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Visionary Arkansans 2018: Jen Gerber

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Jen Gerber's first time on a film set was for a small acting role in a country music video in Nashville, Tenn. Gerber, who goes by Jen, said being on the set that day changed her life. "I realized in that moment it was everything I wanted out of theater, which was storytelling [and] a collaborative creation process, but I really didn't want to be an actor," she said.

She's been busy since. She earned an master's of fine arts degree in writing and directing at Columbia University in New York and served as the creative director at The School of Creative and Performing Arts in Los Angeles and New York for six years. She previously worked as an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and now teaches a film production class at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts.

In her spare time, she's directed a film — "The Revival" — that has been screened in Los Angeles and abroad.

Now the accomplished writer, director and professor is the executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, a job that keeps her busy yearround. This year's festival, in October, screened 127 films — up from the 2017 festival's 84 films — and its audiences are growing as well. Gerber said she plans to continue the festival's growth by adding more education and outreach opportunities, such this year's inaugural Emerging Voices Filmmaking Retreat for new voices in nonfiction filmmaking and the Emerging Filmmakers workshops for middle and high school students.

These outreach programs, as well as events such as a guided walking tour of Hot Springs given by Matt Green, the subject of the documentary "The World Before Your Feet" and a "walker" who's walking every street and path in New York City, help audiences connect with the documentaries in a larger way, Gerber said.

"I want to do much, much more of that next year to create more of an interactive experience," she said. "Because what's the difference between watching the film at home and watching it at the festival? It's that you get that extra connection to enhance the experience."

With the rising popularity of documentaries such as box-office hits "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and "RBG," Gerber said she's excited about the future of the genre and her involvement in it.

"I think I've become the director of this festival at the right time for the genre because documentary is becoming so mainstream," she said. "It's always been around, it's not in any way new, but I feel right now people are hungry for the truth. ... It's been a new time for documentaries in terms of the audience desire for them and also just creatively. They've become very well told stories. And they always have been, but I think right now we're really seeing different ways that documentary filmmakers are elevating the storytelling within their films."

Though she hasn't made a documentary film, Gerber said she's inspired by the intensive research conducted by documentarians on the subjects of their films. She's now writing a script for a new project: "Crash Reel," about a female demolition derby driver.

"You get to walk in someone else's shoes," Gerber said. "I don't anticipate that I'll ever drive in a derby, but through film, your curiosity can lead you anywhere. I was at a derby and had this idea, and it's started a path now for me of asking questions, getting to know a world, and daydreaming my own ideas into that world."

Gerber is also working on a more autobiographical project titled "Pretty Near Perfect" that's loosely based on her time as a teenage beauty queen living in Hot Springs. For other female filmmakers and storytellers who are looking to break into the industry, Gerber encourages them to find a great mentor and support system, a role she happily served for her former UCA students, some of whom go on to be hired on Gerber's own projects.

"I want to support them, I want to help them grow their resume, and they're really good at what they do," she said. "I've watched them grow beyond what I taught them, so when it comes to any project that I do, I start by hiring this group of young women that I worked with here in Arkansas."

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