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As the third woman from MovieMaker to attend the Bentonville Film Festival (May 2-7, 2017) in so many years of its existence, I arrived armed with the observations of contributors who preceded me.

I was familiar with the broad strokes—the mission to celebrate women and diversity; the potent combination of co-founder Geena Davis’ star wattage and founding sponsor Walmart’s underwriting—and the reactions both positive (the thrill of something major coming together rapidly) and negative (occasional tone-deafness and omnipresent product promotion) over the festival’s short life. Even after five days spent in Bentonville, Arkansas, however, I’ll admit I’m still not quite sure how to wrap my head around the improbable combination of movie stardom, progressive advocacy and retail empire I experienced.

Bentonville, pop. 40,000, is the headquarters of the Walton family and their chains, Walmart and Sam’s Club. Sam Walton’s original Five and Dime storefront still stands in the old-timey town square. On the first Friday of every month, that square is overtaken by market stalls, live music and kids eating fried alligator by the stick. Riding the festival shuttle downtown from the Sheraton, you pass a gun store-slash-coffee shop named Guns & Grounds, a Trump/Pence 2016 sign belatedly decorating a yard, and a church marquee that promised, “All things are possible. Keep believing.”

Throw a rock in the air and, yes, you’ll hit a Walmart. But the town has established a cultural cachet as well: The staggeringly well-appointed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Sam’s heir, Alice Walton, boasts names like Rothko, Pollock and Rockwell, and downtown Bentonville’s 21C Museum Hotel features more contemporary art in and around its spacious lobby. And while there are no actual movie theaters in all of Bentonville (BFF improvises with nontraditional spaces, including some 90-seat Cinetransformer “mobile theater” units), residents of Bentonville are, to a person, thrilled to welcome the festival every spring.

Most three-year-old fests are in the process of finding their feet, both logistically and artistically. BFF isn’t most festivals. While its staff, headed by Davis and co-founder Trevor Drinkwater (also CEO of ARC Entertainment), still seems relatively small—which means communication sometimes leaves a little to be desired—the festival is operating at a scale akin to much more established events, hosting plenty of heavyweight names (from Meg Ryan to Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins), decent industry attendance and a line-up of admirable quality.

Bentonville Film Festival co-founder Trevor Drinkwater

BFF also appears to have ironed out some of the kinks that drew criticism in the past: Venues this edition were a lot more accessible than in previous years, and while sponsor presence is still aggressive, it didn’t come at the cost of attention to films and filmmakers. I spoke with Gloria Mercer—director of “Bombing,” one of BFF’s inaugural class of shorts—who commended the festival for giving enough notice about her film’s acceptance that she and her boyfriend could make travel plans from Vancouver comfortably. (Feature filmmakers had travel and accommodation comped.)

The festival does a great job at nailing its theme, one that—unlike other, more niche events—takes a broader, pan-diverse sort of approach to “inclusion,” acknowledging that a film’s director isn’t the only hand in its making. And the quality of the line-up this year spoke for itself. Under the guidance of President of Programming Wendy Guerrero and Senior Programmer Summre Garber, competition categories saw many titles that had made strong showings at earlier circuit stops: like Blood Stripe from L.A. Film Festival, The Relationtrip from South by Southwest and Cries From Syria from Sundance, to name a few. Others were world premieres, like British familial drama Let Me Go and Arkansas-made Parker’s Anchor, which took home the prizes for Best Ensemble and Narrative Feature (Audience Award) respectively.

The Spotlight category rounded things off with indie-ish helpings such as actress Judy Greer’s directorial debut, A Happening of Monumental Proportions, and William H. Macy’s Krystal. The second directorial outing by Macy (after Rudderless in 2014), Krystal took 14 years to go from script to screen, recounted Macy and producer Rachel Winter (Dallas Buyers Club) during the post-screening Q&A.

Krystal director William H. Macy and producer Rachel Winter (R)

Macy has been an ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy ever since playing real-life Oregonian salesman Bill Porter in 2002’s Door to Door (and, in fact, makes an appearance in CinemAbility, a doc about cinematic portrayals of disability that also played at BFF). As a writer-director, he reflected, making media more diverse happens in small increments: “When you first write a script, everyone looks like you. You have to consciously ask yourself—what if this [character] was a black woman? Or a person in a wheelchair?”

“It’s not all altruism, too; it’s good business,” he added, drolly. “There are a lot of women in the world—maybe they want to go to the movies.”

I was struck by how invested documentary audiences in particular were at BFF—how, regardless of subject matter, each film found viewers, both local and visiting, who seemed to have a personal stake in the issues at hand. After Tell Them We Are Rising, Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary about the evolution of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in America, producer Cyndee Readdean asked the packed room: How many audience members had gone to an HBCU? About two-thirds of the crowd raised their hands—including those of the inaugural cohort of BFF interns, entirely selected by the festival from HBCUs. “Black people have always wanted to learn in America. It’s a lie that we haven’t,” said Readdean, who proved herself willing and able to take on all manner of tough questions.

In one moment, an audience member asked if schools that only accept black students might not be denying non-black students formative interactions with people of color: “I grew up in a white society and only got to meet black people in college. I needed [to attend a mixed race school] to know black people.”

“I think maybe your thesis is wrong,” Readdean replied, carefully. “You don’t have to go to school with black people to know them. I’m not negating your experience—”

“Well, you are.”

The crowd murmured. But the exchange continued calmly, and then we moved on.

