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Inside the selection process

Many are eyeballed, few are chosen.


I have been a regular attendee of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival since its inception. Last year I jumped at the opportunity to join the film screening committee, little realizing how profound an effect it would have on my life. The 40-plus members of the committee for the 2004 festival first met in January at the Film Institute’s offices in Hot Springs. About a third of the people were new — we serve three-year shifts. Last year, we had to watch 150 documentaries in order to vote in the final meeting, and I just barely managed to make it. This year, Darla Dixon, the festival’s artistic director, informed us the number had been raised to 160. We only had five months to do it, so that meant averaging more than one documentary a day between January and June. _____ For logistical reasons, we are divided into two groups, Little Rock and Hot Springs, and as much as possible, there are two copies made of each film. The people in the Hot Springs group can pick up and drop off their movies at the festival office. In Little Rock, one of the committee members, Glenda Cooper, offered her house as film depository central. Once a month at first, then every two weeks near the end, the whole committee would meet, alternating between Little Rock and Hot Springs, to discuss the films we had seen. We rated each film on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being of greatest value, using the following criteria: Content/story Relevance/timeliness Cultural diversity Artistic/technical merit Entertainment value We were only supposed to offer our 5s. It didn’t take long to figure out that we were far from a monolithic group. Some people would rave on about films that others considered barely watchable. And that was a good thing. It meant that any film that had a consensus was one that a lot of people would want to see. We also talked about what kinds of films were acceptable. No matter how excited I was about a Latino punk rock documentary, the constant stream of four-letter words meant it had no chance of being shown. As with any deadline, the festival was swamped with last-minute submissions. The Little Rock committee members, who had been e-mailing each other regularly, began sending e-mails daily, and we started passing around films as soon as we finished them. I went from fearing that that I would not see 160 films to hoping to break 200 to — by watching more than 60 films in the last two weeks — hitting 240, which probably put me somewhere in the middle, but nowhere near the more than 400 films racked up by Bonnie Nicholas. More than 720 films were submitted for consideration. For the final meeting, everyone who’d watched 160 films turned in a list of their top 20 long films (more than 40 minutes) and top 15 shorts. More than 30 of us gathered in Hot Springs for the final cut. We had a daunting task. Because Academy Award-nominated documentaries are automatically included, only 4,000 minutes of screening time was available, and even with just top picks, we had more than 12,000 minutes to choose from. It took four increasingly difficult rounds before we collapsed with a sigh of relief and exhaustion. I was happy that 14 of my top 20 long films made it and eight of my 15 top shorts. When the final list came out, some of our final selections were not on it. Frequently, documentaries get pulled because the filmmaker wants to submit it to Sundance, which won’t consider it if it has been shown elsewhere (that happened to my No. 1 pick last year), or decides he/she wants money for the film to be shown, or some other distribution problem crops up. Then some of the final cuts are resurrected. In the end, I think the films shown reflect the hard work of the festival staff and volunteers, as well as the tremendous work being done in documentaries these days. We have a schedule to be proud of. And I have a little more than two months to rest before starting work again. Gerald Koonce is a former journalist and a computer systems analyst at Euronet Worldwide

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