It may attract far fewer attendees and far less attention, but the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, which kicks off on Wednesday in Batesville, is just as deserving of national distinction: It may very well be the best small festival in the country.
At least this much is clear, according to founder Bob Pest: The FilmFest is the smallest festival in the country that receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which last year gave the festival $10,000 and $2,500, respectively.
This year's event marks its 10th anniversary, an achievement that's hardly lost on Pest. "Think about all the people in Arkansas who would've never thought we'd make it 10 years," he said to a reporter recently. "It's a good feeling."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, hooray for a persevering little festival in a little town," the moviegoer in Little Rock might say. "But why would I want to drive nearly 100 miles to attend?"
For several reasons, but chiefly because Pest is screening an original cut of Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece "Metropolis" on Friday night. The dystopian film bombed with audiences upon its initial release in 1927, so the studio recut it, shaving off about 30 minutes of footage. Film historians believed the original cut was lost, but a copy turned up in an Argentine museum in 2008 and that version has been screening at major festivals and theaters throughout the world since 2010.
Better yet, Pest has secured the Alloy Orchestra to perform its new film score for "Metropolis" live onstage in Batesville. The three-man ensemble, which also appeared at the third and fourth festivals, scores silent films using a wide array of percussion instruments, found items and state-of-the-art keyboards and other electronic gizmos (Roger Miller, front man for post-punk heroes Mission of Burma, is responsible for keyboards and other gizmos).
More highlights: On Wednesday, the festival continues its partnership with the French cultural attache in Houston with a program of contemporary narrative shorts from France. Thursday night, the promising documentary "Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America" follows five women as they compete in the 2010 Ms. Wheelchair America competition (Jacqueline Bettis, Ms. Wheelchair Arkansas 2009, will be in attendance). Friday, screenwriter Gordy Hoffman ("Love Liza") hosts a screenwriting competition that Pest said sold out almost immediately. Saturday's packed slate features an Arkansas narrative shorts program, an Arkansas documentary program that includes a short film about the time The Beatles flew into Walnut Ridge, an international animation showcase and two full-lengths — the documentary "God's Architects," about "self-taught and visionary builders" in the South, and the narrative feature "In/Significant Others," which Pest compares to "Crash" for its webbed plot. Sunday, the potential highlights include "Westbound," a documentary about 96-year-old "hobo artist" Adolph Vandertie; and a quirky feature about a man and his dwarf hamster produced by Arkansas's Category One, "Etienne!"
The screenings take place at Independence Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College-Batesville, Lyon College's Derby Building and other venues. Most programs are followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers. Some programs are free, but most are $5 ($4 for students and those 54 and older or $3 for Foothills Film Society Members). The "Metropolis" screening is $12 ($10 for students and those over 55 and $8 for society members). A "Red Eye" movie pass that includes admission to everything but "Metropolis" is also available for $25 ($20 to students and those over 54 and $15 for film society members).
For more information, visit ozarkfoothillsfilmfest.org.