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Documentary daze 

Hot Springs’ film festival is as dizzyingly packed with great films as ever.

By Fritz Brantley and Lindsey Millar

Reason number 14 that, despite out-of-state opinion, we live in a culturally progressive area: the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. One of the country's most vibrant, the festival annually brings in dozens of documentaries of all stripes from around world. This year's theme, “Passport to Open Minds,” reflects a special push for diversity, incisive material and controversial subject matter.

The festival kicks off Friday night and runs through the following weekend. (You might consider playing hooky from work sometime next week.) Below we preview the 15 films we're especially charged to see. On page 26 we outline the Arkansas-related docs, and on page 27, we give you the first half of the festival's schedule. Go watch something.

“American Music: Off the Record”

Come for the discussion on the corporatized world of music production and distribution, stay for the celebrities! Led by Noam Chomsky and Douglas Rushkoff, “American Music: Off the Record” takes viewers on a tour through the paradox of the “music industry” — the industrial production of an art form — and finds some disquieting facts. Along the way, we meet Mission of Burma, David Allan Coe, Sonic Youth and other musicians who have found their own, idiosyncratic ways through the sweatshop stage of the capitalistic arts.

“Banished”

During the early 20th century, when Jim Crow still ruled, dozens of cities and towns banished entire black populations virtually overnight. Churches were dynamited, homes were burned and blacks were threatened, shot at and, in some cases, lynched. Veteran documentarian Marco Williams traces the legacy of the sad chapter of history by interviewing descendants of the displaced families and revisiting three of the communities that forcibly removed their black residents — Pierce City, Miss.; Harrison, Ark., and Forsyth County, Ga., all of which remain all-white.

“Born in the Honey”

n Ninety-three-year-old Pinetop Perkins is one of the last of the blues greats. The hour-long documentary traces Perkins from his days on the Honey Island Plantation in Belzoni, Miss., to his present-day life in Austin, Texas. With interviews with contemporaries like Bobby Rush, Ike Turner, Taj Mahal and more, “Honey” offers a rare portrait of the struggles and triumphs of the world-famous piano man.

“The Devil Came on Horseback”

In 2004, a ceasefire was declared in a Sudanese civil war, but the killings never stopped. Former Marine Capt. Brian Steidle witnessed endless atrocities, was taken hostage, and found himself unable to intervene in the defense of the defenseless as a United Nations military observer. Frustrated by the inaction of global peacekeeping forces, he took his findings to the court of public opinion. Through his harrowing photographs, he returned to the U.S. to start a highly publicized peace movement.

“Dispensing Cannabis: The California Story”

One state is offering a unique test case in the battle over marijuana. California grants medical dispensations of marijuana, even in the face of a Supreme Court ruling allowing federal prosecution for possession and distribution. Strange bedfellows have been made in the fight to keep pot on the streets: heavy smokers like NORML, patient advocacy groups like ACT UP, traditional research scientists and an increasingly weird set of celebrities (Montel Williams? Rick Steves?). Ann Alter, a professor at Humboldt State University, has chronicled this fight with an admitted slant. “We are not trying to present a balanced view on the legitimacy of medical cannibis. The legitimacy is assumed in the documentary.”

“Fighting Cholitas”

Indigenous Bolivian women — cholitas — hold weekly Lucha Libre wrestling matches, battling in pumps, traditional layered skirts and shawls before hundreds of men, women and children. Filmmaker Mariam Jobrani goes behind the scenes to find out more about the women and how their wrestling is a battle for identity.

“Gimme Green”

What is our nation's most irrigated and chemically treated crop? Corn? Soybeans? Cotton? Cannabis? No, it's a fine blend of Raleigh St. Augustine and Winrock Zoysia — your front lawn. And in suburbs across the United States, it's a battleground for class warfare. “Gimme Green” takes a short, wry look at the American obsession with lawns. From the political and environmental to the spiritual, the film asks: What does a small patch of grass in front of your house mean? And even worse, what precisely does it do?

“In the Shadow of the Moon”

Only 24 humans have flown to or around the moon. Only 12 have walked on its surface. Only nine are still alive today and the youngest is 71. British director David Singleton's film — a winner at Sundance — tracks the Apollo missions, resting the film largely on interviews with the astronauts and beautiful, digitally restored archival footage, much of which has never been seen.

“Iraq in Fragments”

An Oscar nominee and winner at Sundance, James Longely's visually rich documentary takes an initimate look at the divisive forces pulling Iraq apart through the eyes of the Iraqi people. Mohammed, a fatherless 11-year-old Sunni, drifts in and out of school and is apprenticed under a domineering mechanic. In the South, Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr enforces the law with guns, and a family of Kurdish farmers, who welcome the freedom the U.S. occupation brings them, are struggling to survive.

“Moebius Redux — A Life In Pictures”

Jean Giraud, alias Moebius, has enjoyed a small comeback (in terms of employment) with his 2006 commission to draw the graphic novelization of popular first-person-shooter “Halo.” But while this might have been his first exposure to today's kids, he has had a truly legendary and influential double-life of drawing Western heroes and scoundrels during the day and crafting uncompromising graphic art that found its way into films like “Alien,” “Dune,” and “Tron” by night.

“My Country, My Country”

For eight months, filmmaker Laura Poitras worked alone in Iraq, trying to capture the daily lives of Iraqis under occupation. Her focus is Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni political candidate, medical doctor and father of six, who also happens to be an outspoken critic of the U.S. occupation. The intimate portrait earned Poitras an Oscar nomination last year.

“Orange Revolution”

Director Steve York began tracking Ukraine's presidential election in the summer of 2004, before the popular opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko was poisoned, before the election was stolen and before Ukrainians took to the streets en masse. York lucked into a revolution. Without narration, the filmmaker captures the million protesters who crowd the snow-covered streets, chanting, singing songs (“Together We Are Many,” a political rap by the GreenJolly's, is the key soundtrack), and refusing to forfeit their democracy.

“Recycled Life”

For some 60 years, generations of Guatemalans lived in the largest and most toxic dump in Central America. After 40 years of civil war sent coffee prices plummeting, a huge number of farmers fled the countryside. Many took to the dump for food and shelter and ended up living and working there. Shunned by the government and ignored by society, the dump's inhabitants (“guajeros”) made their living out of recycled trash (reducing the city's waste by 1 million pounds every day), until a methane explosion in 2005 changed the face of the landfill and its inhabitants forever.

“Soldiers of Conscience”

Every soldier wrestles with his or her conscience over killing in battle. Co-directors Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg use that as a jumping off point as they take a look at several U.S. soldiers who have applied for conscientious objector status while serving in Iraq. The complicated questions their position provokes (Does refusing to kill make you less patriotic? What is your duty to your fellow soldiers? What is your duty to God?) give the filmmakers plenty of room in which to maneuver.

“White Light/Black Rain”

The end of the Cold War signaled the end of the nuclear panic that animated everything from global security policy to personal anomie. Except it may not be over — the news of North Korea's disarmament accords reminds us of the many countries still developing nuclear weaponry in the face of peace attempts. Steven Okazaki's new film chronicles the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — both the immediate physical damage and the 160,000 deaths by complications of radiation that followed, and the spiritual damage and diplomatic black hole opened by the development of such high-powered and devastating technology.

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