Last year, in advance of the 10th annual Ozark Foothills FilmFest in Batesville, Times editor Lindsey Millar wrote that the event "may very well be the best small festival in the country."
Understandably, founder and board president Bob Pest appreciated that assessment. The festival's smaller size "allows us to be friendly and people can spend time talking," he said. "There's no, 'I'm the big dog and you're the small dog.' "
While that sort of attitude might be a factor in Toronto or Cannes or Park City or Berlin, cinephiles won't find any such posturing on the streets of Batesville.
"Ours is different from the bigger commercial festivals because we don't have agents here trying to buy films, and filmmakers don't come here thinking that it's going to change their lives and get them to Hollywood," Pest said.
But that doesn't mean the organization doesn't have a hand in helping filmmakers advance their careers. Last year, the festival awarded three $30,000 grants to Arkansas filmmakers to make or finish feature-length works shot mostly in the state with casts and crews that were 75 percent Arkansan. Taylor Feltner, Juli Jackson and Brent and Craig Renaud won the grants for, respectively, "Man Shot Dead," a documentary about the murder of Feltner's grandfather in 1966; "45RPM," a dark comedy about the journey undertaken by an artist and an obsessive record collector, and "My Brother's Heart," a documentary about 10-year-old Philip Rusakov and his twin brother Anthony, who needed a heart transplant.
The films are all in production now, and as they're finished will be screened in Batesville, Pest said.
"We have been involved just generally, with our workshops and screenwriting competition, trying to move the needle with the Arkansas film community and trying to get it bigger and better so that our talented filmmakers don't leave Arkansas because they figure there's no reason to stay here," he said.
Pest mentioned a few of the films that he was most excited about in this year's lineup which is March 28-April 1. "Little Fugitive," the debut film from photographer Morris Engel, is about a young boy who runs away to Coney Island after he's tricked into thinking he killed his older brother. The 1953 independent film was shot with a handheld 35mm camera and is regarded as a key influence on the French New Wave, specifically on Truffaut, whose landmark "The 400 Blows" was informed by Engel's film. "Little Fugitive" screens at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, and is followed by the short doc, "Morris Engel: The Independent."
Pest is also excited about the festival's showing of a TV pilot, shot in Mountain View in 1958, called "The Amazing Adventures of My Dog Sheppy." The pilot was written and bankrolled in part by playwright, self-help author and ESP advocate Harold Sherman, who settled down in Stone County in the 1940s. The pilot was an attempt to piggyback onto the "Lassie" phenomenon while also promoting tourism in the area, and featured the comely champion archer Ann P. Marston, TV actor Robert Roark and a cameo appearance by folk music legend Jimmy Driftwood. But none of that was to be. The pilot aired once, at the Melba Theater in Batesville. While it's not going to win any awards for artistry, Tom Dillard, retired head of special collections for the University of Arkansas Libraries, noted on the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that "Sheppy" does offer a glimpse of Stone County before the Ozark Folk Center or Blanchard Springs Caverns opened.
"The Legend of Locust Creek," the latest work from outsider auteur Phil Chambliss, makes its world premiere at Friday's Arkansas Indie Showcase. Some other Arkansas films include the documentary "Ozark: A Celebration in Song," from folk duo Still on the Hill; "Witch Hazel Advent," a doc about the poet and peace advocate John Rule, from director Sarah K. Moore; "Artists: A Conversation," which includes interviews with 30 Arkansas artists; "Anyone," a comedy about the perils of dating from Kelly Griffin, Scott McEntire and Chris Wilks, and "Love You, Too — A Life in Dance," the latest film from University of Arkansas professor Dale Carpenter.
Many of the screenings include Q&As with the filmmakers. Most of the screenings take place at Independence Hall at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, with a couple at The Landers Theater Building and Old Independence Regional Museum. The screenwriting workshop and awards ceremony will be at Lyon College.
Tickets range from $3-$5 for individual screenings, or you can get a "Red Eye" pass to all the films for $15-$25. The full schedule is available at www.ozarkfoothillsfilmfest.org.