There wasn't a moment last weekend I wasn't either watching a movie, talking about movies, or thinking about movies. It was one of the busiest weeks to date for the Arkansas film community with film events scheduled by the University of Central Arkansas, the Arkansas Cinema Society, and Made In Arkansas.
UCA celebrated its 19th-annual film festival. ACS and the Micheaux Award & Film Labs sponsored a special screening at Crystal Bridges of "Far From Finished," a new web series from hip-hop artist Big Piph. There was also The Middle of Knowhere film festival that focused on LGBT shorts up in Fayetteville. And lastly, at the Ron Robinson theater, the fifth annual Made In Arkansas film festival was held, spotlighting the very best in film that this state has to offer.
It would seem that having so much hoopla going on over the span of three days would be a sign of how thriving the local film community in the state is, but I think it highlights a different problem. Having multiple film events at the same time splits the potential number of participants for each event, because no matter how prosperous film is in the state, there's still only a finite number of people that'll come out and attend events, only so many butts to fill seats. So moving forward, all these organizations need to have better communication among one another to avoid this sort of double booking, because unfortunately, I wasn't able to be at all four events -- I spent the weekend at UCA and Made In Arkansas.
Before I get into pros and cons of the two festivals I attended, let me disclose that I was approached by both festivals and asked to be a judge in their competitions and I accepted with no hesitation.
FILLED WALL TO WALL
Both festivals have really stepped up their game this year. The UCA Film Festival was programmed by newcomer faculty member Emily Railsback, who included a DJ, food truck, raffles, and a professional headshot photo booth into this year's festival. It was nice to see the tiny lobby of the Snow Fine Arts building filled wall to wall with students with exultant smiles as their semester has come to an official end and they get to watch the fruits of their labor on the big screen, sharing their films with family, friends, casts, crews and professors. While I was checking out Fry Fry Crazy's food truck at the event, I bumped into the Film Program Coordinator, Bruce Hutchinson, who pointed out that at 19 years in, the UCA Film Festival might be one of, if not the longest running narrative film festivals in the state. That speaks volumes to the quality and standards of not just the university's film program, but to the caliber of students that the program molds.
The films at this year's UCA film festival were a menagerie of different genres and styles, touching on topics of fear, anxiety, love, politics, and LGBT concerns. What impressed me the most about these student films was how well shot they were. Whoever is teaching cinematography deserves credit. Each film looked professional, and it was nice seeing detail put into color grading the films.
As great as the cinematography was, the audio on a few of the films was hit and miss. A lot of the stories were lacking in script. For example, at least three films started with an alarm clock and a character waking up, one of the most tiresome cliches for student films. In fact, when I was teaching screenwriting, on the first day of class I would say that if any script starts with an alarm clock, that would be an automatic F.
If I were forced to pick a favorite film from the festival it would be Annalee Drain's "Honey," a quaint tale of how people who think they're too old to find love can find it in the booths of the local farmers market. One thing I would always encourage my screenwriting students to do is to not be afraid to write roles for older actors. You can almost always get a nuanced performance from people that've been acting a long time, as opposed to the plethora of college-age students who appear in these films, just due to the amount of life experience that people in their 30s and up have. Drain was able to get some phenomenally quiet performances from her cast of Thesa Loving -- our beekeeping, honey-selling grandmother -- as well as Mindy Van Kuren, and young John Isaac Smalls.
At the festival, I received the sad new that two of the program's professors were retiring at the end of this semester. One of which is Mike Gunter, who I had many classes with during my education at UCA. Gunter even served as the committee chair of my graduate thesis film, "The Town Where Nobody Lives." He and I spent many a long night inside the upstairs editing bay talking movies and music and history, and lots of conversations about Ingmar Bergman. He was an instrumental part of my thesis film, and he'll be a noticeable loss for the department.
While all this was going on in Conway, down at Little Rock's River Market, the fifth annual Made In Arkansas film festival was going on. Honestly, Made In Arkansas has had a rough road over the years; the festival started up right before the pandemic hit, causing the festival to go virtual for two years, only returning last year to in-person events. So, starting last year, it was like the festival had to hit a reset button. The 2022 festival felt like the they were dipping their toe back in the water, taking note of what the climate for Arkansas film was. This year, they were ready to dive into the deep end of the pool, and they were able to put on one of the best film going experiences of the year.
A TWO-PERSON TEAM
It's hard to believe the event is primarily run by a two-person team, festival directors Johnnie Brannon and Kerri Michael. Brannon has described the festival as being a way of "cultivating Arkansas filmmakers. Our festival screens more Arkansas filmmakers than any other festival in the state. We provide an opportunity for filmmakers to meet each other, view each other's work, and build networks that hopefully lead to even more Arkansas-made films."
At this festival the filmmaker came first. Not only did the festival screen nearly 50 movies shot either in Arkansas or created by natives of the state, but they included two educational panels hosted by Michael. The first discussion included other film festivals and programs from around the state that help cultivate creators. The guests on the panel included people from Hot Springs' Inception to Projection program, members of Women in Film Arkansas, and a team member from the 48 Hour Film Project. The second set of guests were representatives from Arkansas' well-known production company, Rockhill Studios. The studio's president, Blake Elder, came down to discuss how creatives here in the state can end up working in the industry without having to flee to Los Angeles or Atlanta. He reassured everyone that there's always room on his company's sets for local filmmakers. My only issue with these panels is that they were too short; 30 minutes is not enough time to explain how the industry is growing and changing within the state.
A FULL LOBBY
As the films and the panels were going on, the lobby of the Ron Robinson was constantly full of actors, directors, musicians, filmmakers from all departments -- everyone rubbing shoulders, networking, and passing business cards from hand to hand. As I stood in the lobby Saturday night, talking to the husband and wife indie-rock duo, Monsterboy LIVES, I looked upon the overly crowded lobby, filmmakers with drinks in their hands, everyone wearing smiles. It gave me flashbacks to the Little Rock Film Festival. While not quite the scope of the LRFF, Made In Arkansas has done a great job of lassoing all the filmmakers in the state under one roof.
Later that night, there was even a very professionally put together awards ceremony that honored some of the best short films and features and filmmakers: PJ Sosko for his heartwarming performance as a suicidal man seeking help from his friends in "Call of the Clown Horn"; Daniel Winfield's inner city drama "Lowlifes"; Donavon Thompson's micro short thriller "Sig: A Kronos Story"; even Jordan Mear's inexplicably bizarre Neo Western "New West."
The Made In Arkansas and the UCA Film Festivals are a successful representation of a film community that's starting to thrive again. Let's hope both festivals will keep their momentum going and keep improving and giving the creative members of our community a voice and representation that they rightfully deserve.