Kathryn Tucker and Jeff Nichols at Arkansas Cinema Society’s opening night of Filmland 2021

Hats off to Arkansas Cinema Society for a supremely chill Filmland opening night situation, free of glitches and spatially expansive and perfect for anyone who’s still approaching public social events with a healthy dose of side-eye. The good news is that Filmland is back, it’s awesome and it feels safe. The bad news: You’ve missed one of the festival’s greatest film offerings, and possibly the best festival weather.

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Filmland events this year happen at the south end of MacArthur Park, in a big grassy field near the pond, dog park and Bowen School of Law. There are a few little pop-up tents to serve food and drink and to sell merch, and plenty of room to walk around and enjoy the park, with the warm glow of the newly renovated Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in the background. A short walk away from the tents, there’s a cantina area with a food truck (Nachyo Nachos, last night and again tonight). The audio and the projection are crisp enough to be heard and seen from quite far away, and because everyone is so spread out, it doesn’t really feel like a crowd. Even as attendance ramps up this weekend, weather threats notwithstanding, I have a hard time imagining anyone would find it difficult to socially distance as much as they pleased. I spread out a picnic blanket several yards away from my nearest “neighbors,” but take lawnchairs if you go this weekend, since it rained on MacArthur Park overnight. (Probably a good idea to follow ACS on social media for updates, too.) Get tickets here, and get the Filmland preview from Arkansas Times editor Rhett Brinkley here.

Despite the laidback picnic feel of the event, the Cinema Society still treated it like opening night, with Society founder and executive director Kathryn Tucker reading a proclamation from Mayor Frank Scott declaring Sept. 30, 2021, officially Jeff Nichols Day, honoring the Society’s board chairman and the engine behind some of its star power. Or so said Tucker in her introduction, relating that when people ask her how they’re able to get big names to come to Arkansas, she says “Two words: Jeff Nichols.

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Kathryn Tucker and family

A tightly edited (these are film folks; would you expect less?) introduction film showed the faces of Mayor Scott, Graham Gordy, Antwan Phillips, ACS board members and other filmmakers, plus promotional material for the downtown Little Rock Arts Corridor on Main Street, featuring quotes from Arkansas Repertory Theatre director Will Trice, Downtown Little Rock Partnership director Gabe Holmstrom, and shots of Ballet Arkansas. In keeping with the society’s long-view approach to creating a sustainable film industry in Arkansas, Mayor Scott said “We think the Arkansas Cinema Society might be the beginning of something really cool.”

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I hope so. The opening night film, Liz Garbus’ National Geographic documentary “Becoming Cousteau,” was stunning. No wonder Nichols, maker of films like “Midnight Special” and “Take Shelter,” fell head over heels for this exercise in awe and wonder; Cousteau is, after all, a dude who concocted blueprints for a diving camera so he could show his friends — and eventually, film audiences across the world — cool underwater stuff. Garbus doesn’t treat Cousteau’s legacy with kid gloves or make it too precious, but manages to get across eloquently how insatiable the diver documentarian’s love for the ocean was, and how his work as an aquatic explorer was equal parts mischief and stewardship. Or equal parts science and celebrity. The sailors drink and curse, as sailors do. They dream and scheme. They stunt and play, doing handstands on top of giant tortoises on the move.

Despite the film’s abundantly uplifting spirit, there are some dark parts: corpses at the bottom of the sea from fallen aircraft, family tragedy, shark blood. Even those parts, though, weren’t nearly as horrific as the part of the film when Cousteau pays a visit to Antarctica, watching climate change happen in real time as hunks of ice break away from a towering glacier and tumble into the frigid sea. Once a person who dreamed of establishing human colonies underwater, Cousteau’s perspective shifts sharply later in life toward minimizing human interference with nature. “I was shocked by the degree to which industrial interests” ruled the relationship between man and ocean, Cousteau says. “We throw blank checks on future generations. We don’t pay. They’re going to pay.”

Careening above a blue blanket at lightning speed, hanging over the edge of the gunwale, Cousteau remarks that it was important for him to relay the beauty of the sea to people who couldn’t see it for themselves because “You’ll only protect what you love.” It feels a little like Nichols, Tucker and Co. are trying to do that very thing for the state’s film scene of the future, making sure that when people fall in love with film and decide to make a living of it, that they don’t have to leave Arkansas to do it.