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Little Rock Film Festival recap 

On the winners and other favorites.

After winning at Sundance and Cannes, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" seemed like a lock for the $10,000 Oxford American Best of the South prize, not officially the top prize at the Little Rock Film Festival — which "Beasts" won — but the only one with a cash prize. In the upset bid for the big-money OA prize: Martha Stephens' "Pilgrim Song," which Cheree Franco called "contemplative, graceful and sparse" in our preview of the festival. Stephens raised $8,440 via the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to fund the project, an amount that she told the Times represented about half of her budget. At that rate, she's more than halfway finished funding her next project thanks to the prize.

Stephens told the Times' Kim Lane that she made the movie — about a middle school teacher who decides to hike the Sheltowee Trace Trail after he's laid off — because she wanted to showcase the natural beauty of her home state of Kentucky.

"You see so many movies that look at Appalachia as a disgusting, drug-infested, impoverished place, and a lot of the stereotypes exist for a reason. We have all of that. But also, there are some nooks and crannies that are absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to make a movie about a guy hiking through that area."

The complete list of winners: Arkansas Times Audience Award: "Wolf"; World Shorts: "The God Phone"; Best Youth Film: "Colors in White"; Made in Arkansas Best Performance: Samuel Pettit in "Cain and Abel"; Made in Arkansas Best Director: Edmund Prince (Imraan Ismail) for "Shattered"; Charles B. Pierce Award for Best Arkansas Film: "Man in the Moon"; Golden Rock for Best Documentary: "High Tech, Low Life"; Golden Rock for Best Narrative Film: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Oxford American Prize for Best Southern Film: "Pilgrim's Song."

More on those and other favorites (read our complete coverage of the festival at arktimes.com/lrff2012):

The award-winning darling of both Sundance and Cannes, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," is a dense, ambitious epic, set in a swampy downtrodden utopia known as The Bathtub and starring 6-year-old Quvenzhane "Nazie" Wallis as Hushpuppy, a half-feral bayou child. She's confident, intuitive and absolutely convincing. The other standout is the art direction, which manages superb tasks on a budget of under $2 million (some of which is a grant from the Sundance Institute).

A stand-in for the Ninth Ward and other invisible, institutionally disenfranchised communities, The Bathtub is populated by crocodiles, overgrown fish, goats, chickens, mutts, drunks, a shaman and children. Everyone lives on his or her own terms. Freedom is what matters, tiny things are marvelous, and life is rowdy. But beyond The Bathtub there's global warming and rising sea levels, and as Hushpuppy repeatedly reminds us, the whole universe is connected.

A legendary storm comes. It kills the animals, and The Bathtub is underwater. Afterwards, those who didn't leave for life beyond the levee (where fish are trapped in plastic and babies are trapped in carriages) must live together in boats and a floating schoolhouse shack. They must learn to survive — especially Hushpuppy, because her mama ran off and her daddy is dying of some mysterious blood ailment.

Many films celebrate or portray life on the fringes, but this film pushes those fringes to mythical proportions. These people are utterly isolated, and yet, they are never alone. They have the whole universe. They have universes within the universe. They have their own gypsy-refuse Mardi Gras whenever they feel like it. They have occasional contact with other fringe-dwellers, in fantastic places such as floating saloons, where a goddess-cum-waitress, who might just be your long-lost mama, fries up the best alligator you ever tasted and then dances with you all night long. They have fireworks and arm-wrestling and, always, plenty of beer and moonshine. It's eerie and gorgeous. It's the squatters' New Orleans, the pirated, hobo underbelly of the tourist city. It's prehistoric art on cardboard caves and made-for-TV Viking lore. Like the best fairy tales, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is both familiar and disconcerting.

The film takes some effort to absorb. Its strength is in impressions, but these impressions are layered, and the scenes are laden with archetype and narrative. Combined with the emotional score, it all became a poetic wash, catapulting your psyche in a hundred unbidden directions at once and dredging up "everything that made me," to quote Hushpuppy. This is what I most appreciated about the film, but it's also what I found problematic. At times, it all seemed a little self-conscious. Sometimes you're more aware of the artiness, craft and ambition than you are engaged by the characters and their lives.

