This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
If you go to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute's website and click on the link marked "Festival," you will find yourself facing the words "Coming Soon" over the festival's logo. Soon, as in this Friday.
The website glitch nicely sums up the worry many documentary film fans felt a few months ago, when the fate of the 20-year-old event was up in the air because of financial problems. But festival director Dan Anderson says the 10-day festival will go on as planned, kicking off at the historic Malco Theater. (You can find a full schedule on another part of the website — scroll down and click on "2011 Final Film List.")
This year, Anderson said, festival organizers are "running a much tighter ship," spending about a quarter of what they used to on printing, advertising, staff costs and parties.
But they're not skimping on films, he promised, and have "a lot of filmmakers coming in" this year. They've also added the Central Theater as a venue, to supplement the Malco.
Anderson said several of this year's films are standouts, including "The Natural State of America," being shown at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. this Friday in the Malco. It's a home-grown product and Anderson calls it "one of my all-time, top Arkansas films." Also on opening night, at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in the Malco, is the world premiere of "Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival," which will be followed at 11 p.m. with a performance by Foul Play Cabaret, a Hot Springs burlesque troupe.
Another special event will be Sunday at noon during the screening of the film "Patriot Guard Riders" — Anderson said they expect some 200 Patriot Guards to show up at the Malco on their motorcycles in support of the film.
Also on his list of favorites is "Beyond Iconic" this Saturday at 5:30 p.m.; it's the story of photographer Dennis Stock.
"He shot a lot of photographs with a lot of iconic figures from the 1950s, like James Dean and some jazz singers and things like that," Anderson explained. "That's a world premiere and the filmmaker, Hanna Sawga Hamaguchi, will be here."
Some tie-in activities are scheduled, such as a graffiti art workshop at 4 p.m. on Saturday with local graffiti artist Jose Hernandez, followed by a showing of "Graffiti Fine Art" at 7:30 p.m. in the Malco with filmmaker Jared Levi in attendance. Folk artist Winfred Rembert, who became famous only recently for art he began making when he was on a Georgia chain gang in the 1950s, will be present at the showing of "All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert" at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, and some of his work will be displayed in a local gallery.
Another world premiere will be "The Living," about a school where aspiring morticians go to learn the funeral business; filmmaker Eduardo Lucatero of Montreal will attend the festival, with showings at 9 p.m. Oct. 19 and 9:25 p.m. Oct. 22. Asked for a personal favorite, Anderson tapped another premiere, "John Frum, He Will Come," about the cargo cult on the South Pacific island of Tanna. Filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled there with American goods in an attempt to fulfill the islanders' prophecy about the return of the legendary Frum, who established himself as a religious icon on the island during World War II. Screenings will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 19 and 6:35 p.m. Oct. 21.
The biggest draw of the festival is expected to be the Arkansas premiere of "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's latest film about the West Memphis Three, at 8:35 p.m. on Oct. 21 in the Malco. Anderson says they expect a sell-out.
That the film festival is happening at all is cause for relief not only among documentary fans in Arkansas, but Anderson and others involved with the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, as well. Some bills went unpaid after the last festival and there was concern about meeting the mortgage for the Malco, owned by the institute; there was also concern about instability in board leadership. Those troubles led the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, which had provided an annual $5,000 grant, to withdraw financial support this year.
Steve Arrison, CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he's pleased that the festival is happening this year but still has some reservations about the long term.
"I know they just had another change in chairman of their board and they changed some board members; I think they still have three of the original board members there," Arrison said. "We're just sort of 'wait and see.' We're not funding the festival this year or until they get their financial house in order. We're still listing it [on event calendars] ... but we're not writing any checks."
Arrison added that he does hope the Film Institute can sort out its problems because the festival draws some 21,000 people to the city.
"I think it's an important part of the tourism package," he said. "There are other things that draw [more people], but it has a good financial impact. It's important for our tourism economy and we just need to make it well. I'm not sure if it's just sick or on life support."
In order to help cut expenses, Anderson said the institute has been running a "guerilla advertising campaign" this year and using as many volunteers as possible. The institute has only two paid staffers — himself and assistant festival director Jim Miller — and they've learned how to "operate on a shoestring."
"This is a time when Arkansas organizations are having trouble, it's harder to get financial support. We lost some of our sponsors due to bad press and otherwise," said Anderson. "Basically what we're doing is on a more independent kind of level. ... We've both been here three years and kind of have a feel for how things flow through the festival."
He's optimistic about the future, though, and still thinks the institute can fulfill its original vision.
"Hopefully this festival is going to get us caught up, get us in the black, and after the festival we're going to focus on the institute and get it to where it's thriving, where we're showing films on a regular basis, bringing filmmakers to Arkansas from all over the world," Anderson said.
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