Whoa. We raved about last year’s lineup for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, particularly in that it meant pulling the festival from the brink. But it’s safe to say this year’s is easily the best ever for the 21-year-old festival. Like last year, but much, much more so, it’s clear that Courtney Pledger, the executive director of the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute and interim director of the HSDFF, solicited much of the material, rather than picking the best from submissions. 

The festival runs from Oct. 11-20 at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs. Purchase passes here.


The big draw is likely to be “Good Ol’ Freda,” a portrait of The Beatles longtime secretary and fanclub manager, Freda Kelly, who’ll be in attendance. 

A new hook for the festival that’s also likely to pull in big audiences — sports. The new McKinnis Sports Documentary series, named in honor of Jerry McKinnis, the outdoor sports TV pioneer, features at least eight sports docs, including “The Big Shootout,” which debuted tonight at the Clinton Center (Beau Wilcox will have a quick review of it later); a biographical look at Arkansas-born football coach Bear Bryant called “Mama Called,” which makes its world premiere at the HSDFF;  “1,” a look at the evolution of Formula One; “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” about the boxer’s conversion to Islam, refusal to serve in the military and exile from boxing, and “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Belhop,” an ESPN 30 for 30 short that features footage from 1954 of the then high school junior working as a bellhop at Kutscher’s Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskills, and playing on the club’s basketball team, coached at the time by Red Auerbach. “The Jim Lindsey Story” and “The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain” are on the line-up, too. And, even if you’ve already seen the Oscar-winning “Undefeated” about a Memphis high school football team, you’ll want to make plans to see it again and stick around to hear the team’s hugely charismatic coach, Bill Courtney, talk afterwards.


Other highlights:

A tribute to documentary legend Les Blank.


Perhaps the best reviewed film last year, Josh Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” about a notorious Sumatran death squad. Somehow, Oppenheimer convinces the leaders of the paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squad to recreate their killings for the camera in the spirit of their favorite genre films.

“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” a portrait of irrepressible, 97-year-old, Detroit-based activist Grace Lee Boggs. It was an audience award winner at the LA Film Festival and won best of the fest at AFI Docs. 

“The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne,” about a 92-year-old grandma who becomes a notorious jewel thief. 

“American Promise,” a 13-year (!) look at two middle class black families as they raise their sons.


“I Am Divine,” a profile of the John Waters collaborator. 

And those are just a few that I picked out.

See the full release on the jump.

(Hot Springs, Ark.) – The 22nd Annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival will kick off October 11 with Ryan White’s Good Ol’ Freda, the story of Beatles’ Secretary Freda Kelly who accompanied John, Paul, George and Ringo on their meteoric ride as the greatest band in history.

As a special guest of the festival, Freda will share personal stories, both onscreen and off, of her time with the Fab Four from their beginnings at the Cavern in Liverpool through their break up in 1970. Very much a private person, Freda Kelly has not spoken publicly of her role in the Beatles’ lives and careers for nearly fifty years.

A new film series will debut at this year’s festival introducing a significant sports component. The series will host more than a dozen powerful human stories set against the fields, courts, rings, and tracks of competitive athletics.

Highlights of the new McKinnis Sports Documentary Series will include The Big Shootout: the Life and Times of 1969, which revisits the ‘Game of the Century’, pitting the Razorbacks of Arkansas against the Texas Longhorns in the nation’s last all-white championship, ‘1’, from the producers of Oscar-winning docs Undefeated and The Cove and narrated by Michael Fassbinder, set in the golden era of Grand Prix Racing and painting a portrait of a generation of charismatic drivers who raced on the edge during Formula One’s deadliest period, The Nolan Richardson-narrated The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain, following the present-day struggle of America’s most decorated 2005 high school footballer as he searches for balance between who he once was, and who he now wants to be.

Mama Called, partially filmed in the Arkansas town of Fordyce, will explore the life and career of Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, and will have its World Premiere at the HSDFF in October.

Other featured titles in the McKinnis Sports Documentary Series will include Medora, a film about four boys from rural Medora, Indiana who fight to end their high school’s team’s losing streak as their dwindling town faces the threat of extinction in America’s basketball heartland; Last Woman Standing, featuring amateur boxers and close friends Ariane Fortin and Mary Spencer who for years fought side by side in different weight categories on Canada’s national team until the 2012 London Games, where the two friends were forced to compete against each other for the single spot on the Canadian team; and The Trials of Muhammad Ali, a fascinating examination of Ali’s choice of belief and conscience over fame and fortune, a choice that resonates far beyond the boxing ring.

A number of sports documentary shorts will screen as well, including The Jim Lindsey Story, narrated by Jerry Jones and covering one of the most accomplished athletes in Arkansas history, and Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop, with 1954 footage revealing high school junior Wilt Chamberlain in a summer job that would change his life. Working as a bellhop at Kutsher’s Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains, Wilt played on the club’s basketball team in his off-hours, coached hard by the resort’s athletic director, the soon-to-be legendary Red Auerbach.

For the first time in its 22-year history, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival will offer awards in multiple categories, including prizes for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short, Best Sports Documentary and Audience Awards for both the festival at large and the McKinnis Sports Documentary Series.

Also unique to this year’s Hot Springs festival will be the inaugural Hot Springs Career Achievement Award in Documentary, for excellence in the field of documentary film. Actor and author Peter Coyote will be the first recipient of the honor for his nearly 200 documentary narrations, many for celebrated documentarians such as Ken Burns and Alex Gibney.

Additional HSDFF early selections include American Promise, This Ain’t No Mouse Music, No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, I Am Divine, Bridegroom, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Gangster of Love, Mercy Mercy: A Portrait of True Adoption, The New Black, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, Finding Hillywood, Getting Back to Abnormal, Tales from the Organ Trade, Kiss The Water, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne and Los Wild Ones.

Other highlights include spotlight screenings of Josh Oppenheim’s The Act of Killing, the 2011 Oscar-winning Best Documentary Film Undefeated, with the film’s Coach Bill Courtney as special guest, and a tribute to famed documentarian Les Blank who died this past April.

A World Premiere documentary centered around the life and career of an iconic sports figure will be announced at a later date, and will anchor the festival’s Closing Night on October 19th.

The 2013 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival will take place October 11-20, 2013 at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. For tickets and passes, visit http://www.hsdfi.org/tickets-passes