Cheree Franco

Of all the famous Arkansas musicians you can name, it's all right if you're not familiar with avant-garde composer Conlon NancarrowDr. James Greeson, writer and director of the new documentary "Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano," didn't know Nancarrow was from Arkansas until after he started professing music up in Fayetteville. Greeson grew fascinated with Nancarrow's strange and groundbreaking compositions, and embarked on an extensively researched documentary detailing Nancarrow's life. The result is a largely educational but overall fascinating portrait of a musical genius who grew up in Texarkana.

Okay, so the title is a little unwieldy. But it requires a double-take: How does one exactly become a "virtuoso" of an instrument that plays itself? Greeson's film begins with a reminder of how prevalent the player piano was in family living rooms in the days before radio and television. Nancarrow himself grew up with one but its prominence wouldn't feature in his life until much later.

In a thrilling turn of events, Nancarrow, one of those mustachioed bohemian intelligentsia Communists of the 1930s, left the U.S. to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where, after the defeat of the Spanish Republican Army, he was retained in a concentration camp, and permitted to leave only because he was American. He also lived in New York and befriended titans of composition like John Cage and Aaron Copland. In 1949, one of his pieces was choreographed by the legendary Merce Cunningham. Frustrated with trying to stage his experimental pieces with unreliable musicians, Nancarrow eventually turned to the player piano, in essence, as a mechanical orchestra.

It's this realization that comes across brilliantly in the documentary: Nancarrow's gift was for using a piano not as one but several instruments. One music scholar and biographer admits that the composer's player pianos had shellac or tin on the hammers, so their sound was crisp, jarring, decisive. In what feels like a bold move for the non-avant garde friendly, Greeson features several long clips of Nancarrow's most noteworthy compositions, including the entrancing and maniacal-sounding "Canon X."

Nancarrow spent much of his later life in Mexico City, where he emigrated after passport complications in the McCarthy era. He continued to compose there, punching those little holes in the rolls of paper for his pieces. It wasn't until he was in his 70s that he earned a MacArthur genius grant and toured the world holding performances of his work.

The documentary does have a little structural trouble, jumping around in chronology in a fairly befuddling way, but the expert interviews, archival footage, and deconstruction of Nancarrow's pieces are informative and user-friendly. It was impressive how a music professor managed to express, through a series of accessible visuals, how complex and significant Nancarrow's innovations were. What makes a subject like Nancarrow worthy of a documentary is the sheer visual impact of seeing his pieces performed on the player pianos — there are times when the keys are compressing so quickly they look exactly like rippling water. If you're an appreciator of old-school New York avant garde, a music theory nut, or simply interested in an obscure and provocative Arkansan, "Conlon Nancarrow" is a thorough and engaging biography.

Natalie Elliott

"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" is a film that ought to be distributed in the public schools as a gripping lesson in racism. The film encapsulates black-white relations in the South with the story of just one brave black man, Booker Wright, but is multi-layered, a film about a film and its repercussions, in the past and today.

Raymond De Felitta's documentary brings to light a film his father, Frank De Felitta, made for NBC in 1966 (they don't make them like they used to: Imagine an hour-long, prime-time documentary on a subject of similar controversy on NBC today) and then put away for 50 years. The older De Felitta, now in his 90s, went to Greenwood, Miss., to record the viewpoints on race. For "Mississippi: A Self Portrait," De Felitta found lots of white people saying they loved their negroes, like the old codger who took the crew through sharecropper cabins to show them how well his negroes lived. Hell, they had propane gas! "We've never denied them anything," the man, Louis, says; the black man says, "Yes, suh!"

But it is Booker Wright who is the heart of this story, a man who was a waiter at Lusco's, a whites-only restaurant by night while running his own restaurant, Booker's Place, by day. White people loved to hear Wright recite the menu at Lusco's — it wasn't written down and you didn't know the price of anything until you were at the cash register after dinner — and suggested De Felitta get it on film, which he did. Wright, dressed in his waiter's white suit, gave his spiel and then surprised the filmmaker by continuing to talk, giving a discourse on the way white people treated him at the restaurant. "Some people call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim and some call me nigger," he said, and then explained how he was nice to all of them. The meaner the customer, he said, the more "you smile, even though you're crying on the inside." The waiter says that's what he has to do, so his children can get an education and won't have to smile at people who afford them no respect when they grow up.

