Remember going to the movies? Remember the feeling of settling in to a dark theater and laughing, crying, cheering along with a character you relate to on screen? As the Bentonville Film Festival returns to Northwest Arkansas Monday through Aug. 8, festival organizers are looking forward to welcoming audiences back to celebrating the magic of the movies and the power of storytelling.
As with most other events in 2020, the festival offered a predominantly virtual experience last year. For its seventh year, the festival will present a hybrid programming model of in-person events and virtual opportunities to continue the access that many enjoyed last summer.
"I think that is really exciting that we are offering inclusion in that way," affirms Wendy Guerrero, president of the festival and the newly formed nonprofit Bentonville Film Foundation.
"You might not be able to afford to travel to Northwest Arkansas or to a film festival in general, so to be able to experience a film festival online and get those filmmaker Q-and-As and all of the panel discussions that we offered online and will again this year is so unique," she says. It's "just exciting that people can have that right in their laptop in their living room."
The festival was founded for the purpose of — and has become recognized internationally for — championing underrepresented voices in filmmaking. In 2021, the films selected for the festival's juried competition are as representative of that mission as ever. Of the 55 films, 71% were directed by women; 75% by Black, indigenous and other people of color, or Asian and Pacific Islander filmmakers; and 33% were directed by LGBT filmmakers.
"It is true that what we see greatly [affects] what we think is normal, what we appreciate and what we accept," says Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis, the festival's chairwoman and co-founder. "So it really makes a huge difference what stories are being told, and whose voices are being heard. And the more we can do that and spread that out into the wider community, the better off that we all will be."
Davis and Guerrero sat for an exclusive interview with Jocelyn Murphy, associate editor and features writer for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, ahead of the festival's August return. (You can hear that full conversation at nwaonline.com/podcast, or see selected excerpts below.)
On looking back on the festival's first year:
Davis: We had a very short window in which to put the festival together that first time — we only started in January and the festival was in May.
And there were a lot of challenges to overcome, like having a film festival in a town with no movie theaters was one! But, we were just thrilled with how it came out and the participation of the community, and it was beyond exciting.
Guerrero: I agree. It was just kind of like, "Wow, this is really happening." And as Geena said, it was in such a short amount of time that we were able to put it all together, and the fact that we pulled it off and the response was as incredible as it was — it was just a thrill to see our dreams kind of come to life, and the audiences in Bentonville and beyond really respond to what we were doing. So that was encouraging.
On the work the industry still needs to do:
Davis: Well, the research shows that while we've made some significant progress, especially in family films for women and people of color, they're 40% of the population. And we haven't quite reached that — we're in the 30%-ish range right now, but we're definitely moving up on that. But there are other categories of under-representation which are profoundly unchanged and incredibly small: the percentage of [LGBT] characters in family films, for example, is around 1%. And that's the same for people with disabilities or body differences. And there's also age to consider; there's a lot of age bias in Hollywood. So these are areas where we really, really need to see the change, and we're trying our best to really embody that change in the festival.
We have numbers that no one else has, and we have the best quality films. It's no problem whatsoever for Wendy to find amazing, amazing films that are incredibly inclusive. So that's been our goal, and I feel like we're really showing the way for Hollywood to be much, much more inclusive, and think about it.
Guerrero: Absolutely. And, as Geena has said to me many times, we're compromising nothing. All of the films that we showcase in the festival are excellent — behind the camera and in front of the camera. Great stories, great cinematography and production. So it's really just that a lot of these films don't get as wide distribution as, say, a studio blockbuster or something like that. So if we can help provide and amplify these stories and get Hollywood connected to them through the distributors, or through the acquisitions of studios and things like that, then we're really using the platform as a bridge to help these filmmakers get their stories out there in a larger way.
On the festival's work to aid distribution:
Guerrero: I think in the beginning, we definitely knew that that was a challenge for filmmakers to find distribution. So it was kind of a pointed thing that we really wanted to help filmmakers accomplish. And we did have guaranteed distribution for, I think, three years through the festival. Now, there is a distribution offer, but they don't have to take the offer. There are other elements in place that they can take advantage of, besides just the guaranteed distribution.
A lot of the films do go on to streamers and have really robust lives at Netflix or something like that. So with all the relationships that we have, we definitely connect filmmakers to the distributors that make the most sense for that film, and then help them provide resources to get their next film made, and to be a support system to have that ecosystem there for them so they can go on and make their next film, which is usually typically the challenge.
On some of the trends present in this year's submissions:
Guerrero: These are films ... that are about people. Whether they happen to be part of a certain community, that's not the main focus of the plot of a lot of these films. ... I think that's really what the intention of this program is.
We also have a lot of female-led stories directed by men. So that was another large theme that we saw coming through this year, that a lot of male directors decided to tell these stories about women and have the female protagonist be the centerpiece of the story. But we also do partner with the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, and we have a lot of films represented in the disability category. It's usually a balanced program where all of our inclusion is just built into the festival.
And then it's also definitely a sign of the times and what the filmmakers are making and the stories that they're telling. So the themes kind of crop up out of the submissions, and we just take the best stories and the best films that fit our program and that have been submitted.
