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A Resounding Success 

The Little Rock Film Festival, year one.

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We’re supposed to watch films together. Movies weren’t really movies until somebody figured out how to project them onto a screen. It was kind of an afterthought, a way to make a pocketful of nickels instead of just one, but it became the medium’s essential innovation. Film should be a collective experience, one that fosters and sustains community through shared emotions. That’s easy to forget in the age of disposable blockbusters and marketing tie-ins and Netflix. For a while, something of real value came home to the state’s capital.

In that regard, the first Little Rock Film Festival was a resounding success: four days full of packed theaters, roaring laughter, simultaneous gasps and commingled tears. People got together and talked about movies, and they remembered that responding to those movies meant something more than simply clicking the right number of stars on a website. Filmmakers met their audiences, fielded questions that got to the heart of why they make the films they do, and possibly found a little inspiration in the process.

Every category of competition had two or three possible winners, and the big winners in the documentary and feature categories (“Little Birds” and “Offside,” respectively) are two of the best films I’ve seen this year. The searing images of the Iraq War doc “Little Birds” still haven’t left me three days later, and the physical act of making such a film is just as impressive. That Takeharu Watai negotiated a war zone is one thing, but that he did it without taking his eyes off the countless children suffering unthinkable tragedy defies conception. “Offside” was a definite crowd favorite, tagging along with several Iranian girls who disguise themselves as boys in order to enjoy the national pastime (soccer) in person. The result is something of a thriller/comedy, a small but echoing triumph.

The organizers of the festival couldn’t have hoped for better results. Each of them could be seen running about all weekend — a little frazzled and red-eyed, somewhat distracted but always smiling — weathering the occasional technical difficulties and putting out this fire and that. (Festivals are like weddings: Months of planning aren’t going to keep the flower girl from bursting into tears, the ring bearer from picking his nose, the best man from being hung over.) But for the most part, things ran smoothly. The atmosphere was amicable and relaxed and invigorating throughout. Those of us lucky enough to have been there owe them a great debt of gratitude.

I wish I could say that now they can relax. But next year calls for one improvement: More. More movies, more screens, more filmmakers, more panels, more everything. Arkansas already hosts two high-quality festivals: the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Ozark Foothills Film Fest. The Little Rock crew has proved themselves equal in terms of scale and scope. They brought in films and filmmakers from around the world, held interesting and provocative panels, and did it all with a very small staff.

But by choosing the state capital as their venue, they’ve taken on a huge responsibility. This festival has to represent everything the state has to offer. Sure, Gov. Beebe showed up to the gala event on Friday night, but nothing says he can’t catch a few movies or even sit on a panel. We’ve seen the short film: The organizers have something to show businesses, community leaders, possible volunteers and native filmmakers, as well as filmmakers who couldn’t find Arkansas on a map. Let’s see the feature.

Editor’s note: For more of Jenkins’ coverage of the festival, visit the Arkansas Times entertainment blog, “Rock Candy.”

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