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Doc fest impresses

20th anniversary off to a fine start.

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Thanks to financial setbacks, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute has been facing swirling rumors that the show would not go on this year. But the Institute successfully kicked off its 20th annual Documentary Film Festival last Friday, Oct. 14, earning enough on the sale of concession stand sales and festival passes that night, Festival Director Dan Anderson said, to cover the expense of the two-week festival.

Anderson acknowledged funding problems in a short welcome speech and thanked last-minute monetary contributors, volunteers and the Hot Springs community for supporting the event. After the bustling premiere, Anderson said the revenue may allow for a few "luxuries" to bring in additional filmmakers on the festival's second weekend.

Opening night packed the theater's two screening halls with moviegoers who sipped complimentary champagne and snacked on popcorn. The festival opened with a homegrown film, "The Natural State of America," a 76-minute expose from a trio of filmmakers who studied at the University of Central Arkansas (Timothy Lucas Wistrand, Terrell Case and Corey Gattin). The documentary highlights the struggle of residents in the Ozarks, including several commercial organic farmers, to keep a local electric cooperative from spraying herbicides on and around their properties. The film reveals that this is not the first time chemicals have threatened the area. Vintage footage connects herbicides sprayed in wartime Vietnam to an initiative by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s to use the same hardwood and brush-killing substances in the Ozarks. The Newton County Wildlife Association halted those plans, but has been unsuccessful in deterring a rural power supplier in recent years. In between interviews, the filmmakers splice in footage captured by diligent activists. One scene shows men in work jumpsuits "treating" an area under a tract of power line poles. Audience members audibly gasped as the shot panned away from the workers to reveal a brook directly below, undoubtedly being polluted by chemical run-off.

Following the screening, the crew, writer/producer Dr. Brian C. Campbell (also a professor at UCA) and several activists seen in the film answered questions from inspired viewers who wanted to know how to get involved. Discussion between audiences and filmmakers is one of the festival's most impressive draws, and every year organizers aim to bring in as many filmmakers as possible. The expense of hosting visiting directors has become a budget burden — and, according to Anderson, represents a chunk of the Institute's debt from the 2010 event — but the tradition continues this year with filmmakers coming from as far away as Norway and the Czech Republic.

There are workshops and performances as well. Friday's premiere of "Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival," a bittersweet look at some of burlesque's grandest surviving dames and the art form's recent resurgence in popularity, was followed by a performance from Hot Springs' own troupe. The film places today's modern movement into historical context and pays homage to a few trailblazers, including Dixie Evans, or "The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque." It also chronicles her involvement with a strange goat farm-turned-museum that hosts the annual Miss Exotic World Pageant and holds a collection of burlesque memorabilia, costumes, glossy black-and-white performer photos and even several of the departed diva's ashes. The women onscreen paved the way for the local ladies of Foul Play Cabaret to striptease, shimmy and shake their tassels in a post-film show.

On Saturday afternoon, Little Rock-based graffiti artist Jose Hernandez led filmgoers in creating a mural. After wielding a can of spray paint and tagging Malco's parking lot, the new graffiti artists could watch the 37-minute "Graffiti Fine Art," a fast-paced visual feast of works from 65 street artists who converged in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to create a museum exhibition. The short was shown alongside two other mini-docs, including "Sunshine," a 15-minute bite that smartly strings together the connections between America's cultural imperialism, China's lack of diversity in advertising and the distribution of Communist propaganda under Mao. "Kodachrome 2010" was the only bore in the trio. Nine minutes proved too long for the story of the world's last developer of Kodachrome slides.

A standout was Saturday's showing of "Search for Michael Rockefeller," from Fraser C. Heston. The film examines Rockefeller's mysterious 1961 disappearance during an anthropological expedition in Papua New Guinea. The official ruling was that the millionaire heir drowned at sea, but journalist Milt Machlin uncovers other fantastical theories while traveling to the area in 1969. The aged footage, re-discovered by Heston in 2007, proposes ideas about tribal warfare, cannibalism, sorcery and more. At 88 minutes, the long-winded documentary should be trimmed by 15 to 20 minutes, but redeems its length with one final cliffhanger — video footage of a rowing war tribe that includes a suspiciously pale, bearded member. Though the final image is too grainy to be conclusive, it leaves viewers questioning everything they've previously seen.

The festival continues through Sunday, Oct. 23.

See the schedule of films at www.hsdfi.org.

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