The Arlington Hotel, the nerve centre of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, feels electric come October. Built in 1924, the Spanish Colonial-style hotel hosts most of the festival’s screenings, making for a concentrated and highly social viewing experience. The weekend of 9 October opened another successful run of the ten-day-long, Academy Award-qualifying event – now in its twenty-fourth year. Attendees gathered in the vaulted lobby for a twilight-hour cocktail while a small jazz combo played in an alcove replete with a lavish mural of the jungle. As the start of the screenings neared, the crowd of festival-goers began to head into the central ballroom on the mezzanine upstairs – one of the festival’s two main screening spaces.

A thriving documentary festival in Arkansas might strike some cinephiles as peculiar, but the roots of the HSDFF run deep. Reportedly North America’s oldest documentary festival, the HSDFF has been in operation since 1992. It now stands tall as a prominent destination in an expanding nonfiction festival landscape that includes Full Frame in Durham, AFI Docs in Washington D.C., DOC NYC in New York, Hot Docs in Toronto, and International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

Appropriately named for the hot spring-filled national park in which it takes place, the HSDFF began as a showcase for Oscar-nominated documentaries. The festival grew the following year with the help of actor James Earl Jones who contributed to the fundraising effort and helped increase the event’s visibility. By 1996 the festival found a home at the landmark Malco Theater (often visited by Bill Clinton in his childhood) on Central Avenue. HSDFF came on hard times about four years ago due to a combination of economic and managerial woes. Now under the helm of Executive Director Courtney Pledger, it has bounced back. To better accommodate the attendees and screenings, HSDFF moved to the Arlington Hotel two years ago, in 2013. This year’s selection process narrowed 1,000 entries to 147 for the final program.

Eva Longoria’s Go, Sebastien, Go! kicked off the program on opening night. The short documentary shined a spotlight on 13 year-old mariachi singer Sebastien de la Cruz who was inundated with hate mail following his performance of the national anthem at a San Antonio Spurs basketball game. Cruz’s family, the team and even President Obama rallied behind him. Cruz ended up singing the anthem again in proud response. Part human interest story on a rising musical talent overcoming adversity and part advocacy piece promoting an inclusive understanding of America, the film garnered a standing ovation from the audience that intensified as Cruz suddenly appeared on stage and began to sing.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Go, Sebastien, Go!

Funded by ESPN, Go, Sebastien, Go! is part of the organisation’s adamant move into nonfiction media that engage the socio-political aspects of the sports world. This direction has resulted in numerous high-profile productions including the award-winning series 30 For 30. The Hot Springs program also incorporated three short films from the ESPNW series profiling the journeys of female athletes by sisters Nadine Mundo and Rena Mundo Croshere.

Friday night’s main feature contrasted sharply with the social documentary. Director David Chen’s The Primary Instinct captured a single on-stage performance by Stephen Tobolowsky, the famous Hollywood character actor turned professional storyteller. Tobolowsky is a very lively, wired presence. At its most compelling, the film depicted the performer waxing poetic about his illustrious life in Tinseltown, relishing the highs of receiving a “full name” billing and the despairing lows of anonymity, having to play parts listed simply by number or profession (e.g. Paramedic 1, Homeless Man 2). For much of the film, however, Tobolowsky – as if bitten by the TED bug – strings together autobiographical anecdotes. Each aims to provide the spectator with digestible chunks of wisdom, an easily packaged takeaway message about spirituality, vocation, family, death and sickness. A more compelling documentary would have involved a thorough exploration of the actor’s sensational ability to own the 200+ “minor” parts he has played in a string of prominent movies. What is it that makes someone a good character actor? Why was he never able to break out into a major role? Would he have even liked to? These are the fascinating questions the film could have asked, but never does.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Harry & Snowman

Saturday night’s follow up big-name movie was the equestrian documentary, Harry & Snowman. The film tells the story of Harry deLeyer, a Dutch immigrant who in 1957 bought a simple plough horse for eighty dollars off a truck bound for the glue factory. He named the horse Snowman and trained it to become a show jumping champion. Together, they would go on to win every major show jumping competition in the country. Harry & Snowman cleverly brought together many of the dramatic swells of the big-budget equestrian biopic Seabiscuit (2003) together with quirky moments of human-animal affection in Gates of Heaven (1978). The sentimentality of the story was grounded in the astounding amount of archival footage (home movies, newsreels, talk shows, and amateur films) that director Ron Davis was able to mine from both public and private sources. This material imbued the film with a rich and evocative texture that gave audiences a feel for the time period. Arkansas film commissioner Christopher Crane led a Q&A with Davis at the conclusion of the screening and deLeyer himself sat poised in a Queen Anne armchair in the mezzanine to greet the enthusiastic audience after the show.

