This is starting to become a familiar story: As it has in previous years, the Little Rock Film Festival outdid itself again in 2011. Attendance was up slightly from last year, according to executive director Jack Lofton. More filmmakers than ever before attended. In fact, all but a small handful of the more than 100 films that screened were accompanied by a director, producer or star (or some combination thereof). The quality of Arkansas films, particularly short narratives, seems to have risen dramatically. And for those who like to talk film until the wee hours, once again there was an exhausting slate of parties and after-parties all across town.
Our complaints might sound familiar, too. Crowds often overwhelmed the relatively small Riverdale 10 Theater, where the majority of the screenings were held. Which meant that finding the line for a certain movie could be frustratingly difficult. Ditto for figuring out the complicated three-tiered pass structure, which afforded a gradation of "unlimited access" to — as best we could figure — films, films and parties and films, parties and VIP areas in parties.
Still, if you bought the lowest tier pass for $40 and managed to navigate the lines, you had access to the entire program. Even at a price $10 higher than last year, that's an outrageously good window into modern international film.
Prize winners and more
"The Last Mountain," a documentary about the catastrophic effects of coal mining that we sadly didn't catch, was presented the $10,000 Oxford American Southern Film Award at the Arkansas Times Festival Gala on Sunday night. (See a complete list of winners below.) Our preview coverage of the festival gave a heads up on the other films that won major awards.
"Natural Selection," which took home nearly all the major prizes at SXSW, won the Golden Rock Award for Narrative Feature. Tonally, it fits somewhere in between "Harold and Maude" and "Napoleon Dynamite" — it's a highly stylized, oddball character study. But unlike those films and much to its credit, it doesn't keep the quirk from letting in real human emotion.
Large credit's surely due to Robbie Pickering, the young debut director who spoke, charmingly and confessionally after the screening about making the movie. (It took him six years to get it made. His mom and, more metaphorically, birth theory inspired the film.) But it's the acting that really sells the film. Rachael Harris, whose name you probably don't know even though you've seen her in dozens of roles, is absolutely fantastic as Linda White, the dutiful, Christian wife of a man who thinks it's a sin to spill his seed into her barren womb. And Matt O'Leary kills as Raymond, the loveable junky who Linda believes was born from her husband's artificially inseminated sperm.
Yeah, it's pretty wacky, and the first half of the movie plays like a drunk live-action version of "Looney Tunes," with Pickering hilariously beating the hell out of Raymond, who thinks he's escaping, but is really always pursuing, Linda's chirpy, oblivious Road Runner.
Don't Google Golden Rock Winner for Documentary "Marathon Boy." Don't Google "Budhia Singh" and for godssakes don't even type "Biranchi Das" into your search bar lest you ruin one of the strangest, most provocative and debatable documentaries in recent memory.
Director Gemma Atwal spent five years following the complex relationship between Budhia, the Slumdog Steve Prefontaine who became the most famous toddler in India by running six half-marathons by the age of four, and his foster father Biranchi, the trainer-turned-national controversy.
What begins as a heartwarmer of a story about a precocious boy plucked out of the slums to become a national icon takes a slow turn into troublesome territory as Budhia is pushed into performing increasingly radical runs in front of thousands of admirers lining the streets and hordes of media cameras, all lassoed in by Biranchi, a born PR wizard embraced by the people as an inspiration and labeled by the government's child welfare agencies as a possible child exploiter.
Atwai does an admirable job of constructing a colorful think piece out of complex questions about objective and subjective truths, questionable intentions, media's influence and the nature of poverty in the slums of India. More so, the director should be applauded for providing a removed, impartial take on the hotly debated wonderboy, provoking questions and, thankfully, never once editorializing. The movie's wild and the ending is a top-tier shocker. The conversations after the lights come up are great.
HBO produced the doc, so if you missed it, you'll have a second chance at some point on the pay-cable channel.
Other films that really stuck with us: The French narrative "Fleurs du Mal" about romance and revolution and social media. It follows the budding romance of a Parisian bellboy and an Iranian whose attention is focused on her native Tehran during the 2009 Green Revolution.
We've been curious and excited to see how the omnipresence of social media will come to affect — for better or worse — the language of film. "The Social Network" employed social media only peripherally. Godard flirted with it in "Film Socialisme" and "Catfish" strangled us with it. But director David Dusa intertwines his movie with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Google Image Search with an almost organic elegance that complements, never overwhelms, the story.
