The 2014 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival: An overview

October 7, 2014

by Cheree Franco

for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

Courtney Pledger is harried, haggard and sick. For the past three years, she has directed the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. And for the past three years, she has contracted some type of respiratory ailment, right at organizational crunch time. Amazingly, this has yet to dampen her enthusiasm.

“We’re getting a real South by Southwest-y vibe going this year … these aren’t your mother’s documentaries,” she says, muffling a cough. “There’s so many entertaining and music-related documentaries … just a wide variety of award winners, quirky films, mockumentaries.”

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me kicks off the 23rd Hot Springs Documantary Film Festival Friday night.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me kicks off the 23rd Hot Springs Documantary Film Festival Friday night.

This year’s festival runs Friday through Oct. 19 at the Arlington Hotel, Low Key Arts and other downtown Hot Springs venues.

A few years back, the festival — the oldest documentary event in North America — buckled beneath financial woes and an uncertain future. But according to Pledger, those days are a faint memory.

“Enthusiasm is high. People are no longer afraid to feel anything about it. It took a cycle or two for us to show that it could rise, like a phoenix out of the embers, and be better than ever,” she says.

Pledger termed last year’s festival, replete with critically acclaimed films, new Spa City awards and a focus on sports stories, a time of “redefining.” This year’s buzzword seems to be “growth,” with roughly 20 more films (100 total), high-profile guests, more music and parties and a spotlight on mockumentary shorts.

It’s also the first year that the festival’s short documentary winner will automatically become eligible for an Academy Award, sidestepping theatrical release and other tough-to-meet qualifications.

“It brings cachet to any selected short” to screen at the festival, Pledger says. “And that’s our ultimate goal, to help filmmakers.”


Among the selected features, there is Vessel, about a Dutch doctor who sails worldwide, offering abortion advice to women and fighting for certification to perform on-board abortions in international waters; All American High Revisited, a rerelease of a 1986 documentary with new interviews that examines a California high school through the eyes of a Finnish exchange student; Back on Board: Greg Louganis, about the HIV-positive Olympian; Mudbloods, about the phenomenon of real-life, competitive quidditch, a once fictional sport from the Harry Potter novels; Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, probing the bizarre 2006 death of a brilliant mathematician in Nebraska; and Charlie Victor Romeo, where actors portray scenes created from the dialogue taken from airplane black boxes.

Other films explore arranged marriages, mail-order brides, South African politics, immigration, magician James Randi’s quest to discredit psychics, and the life of transgender activist, author and former Scientologist Kate Bornstein.

The 10-day festival will be bookended by two music films.

The opening night film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (6:30 p.m. Friday), follows the Arkansas-born country star and his family as Campbell struggles with Alzheimer’s disease during a 2012 tour, intended to be a “goodbye tour.” The film includes commentary from a host of musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift, and the screening is coupled with a live performance by Campbell’s children.

Take Me to the River, 3 p.m. Oct. 18, documents the making of a record that matches legendary Memphis soul and blues musicians with young rappers and rockers, resulting in cross-genre, cross-generational and sometimes multiracial collaborations. After the screening there will be a party in the lobby of the Arlington, featuring musicians from the documentary, such as including 75-year-old crooner William Bell and rapper Al Kapone.


George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek and is agay rights activist, will be in attendance for To Be Takei at 7 p.m. Oct. 18. His Arkansas history is part of the film; when he was a child, Takei’s family was transported from their Los Angeles home, alongside other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp in Desha County.

Luke Wilson will make an appearance at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 17 and 12:35 p.m. Oct. 18 (12:35 p.m.) with Satellite Beach, a mockumentary short he co-directed and stars. stars in.

In keeping with the festival’s sports theme, there will be free screenings of two classic documentaries — 1994’s Hoop Dreams (3:10 p.m. Oct. 17) and 1996’s When We Were Kings (11 a.m. Sunday).

When We Were Kings captures the 1974 fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Director Leon Gast and Muhammad Ali’s daughter and grandson will be available for a Q&A.

Hoop Dreams tracks two inner-city Chicago teens who hope basketball will lift their families from poverty. One of the characters, Arthur Agee Jr., now 41, played basketball for Arkansas State University, where he majored in radio and television.

“I loved Arkansas,” Agee says. “Storms, Wendy’s and Steak-n-Shake!”

Since his time at ASU, Agee has produced a documentary, written a screenplay, founded a clothing line and created a high school motivational curriculum. This will be his first trip to Arkansas since he graduated in 1994, and Agee is excited to see old coaches and teammates and to speak at the Clinton School of Public Service with the film’s producer, Gordon Quinn.

According to Agee, Hoop Dreams made him more attractive to colleges and more visible in his post-collegiate life.

“Me and William was able to go to college off our talent. Our moms didn’t have to come out their pocket … that within itself was a hoop dream to us. And just to be able to navigate four years of college, where we come from, normally that doesn’t happen,” he says.


The biggest change this year, Pledger says, is that “the Low Key Arts part of the festival is becoming stronger.”

A Chicago transplant and musician, Bill Solleder founded Low Key Arts a decade ago to support the Valley of the Vapors music festival. Eight years ago, Low Key started an Arkansas shorts showcase every January and four years ago, it began Inception to Projection, a two-month digital filmmaking program for high school students and, this year, adults.

In 2013, Pledger asked Solleder whether Low Key would help host the film festival.

“She was hoping to add a venue where younger audiences could watch more edgy, fringe-type films,” he says.

The festival programmed three screenings at Low Key, one of which, Magical Universe, about an elderly man who makes art with Barbies, was picked as a personal favorite by Lauren Wissot, a writer from Filmmaker Magazine. (Wissot enjoyed the festival so much she signed on this year as programming director.)

This time, Low Keyis hosting 10 screenings and a Soul Train dance party (time and date to be announced) DJ-ed by local painter Michael Shaeffer, who has an extensive vinyl record collection.

Soul Train is really from the ’60s to the ’90s. It spans the history from The Jackson 5 to Run-DMC,” Solleder says.

He is also looking forward to the 9 p.m. Saturday Low Key screening of Songs for Alexis, about 18-year-old Ryan Cassata and his girlfriend, Alexis Ann. The teenagers live on opposite coasts but try to maintain a relationship, which is further complicated by Cassata’s status as a post-op post-operative male and transgender activist. Ann’s parents aren’t nearly as understanding as Cassata’s and, at times, her father is genuinely threatening.

Cassata will be at the festival, playing the quirky, confessional tunes that have been showcased at events such as San  Francisco Pride. But to Solleder, Cassata is more than just a fellow musician. The two met when Solleder ran a music camp in New York. Solleder witnessed Cassata’s gender transition over multiple summers.

One year, Solleder and some other New York counselors planned to move to the San Francisco arm of the camp. “Ryan was bummed out that we weren’t going to be in New York, so we said, why not come to SanFrancisco?” Solleder says.

That summer at camp, Cassata met Ann. For the rest of the story, go to Hot Springs and watch it play out on the big screen.

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