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A film festival and a downtown development project? That’s the hope of the organizers of the Little Rock Film Festival.

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ORGANIZERS: From left, Craig Renaud, Owen Brainard, Vone Nantharangsy, Jamie Moses, Brent Renaud.
  • ORGANIZERS: From left, Craig Renaud, Owen Brainard, Vone Nantharangsy, Jamie Moses, Brent Renaud.

Cinephiles, rejoice! The first Little Rock Film Festival kicks off tonight with a startlingly impressive roster. Some 65 films will screen throughout downtown over three days and four nights, including “The Situation,” a feature set in occupied Iraq, which opens the festival tonight, and an outdoor screening of “Casablanca” in Riverfront Park, which will help wind things down on Sunday. Between those films, diversity is the word of the weekend, as big-budget pics screen next to micro-budgeted shorts; art house classics show with top documentaries; and international standouts play side-by-side with scores of Arkansas-made shorts and features.

“We wanted to have a little bit of something for everybody,” says Brent Renaud, the award-winning Little Rock-born documentarian, who along with Owen Brainard, Jamie Moses and his brother and filmmaking partner Craig Renaud, founded the festival nearly a year ago. “We wanted, even our first year, to have a film list that would cause people to go, ‘Wow, how’d they get that?’ ”

To that end, the organizers managed several coups. “Knocked Up,” Judd Apatow’s (“40 Year Old Virgin”) sure-to-be summer blockbuster comedy, will preview two weeks before it makes its national debut. Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” will also play at the festival, just months after a record-setting run at the IFC Center in New York. Despite being one of the first 50 films inducted into the National Film Registry and being cited as a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress, the 1977 film is only just this year making its theater debut. But perhaps nothing on the program is more impressive — or timely — than “The Situation,” Oscar-nominated director Philip Haas’ film about Iraq, the first U.S. narrative feature set during the war. (See “Can’t Miss Films,” page 13).

That, in year one, the festival has a line-up to rival any film festival in the region bodes well for what seems to be one of the main forces driving the four co-founders — the idea that it could be a major spark for growth in Little Rock.

“When I saw everything that film festivals like SXSW and some music festivals did for [Austin, Texas] in terms of giving it a funky character that blended well with what they were trying to do on a business front, I thought that Little Rock was really primed for a film festival, and that it could be a contributor to the growth of the city,” says Brainard, an investment advisor who grew up in Little Rock and, after stints in New York and Austin, moved back two years ago. “There’s lots of business going on, lots of buildings being built, lots of condos going up, there’s Alltel Arena and the ballpark, but at a certain point, there’s not a lot of entertainment.”

Brainard, Moses and the Renaud brothers grew up together, and when Brainard moved back to town and the Renauds knew they’d be here shooting a documentary on Central High for HBO (which will air on Sept. 25, the night of the 50th anniversary of the crisis), the four decided to go forward with the festival, which they’d all been kicking around for years. To put the wheels in motion, Brainard and Moses, who sells real estate with Moses Tucker, started soliciting support from local businesses, while the Renaud brothers began to talk up the festival within the film community.

Filmmakers since the mid-’90s, the brothers have traveled the world making documentaries, shooting in places as far-flung as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Pakistan and Russia. From 2003 to until the end of 2004, they followed the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard as it deployed to Iraq, filming what became the 10-part series “Off to War,” which won them numerous awards. After shooting “Dope Sick Love,” a documentary that followed two drug-abusing couples in New York City, the brothers filmed “Taking the Hill,” a film about U.S. military veterans running for Congress in 2006.

As they made the festival circuit last year in support of “Taking the Hill,” the Renauds started talking up their own project. “Essentially we became ambassadors for Little Rock,” says Brent Renaud.

The brothers say that they began booking the festival by targeting the top films that they knew didn’t have distribution and probably wouldn’t have another chance to screen in Little Rock. Once other filmmakers and distributors saw the festival’s slate, it was like the snowball effect. Now, distributors are calling them, trying to get their films in at the last minute.

Filmmakers are especially clamoring, the brothers say, for a spot in the festival’s “Filming Iraq” panel discussion, which will be moderated by Paul Rieckhoff, the best-selling author of “Chasing Ghosts.” The festival will feature some of the most critically acclaimed documentaries on the war, including “War Tapes,” a film shot on the front lines by two U.S. soldiers; “Little Birds,” a Japanese feature that focuses on the daily lives of Iraqis; and “When I Came Home,” a movie that tracks homeless veterans of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The directors of “When I Came Home” and “Little Birds” and Sgt. Mike Moriarty, one of the soldiers who filmed “War Tapes,” will join the Renauds and Philip Haas in the panel discussion.

Filmmaking in Arkansas will be another highlight of the festival. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce building at Markham and Scott streets will serve as the hub and lounge for all filmmakers in the festival as well as the location for the screenings of all Arkansas short films. “It’s finally giving a venue for these local filmmakers to get their message out,” explains Jack Lofton, who’s an assistant coordinator and programmer. “And because it’s the hub, these national filmmakers are going to have to go in there, too, and we’re hoping they’ll stop in and see some of these local filmmakers.”

The Chamber will also host “Making It in Arkansas,” a panel discussion on the economics of filming in Arkansas. Panel members include David E. Allen, the producer of “Dog Soldiers” and “Neo Ned” (both screening at the festival); James Cotten, the director of “Sugar Creek”; Vincent Insalaco, the producer of “War Eagle,” and film commissioner Joe Glass. “They’re going to be talking about all the resources Arkansas has to offer — the people, the equipment — but specifically the economic situation,” says Lofton. “We were one of the first states to offer tax incentives for films, but recently state government cut off all incentives and now our filmmakers are leaving to go to other states.” (See “The End,” page 16.)

Allen, whose family owned the canning company Allens Inc. in Siloam Springs, still lives in Siloam Springs, but runs a production company, Kismet Entertainment Group, that’s based in Beverly Hills. He’s anxious for Arkansans to get a peek at the state’s homegrown talent. “The people who live in the Little Rock area are going to learn some things about local filmmakers, whether it be the Renaud brothers or what I’ve done or the local filmmakers who’re struggling to come up. They’re going to find out that there are people here who’re just as talented as any big name star or director in Los Angeles.”

The Renauds say that the festival is, by design, a filmmaker’s film festival. From traveling to events throughout the country, they’ve learned that details can make all the difference for traveling moviemakers. They say they’ll concentrate on small things like making sure everyone gets picked up at the airport and knows where they’re supposed to be when. They’re also allotting all filmmakers and producers at least 30 minutes for post-screening Q&As, rather than the 10 minutes typical at a lot of festivals.

Their hope is that filmmakers will enjoy themselves and go back and talk the festival up to their colleagues. Eventually, Brent Renaud says, the organizers would like the festival to expand into a full week, to an event filled with music and art that would become a real national tourist destination. Another long-term goal, he says, is to have a steady physical presence in Little Rock. “You need a flagship location. We’d love to do workshops for high-school kids year-round. We’d love to bring filmmakers to the Clinton School year-round.” When a reporter mentions the empty theater on Main Street as a possibility, Brainard laughs knowingly. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

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