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A film fan’s heaven 

For those who ever dreamed of making a documentary — and I’m guessing there may be many of you with Sony digital cameras who’ve had that thought lately — the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival provides a great opportunity for educating the wannabe filmmaker.

Both the opening film of the 15th annual festival, starting Friday, Oct. 20, and the closing film are works in progress that have documentary buffs around the nation excited. I’m particularly excited about the first one as well, since we covered its development and the people who populate the film in a cover story in June titled “White River living,” about the so-called “river rats” who made their survival on the water before time and federal law moved them onto land.

The film, by Melanie Masino of Little Rock and Ken Mandel of Dallas, is a 30-minute rough cut that the filmmakers took to the Smithsonian earlier this year and where they received rousing support for the project. It’s titled “On Solid Ground: The River Rats of Arkansas.” It’s part of the free opening night reception at Hot Springs Malco Theater on Central Avenue starting at 6 p.m. Friday. The film also will be screened at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25.

The film office was giddy when I called the other day about any last-minute news. Yes, they had some: Harry Thomason, the native Arkansan famed for producing “Designing Women” for CBS and being a Friend of Bill, was bringing his new project and his fellow filmmakers to the festival. The film, “Silhouette City,” is “in development” too, but there are 40 minutes to be screened as the festival’s final film, at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29. The filmmakers are documenting the movement of the American apocalyptic militarism from the margins to the mainstream, they say, and their film shows the striking ideological similarities between an obscure early 1980s Christian survivalist group in the Ozarks and the mainstream Christian Right of today.

Documentaries have grown ever more popular with such recent mainstream success stories as “March of the Penguins,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and Michael Moore’s films “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Those great films may be many Arkansans’ only experience with documentaries, but the Spa City’s 10-day festival offers a great chance to see some superb work that otherwise would go unnoticed. I’ve found that the documentary, whether its 10 minutes in length or running an hour, tends to be more compelling than the usual Hollywood movie release.

I’m looking forward this year to seeing a couple of the films that deal directly with Hurricane Katrina: “Good Luck, Ray” and “Robert, Mary and Katrina.” Arkansas films continue to get good play in the festival, and “The Lost Year,” about 1958 and the school closings in Little Rock after the desegregation crisis of September 1857, sounds like a winner to me.

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