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New sports series, award-winners make this year's Hot Springs Doc Fest a must-attend 

click to enlarge LIN: Stars in 'Linsanity' image
  • LIN: Stars in 'Linsanity.'

This year's Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, Oct. 11-20, features surely the festival's best lineup ever. Multiple award winners from the likes of Sundance and Hot Docs are on the bill. A biographical look at Arkansas-born football legend Bear Bryant called "Mama Called" will make its world premiere. The Bryant film is part of the festival's new sports documentary series, which also includes "The Big Shootout: The Life and Times of 1969," about the storied national championship game between Arkansas and Texas. The festival's biggest draw might be "Good Ol' Freda," a portrait of The Beatles longtime secretary and fan club manager, Freda Kelly, who'll be in attendance on opening night.

That the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF) has managed to secure a lineup that seems likely to draw a large audience is quite an accomplishment considering the state of the organization last year. In February 2012, Arvest Bank filed a foreclosure suit over more than $300,000 on loans on the Malco Theater, the festival's flagship venue and largest asset. To make matters worse, two months before the festival, a microburst storm rendered the Malco unusable for the event.

But under the new leadership of Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute (HSDFI) board chairwoman Susan Altrui and interim festival director Courtney Pledger, organizers scrambled, securing use of the Arlington Hotel as the primary festival venue and rounding up enough donations to host what ultimately was a widely praised festival.

In June of this year, the HSDFI sold the Malco to developer Rick Williams for $385,000.

"The sale of the Malco was the best thing that could happen to the organization," Altrui said. "With that off our books, it's meant we don't have a large debt saddling us down. That's meant the organization can do what the organization is meant to do, which is putting on a world-class film festival."

Though Pledger is quick to deflect praise for the lineup to the "incredibly valuable screening committee," her stamp is clear. A Hollywood producer with an animated film featuring the voice of Seth Rogen in the works for DreamWorks, Pledger offers both industry connections and a sense for how successful festivals are built.

Together with planning a lineup "to reach out to the broadest audience," Pledger said she's been focused on encouraging documentary filmmakers to come to Hot Springs. "When they realize what an amazing festival it is, they'll tell their community of people how wonderful it is," she said.

Appealing to directors has helped the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) grow in stature in recent years. Pledger took another page from the Little Rock festival's playbook — she added a unique hook to the programming. Where the LRFF has tried to separate itself from other festivals through special programming surrounding the South and humanitarian issues, Hot Springs this year will debut the McKinnis Sports Documentary series, named in honor of Jerry McKinnis, the outdoor sports TV pioneer. The series includes at least 11 features and at least six shorts. In addition to the Bear Bryant film and "The Big Shootout," local audiences will be interested in "The Jim Lindsey Story," a short about the Arkansas football great turned Northwest Arkansas real estate tycoon, and "The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain," about the heralded high school football star whose brief time playing for the Razorbacks inspired controversy. Mustain and director Matthew Wolfe will be in attendance.

Other promising titles in the series: "1," a look at the evolution of Formula One; "The Trials of Muhammad Ali," about the boxer's conversion to Islam, refusal to serve in the military and exile from boxing; "Linsanity: The Jeremy Lin Story," a look at the meteoric rise of the unheralded point guard in the NBA; and "Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop," an ESPN 30 for 30 short that features footage from 1954 of the then-high school junior working as a bellhop at Kutscher's Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskills, and playing on the club's basketball team, coached at the time by Red Auerbach. (Full disclosure: I'm on the jury of the McKinnis series.)

Despite the new sports focus, as usual, the festival includes mostly general interest fare. A few of the especially compelling looking titles: "Tales from the Organ Trade," a look at the $500 million black market of organ trafficking, which screens in advance of its TV debut on HBO; "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne," about a 92-year-old grandma who becomes a notorious jewel thief, and "This Ain't No Mouse Music," a profile of Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz, the man behind seminal recordings of the likes of Bukka White, Clifton Chenier and Mance Lipscomb.

Altrui and Pledger hope that the Malco returns as a venue one day, but both say that the Arlington will continue to be the hub of the festival indefinitely.

The Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, an umbrella nonprofit aimed at supporting film culture in the state that Pledger leads, lets the HSDFF use its state-of-the-art screens and projectors. Placed in a setting where festivalgoers can go into the lobby for a drink or a meal or even go up to their room for a break (the hotel will offer discounted rates for festivalgoers), the HSDFF works better in the Arlington than it did in the Malco, Altrui argues. Though with parties and other events up and down Hot Springs' main drag, "the festival really becomes about Central Avenue," Pledger said.

Because of the relatively low cost of camera equipment and new means of securing financing and distribution, documentary film is a "growth industry" in the film business, Pledger said. "Because of the nature of the festival and its reputation and the uniqueness of Hot Springs, there is just huge, huge potential for the festival to grow."

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