The documentary "Disfarmer" is a great movie, superbly timed and edited, with terrific interviews of down-to-earth Arkansans and New York collectors and gallery owners against a backdrop of the images portrait photographer Mike Meyer made. It's built on an incredible story — a man who claims he was delivered to a family by tornado becomes a misanthrope, changes his last name to Disfarmer (as in anti-farmer, townspeople speculate), shoots 25-cent photographs of the people of Heber Springs and surrounds during the Depression and World War II and becomes, posthumously, declared one of the greatest American photographers of all times.
The minute "Pillow" started to roll, the audience broke into applause. They knew about the short film either by experience or reputation; it won the narrative shorts category in the Oxford, Miss., film festival earlier this year and ended up winning the Miller brothers the best directors prize in the Made in Arkansas category at the LRFF. The nicely crafted short — made in the Delta in about 115 degrees, producer Miles B. Miller related after the showing — is about two brothers, one big and dumb, one short and mean, who capture an angel with a kite and saw off her wings to make a pillow for their demanding mother. Their dirty hot trudge down a dirt road between two heat-hazy cornfields — a scene shot in the dead browns and yellows of mid-summer — will make anyone who's ever been to the Delta uncomfortable (it apparently caused some of the crew to pass out). The morally and intellectually bereft brothers, the mother's grating cries of "Pillow! Pillow! Pillow!" and the disgusting contents of the family fridge land this family squarely in a surreal South that is weirdly familiar. Yet the film is funny and its ending one of wonderfully icky revenge.
David Koon is one of our own at the Arkansas Times, so you might think we're a little prejudiced when we tell you that the film he wrote, "Ballerina," proves him to be the reincarnation of Rod Serling — and that's a very good thing. But since you've read his work in the newspaper, you know we're not exaggerating. The Bryan Stafford-directed film, shot in black and white, has two perfectly cast men, a perfect set and a compelling sci-fi storyline that contemplates a future that depends on filicide and has the "Twilight Zone"-worthy chilling one-liner at the end. Who knows what we are capable of? The ending frames, of giggling little girls at their ballet lesson, is perfect.
A transvestite God is just one of the fine things about Jon Bryant Crawford's short film about a traveling Bible salesman. That could be trite, but "Foot Soldier," which also features Natalie Canerday as a trailer-trash seductress, carries it off by not harping on it. Our pale and devout Bible thumper, who punishes himself when he fails to sell a Bible by putting rocks in his stiff black shoes, is transformed by the knowledge that people prefer a little joy with their scripture. It was a drama with a happy ending, which seemed brave indeed after a day of shorts about butchery (though the zombie short "Never Stop Running" was fairly hilarious) and death, and one of the best shorts screened.
One we didn't love so much was Harry Thomason's "The Last Ride," which kicked off the festival last Wednesday with great fanfare. Though if you're a part of the Arkansas film community, you'll probably want to see it. For one, it's a great primer on shooting a period road trip movie without leaving Pulaski County. You'll watch it like you're on a scavenger hunt: There's the covered bridge in Burns Park. There's downtown Argenta, even with brief glimpses of Cregeen's Irish Pub and Cornerstone Pub, standing in for downtown Knoxville, with North Little Rock City Hall doubling as a hotel. That's the bridge at the Old Mill that the main characters pee off of during a roadside bathroom break. And that's Cuz Fisher's, reborn briefly, for a diner scene. Also, you'll find plenty of familiar faces in the cast: Ray McKinnon, Natalie Canerday, Graham Gordy, David Bazzel, Gary Newton, Greg Spradlin, Jennifer Pierce and the late Rick Dial, just to name a few.
Otherwise, we can't think of any other reason to recommend this fictionalized take on the last days of Hank Williams. There's no character development. No conflict that's not formulaic. And the only action — some wild highway driving and a bar fight — looks like something out of a "Dukes of Hazzard" episode.
The film hinges on the relationship between Hank Williams and Silas Combs, the clueless young mechanic hired to drive him to a series of concerts. Williams is ailing, drunk and ornery. Combs is fresh-faced and earnest. This is a formula you've seen before. But perhaps never this claustrophobically (most of the scenes take place in a Cadillac) with so little meaningful dialogue.
Here's the narrative arc, drawn from actual lines, or at least our memory of them (all are close): "You got a name, boy?" "You ever had a woman?" "I ain't never had a friend my whole life." "Are you my friend?"
You can probably guess what happens next.
As for the Little Rock Film Festival, what happens next is still being sorted out, though year-round programming is a given. Look for updates and more coverage of this year's fest at arktimes.com/lrff.