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Docs in The Natural State: Hot Springs Fest Turns 20

By Gary Swan

For the past 20 years, the town of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, has been home to the renowned Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF), a showcase coveted by many documentary filmmakers as a good proving ground for their films. The primary venue for the festival, the Malco Theatre, was proclaimed the gateway to the entertainment district of downtown Hot Springs when it opened in 1946, and every third week in October, it becomes the heart of what has been ranked among the best small art towns in America.

"The venue of a film festival is one of the most important aspects for a visiting filmmaker," says San Franciscan Robert Phillipson, whose T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s screened at this year's festival. "It's nice to be able to come to a historic city and show your film in a historic theater such as the Malco. It adds an appeal to not just filmmakers who come to town, but it affords a semblance of old-world prestige for the visitors. It's definitely not like showing your film in the nearest shopping mall Cineplex."

This year, the Malco also hosted many of the after-parties throughout the 10 days of the festival. "Despite legends of the theater being haunted, it's actually quite the place to entertain," says Helen Bumpas, festival volunteer coordinator and longtime supporter. Split into a two-screen theater in 1977, the Malco was an operating movie house well into the 1980s, and the back upstairs portion of the theater houses a filmmaker green room, which was formerly the projectionist's apartment.

The Southern hospitality exuded by the staff and volunteers underscored the convivial spirit of this year's festival. "I've never been to a more intimate festival where the audiences are as engaged and appreciative about documentary film," notes Bay Weyman, director of Finding Fidel: The Journey of Erik Durschmeid. "Many of the doc film festivals that have been going on for such a long time have lost that intimacy that they had in the very beginning."

This year HSDFF hosted several other established artists and award-winning filmmakers such as Sam Green, the featured guest filmmaker, who presided over the screening of his films The Weather Underground, Pie Fight '69, World's Largest Shopping Mall and The Universal Language. Other guests included Winfred Rembert, acclaimed artist from Vivian Ducat's All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert; and Betsy Goodrich, a.k.a Danger Woman, featured in Blake Myers' Disabled but Able to Rock!

"I've come to this festival for years as a student from the University of North Texas," says Tania Khalaf, director of Gaza Shield. "I love this festival, and to have a film in it this year was amazing."

This year's HSDFF opened with The Natural State of America, about a 40-year struggle to prevent unnecessary herbicide use in the biodiverse Arkansas Ozarks. Filmmakers Terrell Case, Timothy Lucas Wistrand and Matthew Corey Gattin joined organic farmers and environmental activists from the film for an engaging Q&A with the capacity crowd.

Traditionally the festival has always opened with a world-premiere film; this year's feature, Red Tremmel's Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival, was followed by an eye-popping performance by the local six-piece burlesque troupe, Foul Play Cabaret. "It was a surreal experience performing on the same stage where historic vaudeville performances have taken place," notes Sarah Curtis, a.k.a Ruby Lead, the head performer of the troupe. "You could really feel the surging energy of the crowd during the show."


Margaret Cho, featured in Red Tremmel's Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival.



 The first Saturday of the festival featured a demonstrative graffiti workshop by Little Rock artist Jose Hernandez. The workshop corresponded with the short film Graffiti Fine Art, by Jared Levy, who only recently returned from Sao Paulo after working on the documentary for a little over two years. The screening was a US Premiere for Levy, who was excited to be in the southern United States for the first time. "Graffiti Fine Art is a very international film," Levy maintains. "To be able to have it screened for a large audience here in the South is very exciting to me."

"The mission of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute [the governing nonprofit of the festival] is not only to promote the documentary art form, but it's also become ever more important to promote all art, especially as it corresponds to the messages that are promoted in films such as Graffiti Fine Art," explains assistant executive director Jim Miller. During the workshop, children of all ages were encouraged to paint on the wall of the lower parking lot area located next to the Malco Theatre.

HSDFF incorporated different types of workshops than it has in previous years. One that stood out the most was a Ghost Hunting Workshop led by local paranormal investigator Larry Flaxman. The workshop featured a full-access tour of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute complex and allowed visitors to see parts of the historic building that are normally accessible only to staff members. The tie into this workshop was German filmmaker Edwin Beeler's The Souls: Tales of Ghostly Encounters, which made its US premiere in Hot Springs.

"You certainly get an opportunity to see documentary films here that you won't see anywhere else," notes Jody Sprague, a former screening committee member and festival patron. One such film would be the world premiere of David Guinan's John Frum: He Will Come, about followers of a cult religion on a tiny South Pacific island that believe that an American deity named John Frum will one day lead them to salvation.


From David Guinan's John Frum: He Will Come.



"Audiences aren't really sure how to handle our film," says Guinan, who appeared after the screening with one of the islanders, Cevin Soling. This was particularly evident during a heated Q&A discussion, when some audience members deemed the film a social experiment. When asked why the festival had chosen to even show the film, Miller simply noted the intensity of the discussion, which triggered applause from the audience.

One major draw for this year's festival was the long awaited Arkansas premiere of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. HSDFF screened the latest version of the new film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky only once, to a packed house of not just Arkansans but patrons from all around the country. The energy was edgy and the subject matter of the film added a real somber quality to the evening, especially given the news van parked in front of the theater. The anchorwoman for Channel 4 news made it a point to interview the mother of Damien Echols as she was sitting in the lobby of the Malco waiting for the film to begin. After the film, author Mara Leveritt spoke briefly about the legal issues surrounding the resolution of the West Memphis 3 case.

While this year's festival has been shrouded in financial difficulty, there is no disagreement from patrons and filmmakers alike that HSDFF was a huge success. It is the feeling of camaraderie that this festival provokes that made it so appealing this year, and there certainly seems to be nothing stopping Hot Springs from continuing to showcase documentaries for another 20 years.


Gary Swan is a recent mass media graduate from Henderson State University. A native of Hot Springs, he hopes to teach film in the future.