In a manner quite typical of our history, my college buddy Lawrence and I avoided an actual plan for attending the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) until just a couple of weeks prior to its start date. He made the drive from Norman, Oklahoma where he pursues his lifelong profession of higher-education for future teachers. My Southwest Airlines flight arrived from Dallas in time for us to jump right in to the festival schedule midway through Day 2. Neither of us are the Opening Night “gala” types, but we are sorry to have missed the festival opening film Short Term 12 on Wednesday evening. Our 3 days were spent juggling start times and venues throughout downtown Little Rock, so as to maximize our movie watching.
The key components of a Film Festival are: the selection of films (obviously), the venues, the crowds, transportation, special guests (writers, directors, actors, etc), the festival volunteers, the local flavor, and any perks (the always awkward abbreviation for perquisites) for attendees. Here is my breakdown of each of these categories:
- SELECTION OF FILMS. LRFF categories include: Narratives (traditional features with scripts and actors), Spotlight (usually with a special guest or discussion), Documentaries, Made in Arkansas, and World Shorts. There were also special categories such as Youth Films for young aspiring filmmakers, and Film Talks (seminars). With much of the audience being local types, the emphasis on “Made in Arkansas” films made sense. Providing screening for these productions brings attention to the state’s film industry and talent base. Since neither Lawrence nor I have ties to Arkansas (insert punchline here), we focused our time on Narratives and Documentaries. We never once used our “safety net” of World Shorts. This speaks highly of the quality and variety offered during all time slots.
- VENUES. While the program lists 15 different event locations, which includes special discussions, parties and other non-movie screening spots, our movie viewings took place in 5 different venues of widely varying quality and comfort. One of these was a modern lecture hall in the beautiful new (and highly green) Heritage Center, while another was simply unoccupied retail space with a black curtain marking the screening area. You can imagine the corresponding picture and sound quality. A community stage theater had a wonderful look, but offered leg room seemingly designed for the Munchkins from the Land of Oz. Its balcony offered little improvement. The soon to be completed Arcade Theater will serve as the main venue and central hub for LRFF 2014. This will allow for more continuity and a true gathering spot for festival attendees.
- THE CROWDS. In a pleasant contrast to many festivals, the crowds were minimal and easily spread out among the various venues. Made in Arkansas films were shown to audiences comprised of friends and family, while the Narratives and Documentaries had mostly sparse crowds made up of the few out-of-towners (like us). Since the festival overlaps with the world famous Cannes Film Festival, there is a noticeable absence of big-name filmmakers, highly-anticipated movies, and snooty Frenchmen. Cinephiles find much joy in “discovering” quality work in an entertaining or informative movie that offered little more than an upfront 2-3 sentence synopsis. LRFF is that type of opportunity, while Cannes offers a chance to stand in line for hours hoping for admission and to see Johnny Depp or Cameron Diaz posing for paparazzi. To each his own.
- TRANSPORTATION. The venues were spread out all over downtown Little Rock. If you have never been there, the Arkansas River divides the city, and we spent time on both sides. A car was a basic necessity to navigate the schedule and various venues. Maybe next year’s opening of The Arcade will minimize the need to drive so often. Luckily, cheap parking was readily available.
- SPECIAL GUESTS. A high percentage of the films had writers, directors, producers and/or actors in attendance. Post-screening Q&A’s can be very enlightening, but the staggered screening schedule usually had us rushing off to catch “the next one”, rather than learning more about the last one. When we did have time, we certainly enjoyed the filmmakers’ insight into their work. This was especially true for Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer director Maxim Pozdorovkin, and Marc Menchaca, writer/director/actor for This is Where We Live. I would have liked to have spent some time with Dawn Porter, who directed TWO of the better documentaries we saw: Gideon’s Army and Spies of Mississippi. Film Producer and famous Bill Clinton friend Harry Thomason was there filling in for his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who directed the award-winning Bridegroom (which we did not see).
- FESTIVAL VOLUNTEERS. There was certainly no shortage of volunteers working the festival. The presence of these people allows for a smooth-running operation and prevents mis-communication in regards to delays, etc. Larger crowds might have impacted the effectiveness, but there were no issues during our visit.
