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The growth that Arkansas's still fledgling film scene has enjoyed over the last half-dozen years owes quite a bit to the Little Rock Film Festival. Since the inception of the LRFF, festival organizers have been committed to giving some much-needed big screen time to the state's homegrown crop of flicks, often affording films made by locals on weekends and shoestring budgets equal billing with mainstream films that go on to win national and international awards. Getting that fix from a big-screen audience every year can be the difference between a hobbyist who makes a few shorts and a diehard filmmaker who goes on to achieve cinematic glory.
This year's LRFF features over two dozen films that were shot right here in Arkansas, from student shorts to full-length features. Gerry Bruno, a Little Rock filmmaker who has made several narrative shorts in the state, helped select the Arkansas-made films for the festival. Having worked in local film for several years now, the New Jersey native said it's clear that the state's film community has matured considerably in a short amount of time.
"People are taking more risks than before," Bruno said. "Now, you can get a bunch of equipment for so much less money, and a lot of people actually have their own equipment. You can shoot a film on a [Canon] 5D or 7D [camera] and make it look great. The films are becoming bolder and more ambitious. The stories are getting more involved."
Bruno said there are several standouts in the Arkansas-made category. One of his feature-length favorites is "The Grace of Jake," by director Chris Hicky. It's the story of an ex-con musician who goes home to a tiny Arkansas town to find his father and seek revenge. Bruno said that in addition to beautiful cinematography, the film works because of great acting talent. "You can tell when you get good casting," he said. "Everybody in that film is really excellent. The film is good, but the acting is outstanding."
Bruno had several favorites among the LRFF's expansive blocks of Arkansas-made short films. One that he particularly enjoyed is "Pyro," a haunting 11-minute short by director Cole Borgstadt. The film is about two brothers — one who is a pyromaniac — dealing with the loss of their parents. Bruno said the most surprising thing about the film is that Borgstadt, who also has another short in the LRFF called "Go to the Ball with Me, Jenny," is a student at Fayetteville High School.
"Man, I'm telling you, I really thought he was a seasoned filmmaker," Bruno said. "The depth of the characters, the depth of the story, the quality, it just felt like somebody who had been making films for years and years."
Another short that Bruno liked is the horror film "The Whisperers," by director Jason Miller. A mind-bending tale about two young brothers whose home is invaded by a terrifying evil, the film features Arkansas actors Dean Denton and Paige Martin Reynolds. Both have worked with Bruno in the past. " 'The Whisperers' was really well done," he said. "Paige and Dean don't have big roles in it, but seeing them on camera is nice. They just fit so well together."
Another of Bruno's faves is "Spoonin' the Devil" by director Michael Carpenter, a longer short starring Arkansas actress Natalie Canerday — perhaps best remembered as the mother of young Frank in "Sling Blade." The film is about a woman who drags her niece along on a road trip to scatter her late husband's ashes. "Boy, it is so hard to take your eyes off [Canerday]," Bruno said. "She just commands the screen. I just love watching her."
Watching the films for the LRFF, Bruno said, gave him a new appreciation for just how vibrant the film community is in Arkansas. As technology advances and becomes more affordable, that vibrancy can only grow.
"People understand how to frame a shot," he said. "They understand how to tell a story visually. Technology makes it more manageable. The technology makes it a little easier."
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