- 'MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE'
America is still a fairly young country in the grand scheme of things — young enough, anyway, that we tend to put a velvet rope and a "Do Not Touch" sign in front of anything more than 100 years old. Given that, an annual event making it to a quarter-century of existence is nothing to sneeze at.
That's especially true of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary at this year's event, Oct. 7-16 at the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa. Although the festival seemed to be circling the drain a few years back — rescued by the 2013 sale of the historic Malco Theatre, which freed the festival from an anchor of debt — it seems to be stronger than ever these days, bringing in filmmakers from all over the world to screen 60 feature-length docs.
Ticket prices range from $25 for a day pass to $250 for an all-access pass. General admission to any one film is $8. For a full lineup and information about tickets, visit hsdfi.org.
Asked about the highlights, Executive Director Courtney Pledger said there's so much to talk about she didn't know where to start, but she gave it a shot, starting with the special guests: This year's big names include Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. and veteran actor Beau Bridges, who are co-chairs of the festival; both will be on hand for the opening night party. Gossett — along with President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and others — also features in the Arkansas-connected documentary, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," by directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, which is screening at the festival. The film, about the Stamps native who became one of America's most influential writers and poets, recently won the American Film Institute's 2016 AFI Docs Festival Audience Award.
Another familiar actor — albeit one with an unfamiliar name — Pledger is excited about seeing at this year's festival is Austin Pendleton, who will be coming to Hot Springs with his short-subject doc, "Starring Austin Pendleton," about his long career as a character actor. You'll know him when you see him.
"He's 'that guy' that you never forget," Pledger said. "He's been in a million things, from 'Catch 22' to 'What's Up, Doc?' and then more recent stuff. ... He's just somebody that I've personally always wanted to meet. He's in so many things, and I always had so much respect for him."
Another intimate look at the life of a famous figure is the feature-length doc "For the Love of Spock," by director Adam Nimoy, son of the late "Star Trek" actor Leonard Nimoy. Launched before the actor's death in February 2015, the documentary serves to introduce the audience to both the public and private life of one of the most geek-famous pop culture icons of the 20th century.
"Again," Pledger said, "that's another example of kind of a biography film that goes way behind just your typical telling somebody's story. It's telling the story of Spock and how [the character] changed Leonard Nimoy's life, but it is also telling the story, after the father's death, of a son's relationship with his father and a huge television icon. It's really good." Pledger said Nimoy will answer questions from the audience after the screening via Skype. A "Star Trek" trivia contest, with promotional items from the documentary as prizes, will follow.
- 'FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK'
Though it's not a documentary, the 1975 cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" will get a special screening, with star Barry Bostwick — a Golden Globe winner whose character, Brad Majors, is famously and loudly known as "ASSHOLE!" during screenings the world over — in attendance. The film will be shown at the Central Theater, 1008 Central Ave., at 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14. General admission tickets to the screening are $25; VIP tickets, with a prescreening meet and greet with Bostwick and priority seating at the show, are $40.
One thing documentary film does well is explore controversial subjects, and this year's festival has plenty films that do. "We have a wonderful film called 'Jackson' that's about the last abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss.," Pledger said. "It's a great film, and it really does cover all angles of it — the people who are trying to keep it open as well as the people who are trying to shut it down — and kind of lets you draw your own conclusions."
Another film that tackles a hot-button issue is "The Joneses," which centers around the day-to-day life of Jheri Jones, a 74-year-old transgender mother and grandmother living with her grown sons in a trailer park in the small, conservative town of Pearl, Miss. "It's just compelling," Pledger said. "It's just looking at this family that might not look like everybody's family, but it's a strong family. You're just watching the inner-dynamics of that, and her with her grandchildren." Jones and two of her sons will be on hand for the screening.
The Arkansas premiere of "Command and Control," which centers on the 1980 Titan missile explosion in Damascus, opens the festival; "Command and Control" author Eric Schlosser and film director Robert Kenner will be at the opening. The intercontinental ballistic missile was tipped with a nuclear warhead 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; its fuel exploded when a socket from a socket wrench fell 80 feet into its underground shaft and pierced the skin of the missile's first stage. No radioactive material leaked. The film is a nail-biting look at how quickly things can go horribly wrong, even when rules and safeguards are being followed. A pre-event (tickets $40) will feature McClard's barbecue and live music on Oct. 7.
Clinton School of Public Service Dean Skip Rutherford "plays an integral part" in the film, Pledger said. Rutherford, an aide to Sen. David Pryor at the time, spoke from his home to an airman at the base and was interviewed for the film; Pledger said that interview "is one of the most affecting things" in the documentary. Rutherford and a survivor will attend, "along with other people who were there at the complex that day. I think it's going to be a compelling experience to see this story we've never seen before, and to have all these people there," Pledger said.
People's lives, she said, are often more compelling than anything Hollywood can come up with. "How many times did you hear about a documentary: 'If you did this as a fiction film, nobody would believe it'?" Pledger said. "And so it's just the compelling nature of human lives, human journeys and human circumstance and animal circumstance, I should say, that makes it so compelling. You know that it's about a real person. There are so many different layers you can go to when it is about a real person."
Also in fall film ...
George Takei at UCA
7:30 p.m. Oct. 27
Reynolds Performance Hall
"Star Trek" cast member George Takei, who broke ground for Asian actors playing U.S.S. Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original show and in many of the subsequent movie incarnations of the iconic series, returns to Arkansas to talk about his life, the "Star Trek" film, his childhood incarceration at the Japanese internment camp in Rohwer during World War II, and his emergence as a major voice in the conversation about LGBT rights. Visit uca.edu/publicappearances for more details.
Hot Springs Horror Film Festival
Sept. 23-25, during Spa-Con
Central Theater, 1008 Central Ave.
$96 festival pass, $28 day pass
Featuring over 30 horror, thriller and sci-fi films from all over the world, the fourth annual Hot Springs Horror Film Festival will also host a costume contest, an appearance by composer and sound effects guru Alan Howarth (who has collaborated extensively with director John Carpenter) and information on financing a film from Horror Equity Fund founder Marlon Schulman. Visit hotspringshorrorfilmfestival.com for more details.