Last week, on a day off from shooting aboard a boat on the Atlantic Ocean for a "60 Minutes" segment he's not at liberty to discuss, globetrotting documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud talked about timing. His was bad, he said. The film festival that he and his brother and filmmaking partner Craig Renaud have taken, in half a dozen years, from an idea to one of the most respected in the South was mere days away, and Brent, co-artistic director and chief programmer of the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF), had more time bobbing on the Atlantic ahead of him. This sort of inopportune, but impossible-to-turn-down assignment has become something of the norm for the Renauds. Last year, they were in Juarez days before the festival covering the drug wars. The year before, around the same time, they were in Chicago, shooting a segment on the Vice Lords gang for Dateline NBC. But the timing of the festival — personal conflicts aside — couldn't be better, Brent said.
"We put our festival exactly where it is for a reason. It falls right on the heels of Tribeca, Sundance and SXSW. They all insist on world premieres, and we're getting most of those films as submissions." The number of films from the three festivals adds up, "So we're actually having to reject many of the films those festivals show."
Why are the most promising films in independent cinema targeting Little Rock so early in their promotional runs? The LRFF's track record, for one. Films like "Winter's Bone" and "Restrepo" reaped awards at the LRFF long before they got mainstream attention and Oscar nominations. Even more of a draw for the film world: What the Renauds call "Southern hospitality," an antidote to the grind of the film festival circuit that the brothers know well. The LRFF caters to moviemakers as do few, if any, other festivals. Filmmakers get at least one free plane ticket to fly to the festival, a free downtown hotel room, personal car service, free booze and food — and there are massive parties every night.
"It's funny how word spreads with filmmakers across the country," said Craig Renaud, co-artistic director and chief festival event planner. "We get calls from people coming from Sundance after winning awards and saying, 'We're coming. You guys doing that riverboat party again?' "
Tribeca, Sundance and SXSW are "media crazy festivals that can feel like a bit of a whirlwind," Brent Renaud said. At the LRFF, "filmmakers get to relax a little more and interact with audiences."
This year, more filmmakers than ever before will be on hand to visit with audiences. Of the more than 100 films screening, the Renauds expect filmmakers (and/or actors and producers) to be around for post-film Q&As for 90 percent of the films.
After trying out a number of mottos in previous years, the LRFF stuck with one for two years in a row for the first time this year: "Head South." It's meant to encapsulate the festival's Southern welcome, its goal to become the premiere film festival in the South and its focus on Southern film. That, for the third year, the Oxford American is sponsoring a $10,000 Eye on the South prize for the best Southern film helps with that push. The prize money, for example, was likely a draw for a late add to the LRFF schedule, "Beasts of the Southern Wild." One of the most celebrated indie films in recent years, it's coming off a Grand Jury Award at Sundance and a rapturous reception at Cannes last week.
Cannes again will keep Arkansas rising star Jeff Nichols from screening at the LRFF. On Saturday, his Arkansas-shot "Mud" was the last film screened in competition for the Palme d'Or at Cannes; it's likely to follow a similar path as "Take Shelter," which last year won the Critics Week Prize at Cannes and didn't play another festival until the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Still, the filmmaker himself will make an appearance. He and veteran filmmaker Jay Russell ("End of the Line," "My Dog Skip," "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep") from North Little Rock will be presented with the LRFF Diamond Award at the Arkansas Times-sponsored Closing Night Awards Gala at 6 p.m. Sunday, June 3, at the Clinton Presidential Center.
A wrap party at Crush Wine Bar at 10:30 p.m. Sunday officially closes the festival. It's the 13th party of the festival schedule. Earlier highlights: On Wednesday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Arkansas Arts Center, there's a reception for Russell, followed by a program, moderated by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Philip Martin, at which Russell will show clips from his films and talk about his career. Naturally, an after-party follows at the Arts Center, where Adam Faucett will perform and complimentary drinks and food will be provided (open to silver, gold, sponsor and filmmaker passes). Thursday marks the return of the annual Music Video Competition and Show at 9 p.m. at Stickyz with a new twist this year — the competition includes videos from beyond Arkansas. Local superstar DJ/VJ g-force will spin an audio-visual mix (silver, gold, sponsor and filmmaker pass-holders get in free; otherwise it's $5). At 10:30 p.m. Friday, the famed party aboard the Arkansas Queen riverboat will launch from North Little Rock. Locally renowned rock 'n' soul act Velvet Kente performs. It's only open to silver, gold, sponsor and filmmaker pass-holders and on a first-come, first-serve basis. Get there early. At 10 p.m. Saturday, after hosting a screening of the excellent documentary "Tchoupitoulas," the Oxford American shows off its new space on South Main, where Cotham's fried chicken and fried pickles and drinks will be served and the Best Southern Film Award will be announced (open to silver, gold, sponsor and filmmaker pass-holders). There'll be a big food spread and more free booze on Sunday at the gala. It's free to gold, sponsor and filmmaker pass-holders, or $75.
Speaking of passes. Here's a breakdown: The bronze festival pass is $40. It gets you into all the films. The $100 silver pass includes access to all of the films and most of the parties. The $250 VIP gold pass includes priority seating, access to the LRFF filmmaker lounge, the gala and more. Visit littlerockfilmfestival.org for more info and to take advantage of an interactive feature that lets you plan your schedule.
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