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Last year, the first annual Little Rock Film Festival impressed any film nut lucky enough to swing by. Piloted by childhood friends Jamie Moses, Owen Brainard and Craig and Brent Renaud, the fest provided an impressive and surprising array of foreign films and documentaries, panel discussions and swanky events. Of particular note were its several Iraq war documentaries and Jafar Panahi's “Offside.” While beset but not plagued by typical festival growing pains, its successes far outweighed any setbacks.
The organizers aren't planning on tinkering too much with the proven formula. “Continuing on last year there will be filmmakers from all over the world showing their work here,” said Brent Renaud. “We will showcase some of the very best in independent narrative, documentary and short films. We will continue to feature and celebrate Arkansas filmmakers, and highlight the Arkansas film industry.”
But expect the second LRFF, scheduled for May 15-18, to expand on its already impressive scope. According to Renaud, this year will see “more panels in our Little Rock Talks Series featuring nationally known filmmakers and industry professionals. Panels will be held on independent film distribution, screenwriting, film criticism, and guerilla filmmaking.”
The organizers also hope to provide opportunities for aspiring filmmakers by holding a music video competition and “pitch sessions” where prospective filmmakers can pitch their ideas to industry pros, who will provide feedback and pick a winner.
The festival gala will be held at the Clinton Library and will feature keynote speaker Harry Thomason, an Arkansas native producer and multiple Emmy-winner.
Another spring film feast is the Ozark Foothills FilmFest. Where the LRFF triumphs in scope and linked events, this festival gets by on consistent quality and creative programming. The festival will hold screenings in both Batesville and Little Rock, a large task. Bob Pest, festival coordinator and possibly the state's most indefatigable cinephile, has reined in the festival a bit. “At our peak we did three consecutive weekends in three different cities,” he said. “It is hard to build excitement when you spread your audience too thin. The Batesville line-up is very, very full every day — so you trade off a marathon for a sprint.”
The Batesville lineup is worth the trip, starting the evening of March 27 with a screenwriting workshop and ending on March 30 with the premiere of the latest from Phil Chambliss, an Arkansas native and pure genius. Film fans should never miss a chance to see a Chambliss film. Your world will be wonderfully off-kilter for weeks afterward. Mundane objects take on surreal and sometime menacing attributes. (Keep your eye out for a cameo by Pest.)
In between, the bill is packed with goodies. Saturday promises a family film showcase, a rich and varied animation block and the Independent Spirit Award-winning “August Evening,” with director Chris Eska and producer Jason Wehling on hand for questions. Sunday afternoon, catch the rough cut of “Disfarmer: A Portrait of America,” a documentary about photographer and Heber Springs native Mike Disfarmer.
For rhythm and blues lovers such as myself, the highlight of the festival has to be the Louis Jordan series, curated by Arkansongs host and Jordan scholar Stephen Koch. According to Pest, Jordan pioneered the “Soundie,” the precursor of the music video, and was the first entertainer to combine record sales, extensive touring and a visual presence. “Every significant Jordan number was filmed live at least once and we're showing a lot of them,” Pest said. “Jordan is certainly under-appreciated in his home state; we intend to change that.”
If you can't make the Batesville showing, be sure to see the Jordan series in Little Rock on the afternoon of April 5 at Dickinson Hall on the UALR campus.
As if that ain't enough, something more is sprouting up in Harrison: The Spark Film Festival. Started by Stefan Szabo and Dusty Domino, colleagues at North Arkansas College, the festival will be juried by the well-known critic Jürgen Fauth, an old friend of Domino's. (Fauth recently created an Internet sensation by starting the website idrinkyourmilkshake.com, a gentle spoof of Daniel Day Lewis' climactic speech in “There Will Be Blood.”)
Started with the help of the Ozark Arts Council, the fledgling festival got a bit of a late start. “We really didn't get started until December,” said Domino. “But we gotta start somewhere.” The beautiful Lyric Theater is as good a place as any.
Slated for June 20-21, the Spark Film Festival will consist exclusively of shorts. The organizers are accepting submissions through April 1.