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The Documentary Film Festival in review

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We didn't arrive at the 16th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival until 6-ish on Saturday, swinging by the Arlington to throw our bags in the room before heading over to the pleasantly ancient Malco ($2 popcorn!) and catching most of “Big Dreamers” (replaying at 12:30 p.m. Thursday), an Erroll-Morris-inspired documentary about a small Australian town that commissions the world's largest gumboot. A charming and quirky doc filled with charming and quirky folks, the film's light as a feather and just as gentle.

Our next film of choice started late because the entire congregation of some local Baptist church showed up to see the preceding film, which of course suffered technical difficulty. No worries: we stepped in for 20 or so minutes of “King Corn,” a stunt doc in the vein of “Super-Size Me,” which I found funny and likable until we ducked out early to catch “Banished” — something of a disappointment, awash with terrific stories poorly told.

The final film of the night made my weekend.

“On a Tightrope” (8:50 p.m. Friday) is one of the most beautiful docs I've seen since Nicolas Philibert's “Etre et avoir,” visually patient and eminently humane and compelling. Shot among the Uyghur peoples of western China, it follows a group of orphans as they train in the old tradition of tightrope walking. Do not miss this film.

The next day passed like a dream. Buckwheat pancakes and apple butter at the Pancake Shop, a walk around the park, and Les Blank's new film. “All in This Tea” (3 p.m. Friday) follows importer David Lee Hoffman on several jaunts through China in search of the perfect cup, along the way telling both his story and that of the world's most popular drink. This is Blank's first digital feature, and the absence of his usual humid, rich colors only highlights the attention to human obsessions and skills that makes the rest of his work so essential.

We ended the weekend with a series of shorts. (Never miss a shorts series. You can always count on a hidden gem.) Though the rest ranged from barely tolerable to just OK, “The Son's Sacrifice” (6:40 p.m. Thursday), a story about a young Muslim in Queens who quits the corporate world to work in his father's halal butcher shop, was a small triumph of cultural exposure. The film exemplifies everything that makes weekends at the HSDFF so worth checking out: random but consistent glimpses of raw humanity in what might seem the most unlikely of places. Stop by anytime. You're bound to come across something special.

Derek Jenkins

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