To the provincially minded among us in Central Arkansas, the mere existence of the Ozark Foothills Film Festival, now in its seventh year and one of the region's strongest film events, prompts a question: Why Batesville?
“To us it's kind of surprising that we get that question,” says Judy Pest, who with her husband, Bob, founded and continues to organize and program the festival. “People don't ask people in rural areas why they get mail if they don't have a post office. We believe — just like our primary supporter the National Endowment of the Arts — that everyone should have an opportunity to experience the cultural arts. We do the film fest in Batesville because that's where we live.”
The long and short of which means: Folks in Independence County are lucky and cinephiles from other parts of Arkansas need to hop in the car.
The programming this year, in particular, deserves special attention. In years past, the Pests spread the festival between three weekends and three different cities. “We sort of diffused our audience a little too much in years past,” says Judy Pest. This year, beginning on Thursday, March 27, with a screenwriting workshop and concluding on Sunday, March 30, with the premiere of the latest from Arkansas auteur Phil Chambliss, the festival stays in Batesville, largely in Independence Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB).
On Friday, a program entitled “The Lighter Side of History” features a documentary on the South Arkansas boomtown of Smackover and an animated film that celebrates Oklahoma's 2007 centennial with a run-through of the wackiest moments in the state's history. Later that night, Low Profile will put a modern spin on Louis Jordan classics in a concert that also features renowned dance band Bob Boyd Sounds.
Saturday's line-up includes a family film block, an international animation showcase and, arguably the jewel of the festival, the Louis Jordan series. Curated by longtime Jordan champion and “Arkansongs” host Stephen Koch, the series features full-lengths, clips of Jordan performing in films and a collection of “soundies,” a kind of early music video.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Brinkley native. As a bandleader, vocalist, composer, saxophonist and actor, Jordan loomed large in popular culture in the '40s, influencing countless performers, who themselves went on to create R&B, rock 'n' roll and post-war blues. In conjunction with the program, film historians Ben Fry and Bob Pest will join Koch to give insight on Jordan's film oeuvre. The program will also be presented on April 5 at UALR at Dickinson Hall.
Later on Saturday, after an Arkansas narrative program and a documentary showcase, the Independent Spirit Award-winning feature “August Evening” will screen. It follows the travails of an undocumented worker at a Texas chicken farm, who's trying to adjust to the generational shift within his family. Producer Jason Wehling and writer/director/editor Chris Eska will be in attendance.
Sunday, the highlights include a rough cut of “Disfarmer: A Portrait of America,” a look at the enigmatic Heber Springs photographer, who took stark and haunting portraits of Arkansans in the '40s and '50s and who has only recently become posthumously famous. Closing out the festival are two films from Phil Chambliss, the skewed and often brilliant Locust Bayou-based filmmaker. From 1982, “Shadows of the Hatchet-Man” follows the chase of a bloodthirsty killer. The short features a new musical score. “The Pencil Stand” is a “dark rural comedy about a lecherous blind man who can see and a lecherous preacher in extreme denial about his own shortcomings.” Bob Pest makes his acting debut as the lecherous preacher, Reverend OK, in this premiere.
A complete festival schedule is available at www.ozarkfoothillsfilmfest.org.