Brent and Craig Renaud, the documentary filmmakers who cofounded the Little Rock Film Festival with Jamie Moses and Owen Brainard in 2007, have built the LRFF based on their experience traveling the festival circuit. From the beginning, they made showing visiting filmmakers a good time a top priority. Treat a filmmaker right, they knew from experience, and he’ll tell his friends, who’ll want to screen their visionary works down the line. The secret sauce in Little Rock’s rapid rise in stature in the festival world might be Southern hospitality (free booze, lodging and Bill Clinton wind-up dolls haven’t hurt, either).
This year, they’ve got something even more appealing to offer filmmakers and attendees alike — something few to no other film festivals can boast: a brand spankin’ new, state-of-the-art 315-seat theater in the heart of downtown. The Ron Robinson Theater represents the realization of a dream the Renauds talked about at the inception of the festival, but one they never, in their wildest dreams, expected to happen in eight years, said Craig Renaud Monday night in remarks opening the festival. That it did owes to the Central Arkansas Library System’s visionary leader, Bobby Roberts, whose foresight and political skill kept the library’s funding independent from the wavering fortunes of local and state government. Other cities struggle to buy new books; our library system builds the nicest theater in town.
Since it opened in January, the $2.8 million theater has been tied closely with the Little Rock Film Festival. The LRFF keeps offices in the building’s third floor and longtime LRFF managing director Angie Stoffer is theater manager. Concerts, lectures, meetings and all sorts of other functions fill the theater’s calendar, but this week it’s all movies, all the time.
Another dream of the Renauds and other organizers came to pass last year, but is happening in a more convenient way this go-round: The festival has become a walkable, downtown event. The 375-seat Arkansas Repertory Theatre returns as a venue, as do the Historic Arkansas Museum’s more intimate theater and the Clinton School of Public Service’s Sturgis Hall. New this year is The Joint, the North Little Rock venue and comedy club, and Stickyz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack, the River Market area restaurant and venue directly across from Ron Robinson. With few exceptions, The Joint and Stickyz will screen the same short films at different times, so for those not crossing the river, the longest hike — from the Clinton School to The Rep — is no more than 10 or 12 blocks.
After honing a niche by creating a cash award for the best Southern film screening in the festival, the LRFF is adding a new wrinkle this year — a selection of films branded “cinematic nonfiction.” Robert Greene, a filmmaker and critic who screened films at the LRFF in 2011 and 2013, programmed the series. He’s long been writing about (and making) films that push beyond conventional notions of documentary film and often blur the line between reportage and fiction.
Of course, filmmakers — going all the way back to Robert Flaherty is “Nanook of the North” in 1922 — have long made movies that don’t adhere to strict conventions. But with the likes of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” getting attention in recent years, Brent Renaud said the time was right to highlight hybrid films. Greene calls them “cinematic treats.”
Greene said that a lot of documentarians view conveying information as their No. 1 goal. The films in his cinematic nonfiction block “are less about bringing information across … and more about creating a moving cinematic experience,” he said.
The series includes everything from “Killing Time,” a feature about a family that is waiting for a family member to be executed in Texas that’s shot direct-cinema style with no music or effects; to “Fishtail,” a Western tone poem featuring narration by Harry Dean Stanton (more on page 17), to “Manakamana,” a collection of 11 uncut shots of people riding a cable car to a Hindu temple in Nepal.
“If you watch the film with an audience in a theater, it’s a pretty transcendent thing,” Greene said of “Manakamana.” “It’s very moving and funny… It’s experimental, but I think a lot of the best art house films are experimental. The trick is, when you go in and watch a fiction film, you know there’s control over the material, so you’re expect something to happen. With documentary, you need to look for other things. These films are cinematic experiences but they’re also dealing with reality in different ways.”
For those looking to adjust their reality in other ways, the festival is full of parties as usual. At 9:30 p.m. Thursday at W.T. Bubba’s, the delightfully filthy, religion-haunted rawkers of Brother Andy and His Big Damn Mouth perform amidst a crawfish boil. Reliable party-starter DJ/VJ G-force will be projecting videos that correspond with the jams he’s playing on paneling that’ll be draped across the Junction Bridge, which is the site of Friday’s party, beginning at 9 p.m. Joshua from Amasa Hines and Velvet Kente is bound to make the people sweat with what he does on the ones and twos at a dance party at the Ace Glass Warehouse, 405 Shall Ave. (near Heifer International) beginning at 10:30 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday, the Arkansas Times hosts the closing awards gala. This year, it starts at 6 p.m. and takes place at the Old State House Museum, largely on the picturesque front lawn, as long as the weather cooperates.