The elder De Felitta regrets he did not leave the interview out of "Mississippi: A Self Portrait," even though what Booker said needed to be heard. After its national airing, Booker Wright lost his job, was beaten by police, his restaurant was burned. He was murdered seven years later by an African-American named "Blackie," a man who appeared so self-confident throughout his murder trial that it's speculated he was encouraged to kill Wright and told, falsely, the trial would be fixed so he would get off. (He's still in prison; authorities wouldn't let Raymond De Felitta interview him.)

Wright's children don't share De Felitta's regrets. They say he was no "accidental activist."

Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, had been looking for the NBC film for years when a friend told her it had just been posted to the Internet by De Felitta's son. She got in touch with Raymond De Felitta and the new film was born. The younger De Felitta's choice to make his film in black and white, as was his father's, is pure mimesis, and provides continuity between the Mississippi of the 1960s and Mississippi in the 21st century.

Best exemplifying the latter: Comments from a group in Greenwood who gathered to watch the NBC film. One man rises to say he considered the black woman who raised him as his second mother — who has not heard that in the South? His effusive remarks prompt a black man to rise and point out that that woman had to ignore her own family so she could take care of the whites she worked for. A woman comments that she loved the film because she got to see on film people she loved — including Booker, but also the town leaders at the time, closeted Klansmen who said integration would be unfair to "illiterate" black kids and that the "nigras" wanted segregation as much as they did.

Leslie Newell Peacock

With an off balance washing machine in the opening scene providing a visual and auditory sensation of entering a simmering cauldron of psychosis, "Shattered" features a classic, stylized domesticity rendered to embody the film's title. The carefully orchestrated cinematography, editing and sound effects combine for an unnerving, haunting experience. Describing the film as Lynchian seems appropriate. As the plot progresses, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the wife, husband, or both are at the heart of the madness. It would be a shame if writer and director Edmund Prince (Imraan Ismail) and cinematographer Gabe Mayhan didn't collaborate further on future projects.

Jeremy Glover

"Teddy Bear" opens with the brooding, hulking figure of Dennis (Kim Kold) standing in a bathroom and staring at himself in the mirror. He says nothing and his expression is a chiseled grimace, though his eyes are soft. The scene is one of many in which Dennis contemplates the mirror. This makes sense for a professional bodybuilder, which he is, age 38 and living at home in a Copenhagen suburb with his shrill, petite, obsessive mother. The mirror serves as both a refuge and a torment for Dennis — it's as if he's constantly trying to find himself in its thankless reflection.

It turns out Dennis is on what appears to be one of many failed dates with a buxom blonde he met at the gym. He goes home to his mother and lies about where he's been. His relationship with women is established briskly: He reveres them, but he can't emotionally access them. This is due, in part, to his overbearing matriarch, whose creepy jealousy and infantalizing of Dennis has ironically worn down this muscled behemoth of a man into a simpering coward.

When, at a celebration dinner, Dennis sees the unbearable joy his wiry uncle Bent feels towards his new, questionably procured Thai wife, Aoi, Dennis is in awe and consumed with envy. After Bent assures him that Thai women are warmer and more friendly, Dennis naively travels to Pattaya, renowned for its salacious nightlife, to find a bride.

Dennis' depiction verges on a gentle-giant stereotype, the enormous, physically strong person as awkward, gullible, and easily dominated by others. But the sympathy is earned less through Dennis' action than his inaction, his silence, his inability to react. Shots are composed around his bulky frame — seeing him standing over the showerhead in attempts to shampoo his hair, watching him dial a touch-tone telephone whose keys look like pinheads beneath his thick fingers. These are the images that earn pity. It's the small things, including his tiny mother, that seem to overpower him.

There must be something about Danish mothers — the infamous director Lars von Trier speaks often about his flawed relationship with his domineering mom — because there's an implicit approval of these less-than-progressive female ideals throughout the film. Even Toi, the Thai woman who Dennis eventually meets, seems clueless at times, or mute, or unable to stand up for herself. This may be cultural, and this may be what makes her a good match for helpless Dennis. But these skewed and anti-feminist female portrayals weaken what is otherwise a plainly heartfelt, tender film.

Natalie Elliott

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