Another standout documentary feature was Lysa Heslov’s Served like a Girl, which won BFF’s Jury Prize for Feature Documentary fresh out of its SXSW premiere. The film follows a group of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as they compete in the Ms. Veteran America beauty pageant under the supervision of Jas Boothe, founder of Final Salute Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to assisting America’s estimated 55,000 homeless women veterans. The film doesn’t shy away from the discrimination, injury and abuse that dog each of its subjects, and drives home the dire need for better services for women vets in this country.

Served Like a Girl, a documentary by Lysa Heslov. Courtesy of Pop Smoke

Boothe, pageant host (and “glamputee”) Marissa Strock and co-producer Jill Delaney entered during the credits to a teary standing ovation. (One man yelled, “That was the most compelling film I’ve ever seen!”) You don’t have to be a veteran to relate to the documentary’s subjects, Boothe pointed out during the Q&A—yet while the women are incredibly sympathetic, they didn’t want to be portrayed as damsels in distress, but “as the tough, raw bitches that we are.”

The atmosphere in the Cinetransformer was energized, inspired. Someone asked, in joking exasperation about the state of veteran support, “Can we march?!”

Boothe smiled and sighed at once: “We’ve marched enough.”

Outside of screenings, BFF’s program featured 17 panels—many of which saw the presence of Geena Davis and her megawatt smile. As the face of BFF, the Academy Award-winner really manages to get around, even hosting an A League of Their Own-themed softball game to close out every edition of the fest. (2017 being that film’s 25 anniversary, the reunion included cast members and a few still-spritely ladies from the original All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, upon which the movie was based.)

The cast of A League of Their Own (dir. Penny Marshall) reunite for a 25th anniversary softball game at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, AR

I attended a panel called “Gender Norms in Entertainment,” moderated by Madeline di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and featuring Davis, TV producer and writer Wendy Calhoun (Justified, Empire, Nashville) and others. di Nonno rattled off the Institute’s impressive achievements in gender research since its founding, by Davis, in 2004, and its ongoing efforts to spark action in studios, guilds and other Hollywood decision-makers. (“If she can see it, she can be it” is the institute’s mantra.)

Asked if, in the light of her current work, she regretted any of her early roles, Davis laughed. “I can only be as fussy as I am [these days] because I haven’t run out of money,” she said. “If you ever hear that I’m going to play Sean Connery’s comatose wife, you’ll know that I am broke.” The actress challenged writers to make simple changes toward gender equality in their own work, such as changing characters originally conceived as men to women when possible.

Afterward, as if to demonstrate her own advice, Davis held her crowdpleasing annual “Geena and Friends” table read, for which she joins a group of actresses—this year, Meg Ryan and Brooklyn Nine-Nine stars Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz—to perform classic movie scenes with the genders switched. The selection: The Break-Up, Goodfellas, Clerks, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Reservoir Dogs. The Tarantino scene drew the biggest laughs, with Beatriz/“Miss Pink” making her case for never tipping wait staff. When Davis, as the Mr. White character originally played by Harvey Keitel, reminded her that “being a waiter is the number-one occupation for male non-college graduates in this country,” the audience erupted into giggles.

(L-R) Melissa Fumero, Meg Ryan, Geena Davis and Stephanie Beatriz at the “Geena and Friends” table read event

BFF stuck the landing on Saturday night with a fancy closing ceremony, hosted by Terry Crews and featuring performances by Grammy winners Jewel and Siedah Garrett, among others. Noticeably—after a white-male-centric awards ceremony that left a bad taste last year—this year there was nary a white male award-winner in sight; in fact, even when films directed by men won awards, the person who went on stage to accept was a woman, like Charlene Sawit-Esguerra, co-writer of Best Family Film Saving Sally. Three films—Saving Sally, Parker’s Anchor and Best Narrative Feature (Jury)-winner The Sun at Midnight—received BFF’s generous top prize: national theatrical distribution via AMC Theatres, broadcast on the Lifetime channel, DVD sales in Walmart and On Demand streaming on the Walmart-owned Vudu.

Kirsten Carthew, whose The Sun at Midnight was the first film made in the Northwest Territories region of Canada, was thrilled about the win. “It was only after the awards show that I learned of the magnitude of the prize—distribution in the U.S.! I’m excited to showcase my part of the world to North Americans who don’t have the opportunity to venture so far north.”

Alexandre Peralta’s doc Looking at the Stars, about a Brazilian ballet school for the blind, took home the fest’s Highest Diversity Score award for its multinational crew. “It was, really, an honor,” Peralta said afterward. “It’s not like we planned on having a diverse crew and subject; it just happened organically.” That accidental aspect of the film, however, “definitely made our movie much better”—a perfect real-world example of the progress BFF champions.

Meg Ryan presents the Best Narrative Jury Award to Kirsten Carthew (The Sun at Midnight)

I don’t know if the disparate elements behind BFF’s existence will ever stop feeling just a little awkward—like the Barbie exhibition in the lobby of 21C, which charted Mattel’s increasingly “empowered” renditions of the doll (astronaut Barbie! policewoman Barbie!) even as it brought to mind the troubled relationship between Barbie and feminism. Nevertheless, thanks in large part to Walmart, Coca-Cola, Mattel and the rest, this festival is quickly carving out a unique position on the circuit as a major-league player—one that may well be able to help those who, as Jas Boothe put it, have marched enough on their way to recognition. MM

The third Bentonville Film Festival ran May 2-7, 2017 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photographs courtesy of Getty Images for Bentonville Film Festival.