Davis: I think it's really exciting. And the percentages of people from different underrepresented communities that are directing and starring and all that is just amazing and so inspiring. ... [The stories are] becoming sort of normalized, and where movies don't have to be about the topic of how hard it is, that it's just a part of normal life. I think these films really reflect that.
On returning to Bentonville:
Davis: I haven't been on the ground and in Bentonville since the festival before last year ... It's going to be very exciting to be back. I feel like the honorary mayor sometimes when I'm there, because people are very happy about the festival, and they love having the festival there. So it's really fun. But the area in Northwest Arkansas is really rather extraordinary. It's this rich pocket of culture and art and fabulous hotels and restaurants. And it's a really magical place, besides looking like it's a movie set from a movie made decades ago or something. The actual town center is so quintessentially all-American, and we love that about it.
Guerrero: Every time I go back, I'm astounded and impressed and inspired. And I meet the most amazing people. Our audiences are incredible audiences, and the people that live in Northwest Arkansas are so warm and accepting of all of our filmmakers and everything that we're doing in the state. And it's just really rewarding to kind of dispel some of those myths, as well, around Arkansas, because a lot of the filmmakers that come are like, "Oh, this is Bentonville? Wow."
On some of the ways 2020 affected the organization:
Guerrero: We are just here as support to our community. We are very active with our alumni so we're always reaching out asking, "What are the challenges? What support do you need? What is your next project? How can we help you?" So I feel like people use us as a resource year-round and this year, we were able to move to nonprofit. So we are now based in the community as a 501(c)3. So we're doing year-round programming to further our mission, which is to champion women and diverse voices.
We'll be doing films in the area with the filmmaker Q and As. I think those are always informative and educational on both sides — the filmmakers really want to discuss their films with audiences. And I think that's a really great way for people to share their opinions and have a conversation about some of the films that are making strong statements. And whether you agree or don't agree, I think it's just powerful, this medium that we're bringing to the community, and that the filmmakers are excited and willing to have these types of conversations with the community ...
I think the best thing that we can do is to be a resource for the community, and to share stories that are inclusive. And that way does potentially have the chance to change hearts and minds. I think the power of the storytelling is highly effective.
On challenges both have experienced as women in the industry:
Davis: Things have changed; certainly not as much as we'd like. But this experience [with her nonprofit research organization, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, founded in 2004] has really revolutionized the way I think about things because I haven't really had much experience at all with collecting data and using that. Our industry seems like it would be so subjective; that you decide the value of something by, "Oh, it seems like people like it," instead of really figuring out what we're making. And when I first started out with my institute, I discovered that ... a huge part of it was that people were assuming that change had already happened. And it wasn't until we had the numbers that people could see that things really hadn't changed as much as they thought.
So it's been incredibly valuable, obviously, to my institute, and also to the film festival, to have that component where we really know what we're talking about, we know what we're showing, and ... we can see where we want the change to happen.
Guerrero: I am a mixed-race woman — my father's from Mexico, my mother's from England — so I was constantly looking, searching for where I fit in, in media and magazines, in stories and television. For me, it's been a really organic process, just being drawn to the entertainment industry, because I've experienced not seeing myself, not seeing my family, not seeing someone with a mixed background that looked like me.
That has been a constant journey for me. And it's a passion of mine as I work on the festival to make sure that others don't necessarily have to go through that; that we're showing stories that reflect the world around us, as we've been saying. I think if I'd had that, I wouldn't have had such an identity search of like, "Where do I fit in?" or "Who am I? And what side of this culture am I on?" And I just would have felt my place. I feel it now. But it took me in my 20s and my 30s and my 40s ... It took a long time to kind of like really say, "OK, yes. Wow, this story I identify with, and I see how I can put myself in this character's shoes."
On the 30th anniversary of Davis' 1991 film "Thelma & Louise":
Davis: I actually produced a movie a few years ago called "This Changes Everything," based on the idea that as things progress, people think a certain movie ... is going to change what happens in the future. And with ["Thelma & Louise"], there was definitely tremendous buzz about the idea that now we'll see so many more movies starring women, and this is just the beginning now. And [co-star] Susan [Sarandon] and I were thrilled by that and just waiting for this change to happen. And, you know, 30 years later, really how much has changed? Not that much.
There are definitely more female lead characters, and I think from the anecdotal evidence, it seems like that. But people can be assured that it is definitely getting better. And ... we found that in family films, we've reached parity in the lead characters — not the world of the movie, but for the lead characters, which is one of our goals and really amazing. But we have tremendous ground to cover still, and we just have to keep that in mind. I think it's sort of maybe some natural human instinct where you want to think, "Well, now we're done. Well, now we're done." And unless you really drive it, the change is maybe not going to stick, and it's not going to get even more significant. And that's obviously part of our goal with the film festival is to keep it front-of-mind, keep moving and keep pressing forward.
Bentonville Film Festival
- Monday-Aug. 8; various locations around Bentonville and online
- Festival passes $175-$375; tickets for individual events available; bentonvillefilm.org