favorites included the shorts Something's Brewin' in Shiner (2004; Mike Woolf, dir. and Karen Yates, prod.), a droll depiction of the small beer-guzzling town a week before the Spoetzl Brewery released its newest concoction, and Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War (2002; Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler, dirs.), a moving portrayal of small-town residents unjustly indicted in a drug bust that imprisoned over ten percent of the black community.

Texas-based filmmakers led several workshops—Ken Mandel on Avid editing and Mark Birnbaum on his efficient, low-budget production style—while filmmakers/professors Bart Weiss and Ben Levin and Dallas Morning News critic Manny Mendoza discussed the roots of reality TV in their workshop Reality TV and the Documentary Tradition—which was affectionately dubbed "Would Nanook Be Voted Off the Island?"

Bob Shaw and Jersey ran additional workshops in production and post-production, while Saturday's open-screening program allowed filmmakers, ranging from film school applicants to full-fledged professionals, to share their works-in-progress.

"The festival is great, and it's a wonderful opportunity for our students, particularly since it is financially affordable, to go and see good documentaries and meet other filmmakers," said Ivana Slavnic, filmmaker and professor at the University of North Texas. "Personally, I wish we had been able to show a longer segment of the film, but regardless, the works-in-progress screening energized me for this final push in the post-production process."

Fifty-four guest filmmakers accompanied their films to the festival, answering questions after each screening. Jan Krawitz's Big Enough, the sequel to her 1981 film Little People, made wonderful use of footage not included in the first film to present a fresh and contemplative look at the past 20 years in the lives of five dwarves in an average-sized world. After the screening, Krawitz explained the process of reconvening with her original subjects and provided updates on their lives.

Oren Jacoby responded to questions about funding and archival footage after showing his award-winning film Sister Rose's Passion (2004), in which he traces Sister Rose Thering's struggle to revise Catholic curriculum and anti-Semitic attitudes regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Playing to a packed audience, a feature-length version of the Discovery Times Channel series Off to War (Brent Renaud, Craig Renaud, prods./dirs.; Jon Alpert, prod.) follows nine soldiers in Iraq and the family members they left behind. Renaud was on hand to answer questions after the screening, alongside several participants. His brother Brent was embedded at the time with the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard, shooting the fourth episode, which was to air in January. In the 90-minute version that was screened at the festival, teenage soldiers dress 20-year old trucks with bullet-proof vests to create "armored" vehicles, a minister is forced to contemplate killing, and wives and mothers tearfully maintain a semblance of normality for children at home.

"I was pleased that the families and Sgt. David Short had a chance to be honored at the festival, not only for their role as military families, but for having the courage to open their lives up to the public during such a hard time," said Renaud. "To hear the families on the panel all say that they felt the film was a real and honest portrayal of their lives over the past year meant a lot to me as a filmmaker. We've screened our films at a lot of festivals around the country, but Hot Springs remains our favorite. The fact that Hot Springs is not a competition really creates an enjoyable atmosphere for the audiences and the filmmakers." 

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute has expanded its efforts to include year-long activities, including outreach to high schools and regional screenings. For more information, go to


Jessica Schoenbaechler is a candidate for an MFA in documentary production at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at