The festival continued apace for the next nine days with a strong line-up of films, event screenings and guest appearances. The HSDFF’s official mission statement expresses the desire to: “advance the documentary genre as a meaningful art form, to encourage innovation within the genre, to provide unique educational and cultural opportunities, and to preserve the HSDFF as one of the premiere documentary film festivals in the world.” To this end, the HSDFF’s line-up contained an eclectic mix of projects that addressed a tremendous breadth of subjects. Selections concentrating on the U.S. included: Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s The Seventh Fire, which looked at the current crisis of gang violence among American Indians in the Ojibwe’s White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. In Very Semi-Serious, director Leah Wolchok investigates New Yorker cartoons and how the publication’s staff evaluate possible entries. Albert Maysles, Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu and David Usui’s direct cinema documentary In Transit captured an episodic, fragmentary view into several journeys on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the nation’s busiest train route, which connects Chicago to Portland.

Films with an international reach also figured prominently in the festival’s line-up. In Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, rival politicians attempted to compose a new constitution for Zimbabwe in hopes of shifting the country away from President Mugabe’s 30 years of autocratic rule. Elisa Paloschi’s Driving With Selvi portrays a female taxi driver in South India determined to challenge patriarchal norms through her professional position behind the wheel and role as an advocate for women’s rights. And João Pedro Plácido’s [Be]longing offered a glimpse into a young man’s desire to continue to live and work in his small, rural village in Northern Portugal at a time when many of his generation are leaving for big cities. Special events bringing together films around a particular theme provided an opportunity for intense discussion between audience and filmmakers. This year, directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson (American Promise, 2013), hosted the New York Times Op-Docs series The Conversation, a cycle of four short films about race in America.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Eureka!: The Art of Being

The HSDFF’s robust program carefully interwove the global, the national and the local. Arkansas-centred films gave attendees a sense of the state’s cultural geography and social history. L. Kai Robert’s Eureka!: The Art of Being depicted the funky craft community of Eureka Springs. The one-time aspiring Arkansas baseball player turned Academy Award-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton narrated Larry Foley’s The First Boys of Spring. The documentary recounted how baseball’s spring training ritual originated in Hot Springs in 1886. In The Hunting of the President: Redux Harry Thomason explored the decades-long attempts by right-wing extremists to take down the Clintons. The Arkansas Educational Television Network helped run the Emerging Filmmakers Program, which consisted of collaborative workshops and panels that brought aspiring student filmmakers into productive conversation with more established media industry professionals. A showcase of Arkansas student films rounded out the event.

This calculated balance of the faraway and the local, the glamorous and the gritty makes HSDFF a natural extension of the city. Once known for its lax gambling, liquor and prostitution laws along with its natural resources, Hot Springs drew a diverse crowd in the first half of the twentieth century. Al Capone rented out the whole fourth floor of the Arlington, Mae West and Al Jolson performed at the Ohio Club, and the Boston Red Sox came to recuperate and prepare for the upcoming season. The ceaseless stream of people left a distinctly cosmopolitan imprint on the city.

Contemporary Hot Springs knows how to leverage this historical identity while also embracing the new. The result is an urban environment that reverberates with glimpses of Coney Island, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. A succession of eight fin-de-siècle bathhouses on one side of the central strip speaks to Hot Springs’ much-celebrated past as a spa resort, while a string of novelty stores, galleries, restaurants, bars and performance spaces on the other side speaks to its exuberant, commercial present. Across the street from the Arlington, the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum (formerly the Southern Club casino) coexists alongside the modernist Aristocrat Manor Apartments and the towering, 16-story, Art Deco-styled Medical Arts Building. HSDFF brings the grain of the real to this phantasmagoria, connecting Arkansan culture to the world beyond.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
9-18 October 2015
Festival website: http://www.hsdfi.org

About The Author

Joshua Glick is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Hendrix College and Masha Shpolberg is a Ph.D. Student in Film and Media Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University.