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Women Lead, Program and Sweep Awards at Long-Running Hot Springs Doc Fest

By Matthew Carey

Left to right: Filmmakers Waad al-Kateab ('For Sama') and Nanfu Wang ('One Child Nation'), with Hot Spring Documentary Film Festival Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks. Photo: Aaron Brewer

The spa resort of Hot Springs, Arkansas bubbles with history. Grand bathhouses that date from more than a century ago line one side of Central Avenue, leading to the foot of the imposing Arlington Hotel. On the hotel's 7th floor is the Babe Ruth Suite, a tip-of-the-cap to a famed visitor to Hot Springs, back when the town hosted some Major League teams for spring training. Another celebrity of yesteryear, Al Capone, was also known to patronize the Arlington.

The history that the town is making today is of the cinematic kind. The community hosts one of the longest-running documentary film festivals in North America—the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival—which wrapped its 28th annual edition at the end of October. Upwards of 10,000 people were expected over the nine-day event, which kicked off with the world premiere of Flannery, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, about acclaimed Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor.

"This is a huge honor," Coffman said as she introduced her film to the capacity crowd at the Arlington, adding a comment sure to resonate with many in the audience: "Flannery had a great analogy for filmmaking. She said, 'Writing is like giving birth to a piano sideways. Those who persevere are either talented or nuts."

Nearly a hundred talented filmmakers traveled to Hot Springs for the festival, including Nanfu Wang, director of One Child Nation, the award-winning documentary that investigates China's brutal enforcement of its one-child policy. On the opening night of the festival, Wang was presented with the HSDFF Impact Award, recognizing her as a "maverick and an inspiration."

"I…realized when almost the rest of the world is falling apart, it's film and art that brings everyone together, brings everyone to this room in a shared experience," Wang said as she accepted the honor. "It's film and art that help hold the government accountable and will help us when everything else seems to be going worse."

On the festival's opening weekend Wang and Waad al-Kateab, director of For Sama, participated in a "fireside chat" to discuss their work. That was one of five panels programmed at Hot Springs, including a session on "Soundscapes and Storytelling" that followed the screening of Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, which celebrates the work of legendary Hollywood sound designers.

Panels and discussions are a key part of the Hot Springs experience, director of programming Jessie Fairbanks tells Documentary. She hopes to expand the offerings in upcoming years "so that we can have an opportunity to create a life beyond the film on screen, so the audience can actually engage with the filmmakers and talk about some of these very complicated subjects at hand."

The Hot Springs lineup stood out for its impressive representation of female directors—half the films in this year's festival were made by women.

"This is a huge and powerful moment not just for Hot Springs but for the festival circuit in general," notes Fairbanks. "While all of our films at the festival were selected based on merit and on their ability to transport us to new, vital and stunning worlds, it's a true rarity to have a festival that hosts a program of such equality."

In addition to Making WavesOne Child NationFor Sama and Flannery, documentaries at HSDFF directed by women included Varda by Agnès, the final film from French New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda, who died in March at the age of 90. The program likewise featured Kim Longinotto's Shooting the Mafia, Janice Engel's Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, and Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops, directed by Jenifer McShane.

"I came on board with a three-year plan," Fairbanks explains. "One of my first goals was to have more parity and equality within the programming. I didn't anticipate that I would be able to hit the 50-percent mark in terms of male-versus-female filmmakers within my first year, but we did, which is incredible and I'm deeply proud of that. We need to increase the number of filmmakers of color that we have at the festival and that's something that I'm looking forward to moving the needle on in the next two years."

HSDFF is remarkable for another reason—it's run by women, from Jennifer Gerber, who ended her tenure as executive director this year (she will assume the title of artistic director for next year's festival, ceding the executive director position to Karina Nagin), to associate director Sheryl Santacruz and Fairbanks as chief of programming.

"We are a female-led organization of filmmakers who are creating a festival for filmmakers," Fairbanks affirms. "We do have men on our team and we very much welcome their voice and their opinion, but it is a rarity, absolutely, and we're incredibly proud of that, that we have women in all the key roles."

A challenge for any regional film festival is to attract world premieres, but Hot Springs boasted three of them: the aforementioned Flannery, as well as Objector, directed by Molly Stuart, and Quest of the Muscle Nerd, from directors Jared Young and Matthew Young.

"I know that all three [documentaries] had offers to go to other festivals and they chose to come here, which speaks to the relationships we have with filmmakers but also how filmmakers feel when they're here, to how they're received by the Hot Springs audience, how welcome the community makes them feel," Fairbanks observes. "It is important to me that we do have world premieres because I want to give the audience here the opportunity to be the first audience to see the films."

Documentaries screen in two ballrooms in the Arlington; festival-goers need not step off the hotel grounds except for parties or to indulge in a hot spring bath. Upgrading the theatrical experience is a priority for HSDFF, Fairbanks maintains.

"We did bring in a technical team from New York who I work with at several different festivals, and they came and they did a lot of fancy things with the equipment and the sound design. So we have 5.1 for the first time in both theaters," Fairbanks explains, adding that finding a space expressly designed for cinema represents a long-term goal. "I'd like to find us a permanent home. We love the Arlington and we will continue to do screenings and events at the Arlington, but I would really like us to find a theater and have a permanent home so that at some point we can expand to year-round programming." 

When prizes were announced for the 28th annual festival, it was For Sama winning the Matt DeCample Audience Choice Award. Rachel Mason's Circus of Books won Best US Feature Documentary and the award for Best International Feature Documentary went to Objector

Marian Ghani's What We Left Unfinished won the festival's first-ever Critics Choice Award. A Love Song for Latasha, directed by Sophia Nahli Allison, was named Best Short Documentary; with HSDFF an official Oscar-qualifying festival, the win for Allison's film automatically qualifies it for Academy Awards consideration this year.

From Marian Ghani's 'What We Left Unfinished,' winner of the Critics choice Award at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.

Tim Horsburgh, director of communications and distribution at Kartemquin Films, was among the jurors for the US Documentary competition. "The reason I said yes [to serving] is that I really love small, regional festivals that have a local audience that's meaningfully connecting to that festival and Hot Springs is totally in that vein," he explains. "I've heard so many great things about how it treats filmmakers and how the community really comes out and you can see it. It's all over the town. It's a point of pride that this is happening and it's a point of pride for the town that there are filmmakers coming in from all around the world to show their work here and the conversations that happen, the reception to those films will also resonate back out globally. I love seeing that happen at the ground level."

Horsburgh's colleague, Kartemquin Films director of production Risé Sanders-Weir, helped conduct a master class for aspiring filmmakers. An Arkansas native herself, she praised HSDFF as North America’s pioneering all-documentary festival. "Hot Springs did it first," Sanders-Weir asserts. "They're really an originator in the space of getting documentaries into communities. I grew up about 40 miles from here…The first time I came here the first screening I went to I was a little misty because I was like, 'Ohmygosh, there are people here who want to watch documentaries!' and that's just so beautiful to me."


Matthew Carey covers documentary film for Deadline Hollywood. He is the founder and editor of