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The Little Rock Film Festival was an almost unmitigated success in year four. The crowds swelled — to 25,000, up 25% from last year and almost 10 times the audience of year one. The programming throughout the five-day whirlwind was strong and, as we've come to expect, thrillingly diverse. More filmmakers than ever before attended, which meant that most screenings were followed by edifying panel discussions. A new partnership with the Oxford American and a strengthened one with the Clinton School helped the festival draw an array of exciting Southern films and documentaries. Even the parties, not to mention the after parties and after-after parties, were bigger and better this year.
The night after the festival ended, executive director Jack Lofton already was talking about ways to improve next year's event.
"We're aiming for a 100% attendance rate: bringing in a filmmaker from each of the 100-plus films we screen. We want to increase the prize money and provide a monetary award for the Golden Rock awards in order to get bigger films, more world premieres."
But with expansion comes its own share of problems, like venue capacity. Festival goers were turned away from the opening night film and many of the other high profile films were so crowded there were a number of people standing.
Lofton says he's looking at different options, but remains intent on keeping everything downtown to retain the urban feel of the festival and to showcase both Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Yet even with expansion and improvement, Lofton maintains that the festival will place the same emphasis on one of its original tenets: affordability. The basic five-day festival pass cost $30 this year.
"We do this with a fraction of what other film festivals spend," says Lofton. "Hotels, printing, event spaces, they're all donated; we're tremendously lucky to have such a supportive downtown and such loyal attendees. As a non-profit, our budget is dedicated to bring in filmmakers."
So the festival is a success. It might even be a regional juggernaut. But for it to it to rise to the national level, it's going to have to not just bring in more directors and actors, but bring in more directors and actors who're well known. Billy Bob Thornton and Ryan Gosling narrated high profile docs that screened this year. Actors of their stature need to be in attendance if the festival's to create a buzz that really resonates within the industry and national media. That might take a few years. In the meantime, someone needs to build the festival a permanent home in either downtown Little Rock or North Little Rock, something akin to the Malco in Hot Springs, where the LRFF can base its operations and screen special programming throughout the year. Make this happen, movers and shakers.
Prize winners and more
If you followed our preview coverage of the festival in last week's paper and on the web, you got the heads-up on all the films that won awards. "Winter's Bone," which we called a prohibitive favorite to win the Oxford American Southern Prize, didn't take home the $10,000 award; instead it took home the festival's top general prize for narrative, the Golden Rock. But we were just as happy to see "American: The Bill Hicks Story," which we put on our cover last week, take the prize.
Constantly engaging, moving along from Hicks' typical childhood in Houston, through his battles with (and celebration in) booze and coke and, ultimately, to his early death as a 32-year-old here in Little Rock, "American" treats the comedy cult hero with equal parts reverence and familiarity and succeeds in spades. Played on Thursday to a standing-room-only house of Hicks fans, the vaguely familiar and, hopefully, the newly familiarized, "American" sent the audience jumping from hysterics to admiration; when it ended, the audience was either too hushed or too shaken to applaud. Half a minute later, the hands began to clap and a number of the audience rose up for a standing ovation.
"Winter's Bone," you might guess, strikes a wholly different mood. If you've driven down a lonely road in, say, Boone or Carroll Counties, near Christian and Taney counties in southern Missouri where the film is set, you've glimpsed the backwoods detritus that provides the film's setting — truck corpses, single-wides in traction, an old tractor part angling to become one of the weeds. And you've probably come across the people: proud, sullen, with permanently furrowed brows or sunken cheeks. The film, which follows a 17-year-old girl (Jennifer Lawrence in a career-making performance) on a quest to find her reprobate father, who's put his family's house and land up for bond, lives and breathes these people, that setting. And as much as we've seen their cinematic cousins, you've probably not glimpsed them this round, this imbued with human qualities. Which is not to say that the film doesn't work on the same kind of elemental, terrifying level as those cousins. It's plotted slow, but the meth-addled and thick-bearded are just as terrifying, if not more. We can't imagine seeing something as bleak, yet still heartening all year.
We missed the Golden Rock winner for documentary "Restrepo" because we wanted to catch Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," a much-hyped documentary about public education. As it gains wider release, it's likely to gain a lot of attention. And it's certainly provocative; scenes filled with teacher ineptitude, bureaucratic impediments and elementary school kids crying because they didn't win a lottery to go to a magnet or charter school would make just about anyone alternately angry and sad. But by glancing over the poor track record of charter schools and wholly vilifying teachers unions, the doc is more agitprop than journalism, not our preferred approach when it comes to something as complex as public education.
The short narrative "Antiquities," this year's Charles B. Pierce Award for Arkansas film, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The story was as simple and lighthearted as they come. A shy guy who works at a flea market tries to muster up the courage to ask a co-worker for a date on her last day at work. But young filmmaker Daniel Campbell has a knack for filming comedy. And he gets one of the funniest performances we've seen in ages from Roger Scott (famous to listeners of "The Buzz") as a bullying manager. Hopefully, Campbell, who told us in a Q&A on Rock Candy that he admires Wes Anderson, has found his Bill Murray.
"Spanola," the latest collaboration between Graham Gordy and Ray McKinnon, didn't compete in the shorts completion; the filmmakers missed the entry deadline. But it, like "Antiquities," seems likely to gain traction on the national festival circuit. Gordy, known mostly for his screenwriting, plays the film's only character, a north Louisiana dandy named Tookie Spanola, who's presiding over a withering hot sauce empire in a dying town. In a story that takes a seriously whacked-out turn, Gordy always stays in the pocket, delivering a performance that's slyly comic and full of pathos, a tough combo, rarely pulled off as well.
Speaking of strange combinations: Toeing the line between documentary and narrative film, "Alamar" follows an actual father in real life circumstances as he takes his five-year old child to an Eden-like sea with his fisherman father before his ex-wife returns to her native Rome with their son. With a graceful yet unhurried pacing and what must have been the most gorgeous cinematography of the entire festival, it stunned, even silencing the audience in our screening and continued its streak of winning over film festival audiences with a simple, gorgeous character study of family, masculinity and nature.
Visually, "Arcadia Lost," the only film to world premiere at the festival, is phenomenal — filmed in Greece, it's a slow whirlwind of gold, blue, white, and yellow, sifting through a sun-drenched Mediterranean landscape. The camera lolls around the characters and drifts across the ancient topography, giving the audience the sensation that they are watching a memory. It's a soothing thing to look at, a balm for the eyes.
But one vice of beauty is that it is very often boring. Only the first 20 minutes contain enough intrigue of plot to match the film's prettiness. The 16-year old protagonist grieves the loss of her father and is dissatisfied with her mother's marriage to a new man. She is a sly Lolita, lazily promiscuous, snappy and incorrigible. Her stepbrother cannot figure out how she wants to be treated, so he hides behind his Pentax and innocently follows her around. The story meanders around the girl's ennui and seductiveness until a car crash strands her and her stepbrother in the desolate, rocky countryside. Nothing much else happens, really. They wander around, pick olives, meet an Australian, roll around in the grass.
"Arcadia Lost" falls into a trap that catches so many other indie films — it tries to rely too much on profoundness, on its hope to enlighten and inspire the audience, and in doing so forgets that a movie is meant also to entertain.
Luckily, that wasn't a problem for much else in the festival program.
Visit Rock Candy (www.arktimes.com/blogs/rockcandy) for more on the festival.
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