I love film festivals, always have. Not the parties and the schmoozing, with tiers of variously colored festival badges conferring degrees of VIP. Just the fact that a whole bunch of movies are showing, and a whole bunch of people who love movies are going to see them. And not multiplex movies that have been so hyped and previewed that you feel like you’ve already seen them, that you are merely doing your mass-culture due diligence sitting through two hours of what you more or less know is coming. The great thing about film festivals is that they still baffle. They still surprise. Even the inevitable duds are part of the wonder. It’s maybe what it feels like for a baseball scout to see unheralded kids play in some uncharted territory. You never know.
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is a particular treat, partly because festival director Courtney Pledger and her team keep putting together impressive lineups, rangy and challenging and fun. Part of it too is Hot Springs itself. It’s just a good spot to watch films. One of those places where you walk out of the theater and feel like you’re still in a movie. There’s that veneer of splendor that has gotten a bit dingy. Hot Springs is like how Toontown might have looked decades later if the bad guys won in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Even its seediness has gone to seed.
The 23rd annual festival opens Oct. 10 with a screening of “Glen Campbell … I’ll be Me,” directed and produced by James Keach. Keach was a producer on “Walk the Line,” so he has some experience putting together stories about music legends. Campbell, a Billstown (Pike County) native and country-to-pop crossover star, has sold more than 45 million records (hits include “Gentle on My Mind” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” plus too many others to list here; he also played Texas Ranger La Boeuf in the original “True Grit”). “Glen Campbell … I’ll be Me” tells the story of his life and his 151-show “Goodbye Tour,” his last one in light of a 2011 Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The doc features interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bill Clinton, The Edge, Paul McCartney, Jay Leno, Vince Gill, Steve Martin and Taylor Swift.
Some other highlights to anticipate, including some big names in Hot Springs for the festival (the schedule of times hasn’t been finalized):
George Takei will be in town for a Q&A after the documentary “To Be Takei,” which explores the life of the actor most famous for his role as Sulu on “Star Trek.” Takei, who spent part of his childhood in a Rohwer (Desha County) internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, was one of the first Asian Americans to be cast in high-profile roles in film and television. “To Be Takei” covers not just his success on “Star Trek,” but the cringe-inducing stereotypical roles his agents pushed him to take in the years after the show. Takei, now 77, has also been active in LGBT issues (he came out publicly in 2005) and has developed a huge cult following on social media.
Actor and filmmaker Luke Wilson‘s short “Satellite Beach” will screen as part of the festival’s new sidebar showcasing mockumentary shorts. The whimsical short tracks the actual journey of the Endeavor space shuttle, which was transported through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles from the airport to the California Science Center. Co-directed with his brother Andrew, Wilson stars as Warren Flowers, who believes he is in charge of coordinating the move. The brothers had no clearance or permission and part of the joy is watching just how far Wilson/Flowers can get with no more than a clipboard and a tie (reactions range from bemused to totally credulous). The shots are beautiful and the vibe as playful and wistful as Wilson’s Hollywood performances.
Greg Louganis! Well, maybe this only counts as a big name if you, like me, spent a significant portion of the summer of 1988 glued to your television watching Olympic diving. “Back on Board” investigates the complicated life of Louganis, one of the greatest divers in the history of the sport, who eventually came out publicly as gay and HIV positive. Louganis will attend the screening along with filmmaker Cheryl Furjanic. ”Back on Board” is part of the Spa City Sports Series, a unique hook to the programming that debuted last year. This year’s series includes screenings of two classics: A 20th anniversary screening of “Hoop Dreams,” the meticulously crafted look at a pair of Chicago high school basketball players that stands as one of the all-time best sports docs (hell, best movies). Arthur Agee, one of the film’s subjects (who went on to play basketball at Arkansas State University), and producer Gordon Quinn will be on hand for a Q&A. Also screening is the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary “When We Were Kings,” on the famous 1974 heavyweight bout in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, with director Leon Gast as well as relatives of Ali on hand.
Others we’re psyched to see: “Stray Dog,” the story of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a biker and Vietnam veteran, directed by Debra Granik, director of the critically acclaimed “Winter’s Bone” (Granik met Hall in Missouri while filming “Winter’s Bone” — both Granik and Hall will be in attendance); “Meet the Patels,” an acclaimed real-life romantic comedy about a 29-year-old first generation Indian American who decides to enlist his parents in exploring the idea of an arranged marriage (his parents will be in Hot Springs); “Kung Fu Elliot,” the Grand Jury Prize winner at Slamdance, on Elliot “White Lightning” Scott’s attempt to become Canada’s first action hero; “Songs for Alexis,” a coming-of-age love story featuring YouTube sensation Ryan Cassata, an 18-year-old transgendered musician.
There are a dozen more movies I want to mention but I’ll stop here. We’ll have more information on the Rock Candy blog once the schedule is made official. The festival takes place Oct. 10-19 — check out the website at hsdfi.org for ticket info. I wouldn’t miss it.