Louis Schwartzberg’s documentary “America’s Heart and Soul” has drawn accolades and awards around the country, but the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival gave the filmmaker something no one else had: a family reunion.
The 84-minute film profiles about 30 “ordinary” Americans (some arguably have talents that put them outside that category) in short, unconnected vignettes. Schwartzberg spent up to two days with each of his subjects over several years, collecting stories of people living joyful lives, in some cases despite considerable hardship and adversity. Some of them gained a permanent foothold in his heart, but until last week, none of them had ever been in the same room together.
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, however, changed that. The group flew in four of the “cast members,” who first met each other and then answered audience questions after the standing-room-only opening-night screening of “America’s Heart and Soul” on Friday, Oct. 22 at the Malco Theater.
“It’s a dream come true to have them all here in real time,” Schwartzberg said. “It’s like having a family you’ve lived with all your life and have never met each other.”
Mosie Burks, a Mississippi gospel singer who raised her younger siblings after her mother died, said being in the film “was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
“I’ll never forget — we were filming in my front yard, and he said, ‘Look at me, Mosie — look into my eyes. Whatever you say, the world will know who you are.’”
Cut to Mosie’s vignette. She’s on the stage, singing lead with the Mississippi Mass Choir, running joyfully around the stage like a gospel Tina Turner. Then she’s sitting in her front yard, calm, and she looks into the camera.
“My name is Mosie Burks,” she said. “And I am a child of the King. That’s what I am.”
Also in Hot Springs was Michael Bennett, an ex-con who took up boxing in prison and within a couple of years of his release had become captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Most moving in his vignette were quotes from the coach who runs the inner-city gym where Bennett mentors kids — his office wall is covered with pictures of young men who’ve been murdered — and one of the kids Bennett works with, who talks about how Bennett has become like a father to him and “makes me feel special.”
Not all of the vignettes feature such serious stories, though: There’s the “explosives artist” in tiny Creede, Colo., who’s a kind of Gallagher of the cannon, and the troupe of “cliff dancers” who create the most beautiful kind of horizontal acrobatics anchored to the side of a cliff, where gravity loses its power.
“America’s Heart and Soul” is concerned with the big picture, though — Schwartzberg said he was trying to illustrate what Americans’ true values are, absent the political weight that word is usually laden with — so as riveting as some of his subjects are, we never get more than the briefest taste of them.
It’s a bit dissatisfying. We would have rather spent twice as long with half as many people. But in the end, we’re happy to have met them, even if we had to say good-bye too soon.
“America’s Heart and Soul” screens again at 1:55 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, the last day of the 10-day festival.