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Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival back, in the black

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The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, launched in 1992, seemed to be doing a financial rail grind on the rim of oblivion some years back. But in recent years, having shed some debt and moved its screenings to the Arlington Hotel and Low Key Arts, festival director Courtney Pledger says the HSDFI is comfortably in the black and better than ever, returned to doing what the festival does best: sharing real-life stories that would put the human drama found in any novel to shame.

This year's festival screens from Oct. 9-18, with tickets running from all-access VIP passes at $250, day passes at $25 and single-screening general admission for $7.50. Hit hsdfi.org for more information on ticket prices and the complete festival schedule coming soon.

Highlights of the festival are too numerous to list here, but I'll try to hit a few bright spots. For Hot Springs, the big news this year is the world premiere of the new documentary "The First Boys of Spring," by director Larry Foley. The film, narrated by Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton, chronicles the surprising role Hot Springs played in the development of spring training for major league baseball teams, which figured out that going somewhere warm to get a head start on training made them better all season. Everybody who was anybody in the golden age of baseball came to Hot Springs, partaking in the city's thermal baths and well-known debauchery, so the documentary should be enlightening for both baseball fans and lovers of the high-rolling history of the Spa City. Foley and legendary, El Dorado-born St. Louis Cardinal Lou Brock will be on hand for the screening.

Tickets for the "First Boys of Spring" premiere are $25 and include ballpark-style food and drink.

Another promising film is "The Primary Instinct," featuring character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. Tobolowsky, who has played memorable (though probably not memorable enough to remember his name) roles in everything from "Groundhog Day" to "Mississippi Burning," to Christopher Nolan's "Memento," will be on hand to introduce the film, which explores his love and mastery of the tricky art of oral storytelling. Tobolowsky's podcast, "The Tobolowsky Files," has been around since 2009, and, like the film, features the know-the-face-when-you-see-him actor telling stories and his fascination with the form.

As a reporter who often digs into the terrible intricacies of crime, I'm understandably drawn to the documentary "dream/killer." It's the story of Bill Ferguson, a doting father who fights to save his son, Ryan Ferguson, from prison for the senseless 2001 murder of a Columbia, Mo., newspaper reporter. The case was unsolved for two years, until Ryan Ferguson's friend Kent Heitholt dreamed he'd done the killing, became convinced he was the murderer, confessed to the police, and implicated Ryan as an accomplice. What happened from there turns out to be a riveting story of a father's love, the reality of false confessions and the myriad ways the justice system can go haywire.

Fans of country music and quirky comeback stories might want to check out "Made in Japan." It's the story of Tomi Fujiyama, a singer brought up in the thoroughly weird Japanese subculture of country-western music fanatics. In 1964, already a star in Japan, Fujiyama came to the U.S. to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Sharing the stage with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, Fujiyama got the only standing ovation of the night. Fifty years and a long career later, she returns to America in the hopes of playing the Opry one more time. Looks to be a whole lotta fun. Fujiyama will be on hand.

Another film that looks great is "Can You Dig This" by director Delila Vallot. The film, executive produced by singer John Legend, explores the minds and motives behind urban garden plots in Watts, South Central, Compton and other inner-city L.A. communities, where people can find hope and promise in a handful of dirt. The film has an local connection: One of the gardeners featured is Hosea Smith, an Arkansas native who spent 30 years in prison before moving to California. Others featured include an 8-year-old trying to help her family make ends meet, and a young man who starts working at his community garden to pick up tips on growing marijuana, but soon finds his own green thumb and a love of the soil.

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