- LOCAL FLAVOR. This category delivered the biggest surprises. Downtown Little Rock is clean and offers city parks and many pleasant views of the Arkansas River. There are numerous locally owned mom-and-pop diners, cafes, pubs, etc. The service people were extremely friendly and the food was all tasty and reasonably priced. Friday evening’s LRFF party was held on the Junction Bridge … a walking bridge that crosses the river. That was an unusual experience and a creative party place.
- PERKS FOR FESTIVAL ATTENDEES. This is one area where the LRFF could take lessons from others. The price of a pass bought you a program and … umm … well … oh yeah … a pass. No gift bag. No swag. No special offers or details on sponsors. One of the venues offered a community cheese and grapes tray that was quickly picked over. Our Silver passes did allow us the privilege of paying a $10 entry fee for the bridge party, along with the opportunity to purchase beer or wine … our wine pour was approximately 2 oz. The reason to attend a festival is to take in the movies, but some sort of appreciation shown to sponsors and attendees is not without merit and precedence.
On a personal note, I enjoyed meeting Stuart Margolin at one of the screenings. Over the years, Mr. Margolin has been a favorite character actor. He is probably best known for his time as Angel, James Garner’s frustrating co-hort in “The Rockford Files”.
There were of course a few movies that really made an impression. The most entertaining documentary for me was titled Muscle Shoals. Despite my love of music from the 1960’s, I was oblivious to the real impact that FAME Studios owner and record producer Rick Hall had on the era. This was incredible fun and filled a gap in my music knowledge. Gideon’s Army provided insight into the absurdly difficult work environment of public defenders. Spies of Mississippi showed us rare photos and video footage, and took an unusual angle on the Civil Rights movement … espionage from the Mississippi government. Our Nixon showed us archival footage from the Watergate period and provided specifics on Nixon, Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin. Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer took us inside the Russian judicial system, while The Kill Team detailed the Military judicial system as it relates to Army infantry soldiers who went too far in killing Afghan civilians. We Always Lie to Strangers gave us a peek behind the curtain of the secondary performers in Branson, Missouri while breaking down the façade of the Branson bible-belt image.
The documentary that really kicked me in the gut was called 12 O’Clock Boys, and showed us the stunning images of illegal dirt bike riders wreaking havoc in west Baltimore. These inner-city riders create dangerous situations on the roads while knowing that the police have an anti-chase policy (for public safety). All of that is difficult enough to watch, but the truly stunning moments come courtesy of young Pug and his mother. I have no words to describe these people … especially the mother. To give you some insight, she showed up for the screening and promptly sat front row and recorded the movie on her smart phone. I did not have the nerve (or stomach) to stick around for that Q&A.
The staggered start times and multiple venues and small crowds allowed us to skip out early if a particular movie was not capturing our interest in the first half hour. We only did this a few times, but in each case, it led to a more fulfilling cinema experience. While the abundance of quality documentaries would have made the festival worthwhile, there were also three Narratives that caught our eyes. The Discoverers is a dysfunctional family dramedy featuring one of Griffin Dunne’s best ever performances, as well as strong supporting work from Madeleine Martin (“Californication”), Carla Buono (“Mad Men”), Dreama Walker (“Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23”), Ann Dowd, John C McGinley and Stuart Margolin. It has some funny, cryptic dialogue as well as a message about the bonds of family. Written and directed by Texas born Menchaca, This is Where We Live introduces us to a rural family that just can’t seem to catch a break … other than heart-break. It has strong performances from CK McFarland, Tobias Segal, Ron Hayden, Frances Shaw and the great Barry Corbin. Finally, we saw an interesting little film called The Girl, which features Abbie Cornish and Will Patton. This is a tough story of a struggling single mom, only we get the rare script that doesn’t make her overly likeable for the audience.
Should you ever have an interest in taking part in a film festival, I would not hesitate to recommend Little Rock Film Festival. You better love documentaries and independents, and be able to maximize your time over a few days. Of course, if your budget and personality and love of all things French allows … there’s always Cannes!