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EDITOR'S NOTE: The 27th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival begins today at the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa. This is the final installment of four articles highlighting the longest-running, all-documentary film festival in North America.

Beth Reed

The Sentinel-Record

From the moment the lights go down and the screen comes alive for the opening night film at the 27th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, organizers hope to set a tone of open-minded conversation for the nine-day event.

At 7 p.m. today, viewers will fill the Crystal Ballroom of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa for the opening night film, "Hillbilly," which examines the hillbilly image in media and culture throughout the years, particularly exploring rural America following the 2016 election.

According to the festival's executive director, Jennifer Gerber, this was an intentional selection.

"A lot of care goes into selecting all the films, but specifically into the opening and closing nights," she said. "There's always lots of contenders of what's going to be the film that's going to open the festival and really set the tone for the rest of the festival, and for me, it was really clear that 'Hillbilly' was going to be the film for us for many reasons.

"We're a festival that's based in the South and I've been going around the country and even the world this year, talking about our festival and other industry members, and talking about being in the South. I realize that gives us an opportunity as a festival to represent who we are and where we are, and it gives us a unique point of view."

Gerber said the committee which determines the programming for the festival wanted to turn a light on the Southern experience and display an array of Southern stories the rest of the world is not used to seeing.

"'Hillbilly' to me was the perfect film because it really, I think, when people hear the word hillbilly, it creates an instant negative reaction," she said. "I would think most often I find that while I'm working and representing the film festival and my own work outside of Arkansas, I'm having to overcome that stereotype myself. For me, this film was a chance to say 'We're not hillbillies. We're not who you think we are.'"

Billy Redden, whose role as the banjo-playing teenager in 1972's "Deliverance," shares his story in the film and will be a special guest on opening night.

"In the film, when you see his story, it just really melts your heart and I think having him here is going to be a really meaningful experience," Gerber said. "But what 'Hillbilly' does is it opens the conversation to say 'Don't judge things at face value. Be open-minded about the conversations that we can have at the festival.' I think it also, for me, instills great pride in being from here."

The film leaves audiences with a call to begin sharing their stories, which Gerber said reinforces the festival's theme it is striving for through educational workshops.

"I hope to reinforce through our panels, through our workshops, and through our educational outreach to eventually have more of our stories on screen at the festival," she said.

Gerber said she encourages filmgoers to step out of their box and look for films they may not necessarily think they would enjoy. That, she said has been her greatest journey through the screening and programming processes.

"If this can be a week that we walk into the Arlington with open hearts and open minds, and historically as a community, we open our hearts to the visitors that are here," she said. "Allow yourself to try something that you normally would not think to try and I'd love to know what you think about it. I know at the very least that there's value in the conversation."

Local on 10/19/2018

Print Headline: Organizers hopeful opening night sets tone for festival

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