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Film fest recap

Third annual LRFF impresses mightily.

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'THAT EVENING SUN': Hal Holbrook stars in the Golden Rock Award winner.
  • 'THAT EVENING SUN': Hal Holbrook stars in the Golden Rock Award winner.

The third annual Little Rock Film Festival was a complete success. Nothing in this year's Arkansas Times wrap-up should be read as a qualification of that sentence. In a mere three years, the LRFF has experienced dramatic growth in both scope and popularity. The organizers have created a vibrant film environment out of thin air. Our state capital felt like the hottest thing going west of Cannes, with long lines and busy lobbies, rapturous applause and energizing Q&As, homegrown celebrities and happening after-parties.

Success on this level is a triumph not only for the organizers, but for the community itself, which has displayed a capacity for generosity and cultural inquisitiveness that belies the size of its population. The generous sponsors poured money into a cultural venture that immediately changes the tenor of Little Rock for the better. Arkansans showed up in droves for some challenging but rewarding fare. Filmmakers left our state with enough goodwill to challenge any of their assumptions. That should swell your pride to bursting.

This year's programming was uniformly strong, and competition for the inaugural Golden Rock must have been fierce. We didn't catch a single documentary that didn't seem like a good choice for the honor, and many of the narrative features screened were competitive in larger festivals. Unfortunately, we missed the winner of the documentary prize, “The Way We Get By,” but we did catch the opening night screening of the narrative feature winner, “That Evening Sun,” which was certainly deserving.

It's the rare Southern film that, though populated by Abners and Lonzos and Thurls, never dips into stereotype or cliche. It's hot in Tennessee in the summer and we can tell, but sweat doesn't stand in for inner tumult. Instead, masterly performances, pretty much cast-wide, but particularly from 84-year-old Hal Holbrook, and nuanced direction from first-time director Scott Teems delve deep, uncovering quiet truths about life and death and old age that'll leave you unsettled long after the credits roll.

The festival's other major prize, the Charles B. Pierce Award for Arkansas Film, went to “Slumberland,” a film a group of friends who work at Pizza Cafe made with virtually no budget, experience or skill. It shows in the production quality, but past the shaky camera work and editing miscues, there's a strong story, even stronger characters and a lot of smart, almost lyrical camera work. It's a film a piece with the mumblecore movement — ultra-lo-fi, dialogue-heavy, concerned with drifting 20somethings struggling to relate — but much to its credit, “Slumberland” lacks the self-indulgence that derails a lot of those films. It's funny — wacky even — and filled with promise.

The panels were again timely and well-planned, though dismal turnout on Sunday afternoon to the most important panel on the docket might have been avoided. Few people turned out for the premiere of Phil Chambliss' newest film at the Chamber of Commerce, which was followed by a typically revelatory Q&A with the filmmaker. Chambliss is a living and breathing treasure, and Arkansas should fill every seat anywhere he shows a film. His art-brut surrealism isn't for everybody, but he'd delight enough people in every house to account for collateral confusion. Word is he was a late entry on the schedule, so early Sunday afternoon might have been the best organizers could do. Film fans might have been dragging by then, recovering from four days straight or basking in the long-lost sun, but they shouldn't make the same mistake twice.

By all accounts, the founders intend to keep expanding the festival, a tactic that might result in a little fatigue among the more determined viewership but would likely increase attendance in the long haul. The popularity of this year's event indicates that Arkansans have been sold on marathon festivities. However, if the LRFF wants to attract film fans from out of state by putting on a South by Southwest-like festival, then their focus going into next year ought to be on developing a distinguished personality. Austin's always been a film town, but SXSW became an important film event only after cornering the market on hip young independent cinema. Little Rock should carve out its own niche.

The founders have trumpeted their determination to make the event a “filmmaker's festival,” and that goal seems well on its way to being accomplished. But many heavy-hitters are in Cannes in May, and audiences only travel hundreds of miles for things they aren't likely to see anywhere else. The challenge is to cater to the loyal Arkansas audience, maintain great relationships with filmmakers, and at the same time land more prestige pictures.

We might suggest focusing on major documentaries: a category largely ignored at Cannes and also an area the Renaud brothers should be especially equipped to program. The LRFF needn't step on Hot Springs' toes in order to land a few highly-anticipated documentaries every year. Documentary is more popular than ever, spawning many “celebrity” practitioners and being created by more and more narrative filmmakers. Another area where the LRFF might elbow out some room in the festival season might be Southern film. More and more independent filmmakers are producing films without moving to the West Coast, instead turning their lenses on their own communities. With Ray McKinnon on board and the Oxford American among its sponsors, that might be only natural.

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