Fueled by a surplus of cinema seeking audiences, film festivals have become virtually ubiquitous in many American cities—even individual neighborhoods within major cities may host multiple different shindigs.

In a landscape of fierce competition to be more than just another regional event, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (October 7-16, 2016) has remained a standout of the Southern circuit for 25 years, as the oldest running documentary-only fest in North America, and Arkansas’ premier film event.

Five years ago, when current Executive Director Courtney Pledger took over, the festival was going through a rough patch in its history. However, via an influx of innovative initiatives and necessary modifications, it has been revamped into the exciting and highly curated showcase that it is today.

The program is thematically segmented, allowing attendees to have more control about the kinds of journeys they want to take. This year, “Being Human” included films centered on the triumphs and struggles of individuals or populations in stories both particular and universal; “Doc/Fiction” grouped the unclassifiable visions that occupy a space in between fabrication and reality; and the “Rise Sports Series” was a collection of outstanding stories that take place on the field, the track, or the pool.

Made possible by the support of AMPAS, the “Women Behind the Lens” section demonstrated that female voices are rightfully carving out spaces in all facets of the medium. Festival darlings such as Sonita and Juanicas were just two examples of the profoundly personal tales by women documentarians that captivated local audiences.

Highlighting homegrown talents is also part of the festival’s mission, and through the “Stories of the South” program, familiar landscapes are seen anew. The favorites among this batch featured The Joneses, about a transgender woman reconnecting to those closer to her, Farmer/Veteran, which took home the Spa City Stories of the South Award, and Jackson, the recipient of the Mountain Valley Spring Water Best U.S. Documentary Feature, centered on a Southern town where the anti-abortion movement is a threat to women’s rights.

Chronicling the ascend to immeasurable stardom of the most iconic rock band in music history, Ron Howard’s box-office hit The Beatles: Eight Days a Week–The Touring Years was paired with Ryan White’s Good Ol’ Freda, another non-fiction piece dedicated to the beloved boys from Liverpool. The subject of that film, Freda Kelly, who worked as the band’s secretary, was in attendance for Q&As following both films. The conversations involved several audience members that had lived through those years and some that had even attended concerts documented in Howard’s energetic and thoroughly enjoyable homage. Vivid anecdotes complemented the nostalgia-inducing docs on display.

Freda Kelly at a Q&A after Good Ol' Freda

Freda Kelly at a Q&A after Good Ol’ Freda

With its October dates, HSDFF is a prime opportunity to relive The Rocky Horror Picture Show—a Halloween classic that had screened here many editions ago. Though this was the only fiction work in the program, the enthusiastic crowd and the festival’s ingenious production nonetheless brought the late night screening to life. Every attendee was given a bag containing all the obligatory props: rolls of toilet paper, a flashlight, a water gun, a party hat, among other items. To make the rowdy event even more memorable, actor Barry Bostwick was in attendance to intrude the film and answer questions about playing the hapless Brad and the subsequent, and unexpected, success that tuned him into a cult hero.

Actor Barry Bostwick (R) attends a screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show

Actor Barry Bostwick (R) attends a HSDFF screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Near the end of the festival, a special presentation of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds delivered an unforgettable evening. Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, this showbiz-centric doc juxtaposes Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds’ career with that of her daughter Carrie Fisher as she struggles with bipolar disorder. Reynolds, who just recently retired, appeared via Skype for a conversation with son Todd Fisher, who served as producer and is also a subject in the film. The 84-year-old actress continued to give musical performances around the country until her health prevented her from continuing. Witnessing her presence, albeit on a screen, was truly a moment that the Hot Spring audience will treasure.

Personally, as a juror in the international category, I found that the most exciting visions came from faraway lands. Six films from Iran, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Taiwan and France covered a wide range of perspectives, from the most intimate family tragedies to the larger-than-life tale of a Burlesque queen. The unquestionable standout was Mehrdad Oskouel’s Starless Dreams, about troubled young girls living in a correctional center in Iran. Each one of the teenage offenders opens up about the crimes and circumstances that brought them to this place, and their thoughts on why, sometimes, being incarcerated is better than returning home. Heartbreaking but immeasurably humane, the film was rightfully awarded the Spa City Best International Feature Award. The Cinema Guild has U.S rights to the film.

Beyond the films, as soon as one steps into the gorgeous and historical Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, where the bulk of the program is screened, it becomes evident that Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is a community affair. Nearly every restaurant and establishment, including the fun Gangster Museum of America, hosted a party, reception or mixer worthy of the world-famous Southern hospitality. Add to that the nature beauty of the Hot Springs National Park that surrounds the venues, and there was a palpable sense of pride that locals shared with visitors, both about the quality of the film’s that comprise festival and the history of their town.

Volunteers were aplenty and came from all walks of life within this Arkansas town. Some were recruited at their church and fell in love with the event; others had been doing for years and have fully made it part of their lives. Even more had been volunteers at some point and returned to simply enjoy the generous cinematic platter at their disposal.

The Arlington Resort

The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, HSDFF’s primary venue

A Southern gem of a film festival, the event that Courtney Pledger and her team put together is brimming with eager eyes and hospitality for those lucky outsiders who are invited to join in. MM

The 25th Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival ran October 7-16, 2016 in Hot Springs, Arkansas.