If anyone was skeptical of the Little Rock Film Festival’s move away from a cineplex in Riverdale to downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, surely their doubts were assuaged after this year’s fest. Festival organizers estimated that more than 25,000 had ventured out for the 80 films that screened at downtown venues on each side of the river. That number is slightly more than last year’s attendance — a strong count for a seven-year-old, mid-sized festival when one of the biggest, Sundance, draws around 45,000.
This year’s festival demonstrated that a winning formula could be improved. The two main theaters, Argenta Community Theater and The Rep, could comfortably accommodate far greater crowds than the largest primary theaters of festivals past and, since they and other venues screened one film or program at a time, lines were manageable and rare. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Rep turns out to be an excellent movie theater. The seating is plush and the projector screen supplied by the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute (AMPI) was ample.
The biggest coup of the festival — and perhaps the one least noticed by a sizeable chunk of the attendees — also came courtesy of the AMPI and its executive director, Courtney Pledger. She convinced fellow Little Rock native Brad Simpson, a producer on films like “World War Z” and “Far From Heaven,” to come to the festival and bring along Robert Capron and Zachary Gordon, the young stars of the terrifically popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” films, which Simpson also produced. A 10 a.m. screening of the latest film in the series filled the 370-seat Rep Theatre and a meet-and-greet and autograph session at the Little Rock Zoo drew nearly 1,000 people.
That sort of populist programming is important for the future growth of the festival. (It’ll have plenty of room to grow with its 325-seat Arcade theater, set to open in fall, in addition to the Rep and the ACT next year.) But the LRFF will always be focused on putting the smaller, headier fare on a pedestal. Sometimes it even draws crowds to rival mainstream movies. “Bridegroom,” the latest doc from honorary Arkansan Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, won the Arkansas Times Audience Award. It’s about Shane Bitney Crone, who lost Tom Bridegroom, the love of his life, in an accident. I missed it, but Max Brantley wrote warmly about it on the Arkansas Blog. “It is a story about the travails of a same-sex couple deprived of rights others enjoy (visiting a loved one in a hospital, for example), along with the simple hazards of being gay in some families and some places. Hard to see how this story wouldn’t touch just about anyone.” The film also won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Bill Clinton introduced it. Crone, in accepting the audience award at the LRFF, said Clinton had shared with him his passion for Arkansas and Little Rock and, after his reception at the festival, he understood why.
Another modest movie that had people buzzing was “Short Term 12,” the opening night film that won the festival’s Golden Rock Award for Narrative Feature. It’s sly, funny and gut-punching-ly sad, the rare fiction film about troubled kids that feels honest. The acting is as good as I’ve seen this year. Two of the young stars, Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield, came for the opening night post-screening Q&A, which I moderated. They were joined by director Destin Daniel Cretton, who came to the festival last year with another movie. He’s an object lesson in the dividends the LRFF’s hospitality pays. He had a good time last year, so he agreed to screen “Short Term 12” in Little Rock immediately following an award-winning premiere at SXSW and then stuck around for four more days for the full festival experience.
With more positive buzz at festivals, “Bridegroom” and “Short Term 12” could be mainstream hits. The winners of the festival’s two cash prizes are more likely films you wouldn’t see outside of a film fest. “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker,” the stunning documentary profile of a man Dr. John called “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced,” took home the $10,000 Oxford American Award for Best Southern Film. It was a great year for unconventional music documentaries. “Maharajah” deftly deconstructed Booker’s playing through demonstrations from the likes of Harry Connick Jr., while also setting a mood of dark, funky mania with wonderfully strung together archival footage of not just Booker, but of ’70s era New Orleans. The Levon Helm documentary, “Ain’t in It for My Health,” which drew a strong crowd for its one showing, eschewed the talking head approach almost entirely in favor of a naturalistic portrait of Helm at work and rest. The scene of him and regular collaborator Larry Campbell humming and strumming, trying to puzzle out how to finish a long-lost Hank Williams song, was one of the best moments of the festival for me.
I missed “These Birds Walk,” the winner of the inaugural Heifer International Social Impact Film Award, which also came with a $10,000 prize. It’s about Pakistani humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi and the runaway children he cares for. In our preview last week, David Ramsey called it “more tone poem than traditional documentary,” but said that filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq “have the documentarian’s knack for unflinching observation — the portrayal of childhood is startlingly intimate.”
I missed most of the Arkansas films, too, but it’s heartening to see feature-length films like Juli Jackson’s “45RPM,” which won the Made in Arkansas Best Feature prize (see all of the prize winners on page 27), included. This was the first year that prize was presented. If memory serves, that’s because there’ve been next to no feature-length films shot in Arkansas that made the festival. Like the LRFF, Arkansas film appears to be ascendant.
I happily didn’t miss many of the parties. As in years past, they were grand affairs. Who likes free food and booze in unique settings (the Junction Bridge, the vacant 17th floor of the Bank of America building)? Most everyone. With cars and drivers ready to drive filmmakers to the next venue and free hotel rooms throughout downtown (the folks from “Short Term 12,” who stayed at the Capital Hotel, made a short stop-motion clip on the Twitter app Vine thanking the festival for the “nicest room we’ve ever stayed in”), word of the LRFF as the premier filmmaker’s film festival is likely to keep spreading. That bodes well for us festivalgoers.