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Well, let's go ahead and get this out of the way in case you hadn't heard. As generally expected, Sly Stone, the hard-fallen funk genius, was a no-show for the world premiere of “Coming Back for More,” which follows the two-year long hunt for the man behind Sly and the Family Stone. Yes, he's notorious for shirking appearances without reason, but I understand he was on doctor's orders to stay put. Despite the disappointment, the HSDFF staff placed a “get well soon” gift at the front exit, filled with well wishes from the patrons.
The first weekend belonged to “I Am a Man: From Memphis, a Lesson in Life,” a multiple award-winning short (I predict an Oscar nomination soon) so stirring that its humble synopsis simply won't do it justice. In lieu of trying to convey the plot, I'll just say that Elmore Nickelberry, the central character and a Memphis sanitation worker, deservedly received the loudest, longest standing ovation I've ever seen at any film festival. Buy some hankies and track this movie down as soon as you can.
Several other festival highlights came in the first weekend, including “Seven Signs,” a disarmingly compelling and massively entertaining theme piece about God, sin, music, schizophrenia and superstition in the post-Gothic boonies by freshman director J.D. Wilkes (of Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers). And “Warrior Champions,” the new film from Little Rock's Brent and Craig Renaud, packed the house at each of its screenings. The brothers' brand of digital cinema-verite has already proved arresting when documenting war (“Off to Iraq”), drugs (“Dope-Sick Love”) and race (“Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”). With “Warrior Champions,” they prove sport is also well within their deft reach. A “Murderball” for adults, the film proves the Renauds' consistently impressive eye for happenchance metaphor. In with one shot in particular, we see a swimmer trying to find a comfortable way to cross her legs with a new prosthetic: the single best frame of the entire festival.
If the packed “Warrior Champions” was one of the most appreciated films of the festival, the best kept secret was a criminally-under-attended, three-film retrospective by cult figure Bill Brown, an experimental 16mm filmmaker who combines a charming eye for cinematography (think William Eggleston by way of Harmony Korine) with a surreal, dry sense of humor (Steven Wright by way of Samuel Beckett). Of all the filmmakers in attendance, Brown surely got the most high-fives and free drinks.
Brown and his films were in the festival thanks to first-year programmer Dan Anderson, who ushered in more than a few cutting-edge, modern documentaries like “RIP: A Remix Manifesto,” a hyper-stylized party film about, yes, copyright law, starring Girl Talk; “Abraham Obama,” which follows Ron English, Shepard Fairey, David Choe and their guerilla graffiti campaign during the 2008 elections; and “Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry,” an exploration of a tattoo iconoclast. Those, plus probably a dozen more similarly geared, probably wouldn't have been on the docket two, much less five or six, years ago, but all screened to diverse crowds and finished with chatty approval in the lobby. If Anderson and organizers can continue to integrate those sorts of films with the great classic-form documentaries that established the festival as one of the best in the South, look for the HSDFF to grow in stature.
Oh, and one more quick note: If Sly Stone's absence was a let-down, Samuel L. Jackson's stealthy, unexpected appearance at Saturday's unthinkably amazing Bobby Rush/Cedell Davis show at Maxine's was more than enough consolation.