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EDITOR'S NOTE: In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, The Sentinel-Record is presenting a weekly four-part series by one of its founders, Lorraine Benini, tracing its history. Part one deals with the origins of the popular festival.

The origin of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival brings back rich memories! As we approach the 25th anniversary of the HSDFF, I look back with pleasure to this cultural event started with high hopes and lots of energy.

As someone involved from the beginning, who remained at the heart of it all for 12 years, I have been asked to record how it all began. I will write of the first 12 years. Others who came after me can continue the story. For now, with my friends Suzanne Tucker and Marlys Moodie to collaborate, we share these good times.

We saw great progression through the years in educational and cultural benefits, brought forth by the determination and efforts of a community ready and willing to advance a significant event to put Hot Springs on the international map in the film world.

Two things relevant to the film festival in its time are worth mentioning. Maybe it will be hard for the younger audience to grasp, but we had no social media or internet to promote our event. I was a founder and president, and at the time of origin, did not even own a computer. I rectified that, but in the beginning, it was phones and typed news releases, mailings and word of mouth to spread the word about this fledgling film festival. As another founder, Suzanne Tucker, recently reminded me, "It was long distance to call Little Rock, and the dial-up was so slow. It is amazing we ever got anything done!"

Secondly, Hot Springs needed a boost on the cultural front. The film festival emerged following a time of great dissonance. In the beginning, it merged with the Celebration of the Arts, which also included the Historic Architectural tours, the Artist Lecture series, the Hot Springs Gallery Walks and the weekly poetry readings. The "City of the Arts" had recently been featured in an Associated Press article by Carla Arsaga published in newspapers throughout the United States -- the arts, all of them, gave a powerful uplift to a city long known for its waters, gangsters and natural beauty.

That first year, a rather loose team of committed individuals produced a film festival. We had no time to develop strategies, titles, or long-range goals, we just worked to get the films in, screen them, let the world know and welcome our filmmakers and audience. The formal structure came later.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1988, Benini and I were traveling through Arkansas from an exhibition he had in Nevada returning to Florida where we lived on the shores of the St. Johns River, northeast of Orlando. We had paused in Fort Smith and met Polly Wood Crews, the arts matron of northwest Arkansas who told us we must visit Hot Springs. We came in at night and found it enchanting, with the historic bath houses and mountains hugging Central Avenue. We stayed over, and the next day went to a bath house, a custom Benini found so familiar having grown up in Europe where they are common.

There, a visitor told us of the Sunday brunch at the Arlington. We dashed there with wet hair, and enjoyed smoked salmon and homemade doughnuts overlooking the national park from windows with beautiful flower boxes. The ambience, the gentility of the Arlington staff, the beauty of the natural park -- somehow it all sparked our interest. Horst Fischer was the general manager at the time -- more about his HSDFF role soon.

We decided to look at property. Realtor Larry Koller helped us locate a building across from Bathhouse Row, we put money down with a contract and left town. The three old buildings on the 500 block of Central were not empty; they were hosting pigeons. In our case, we were interested in the largest one, without even seeing the inside.

"I don't know how you did this," Larry said when he called a week later, "but you have bought yourself a building!" Benini and I found ourselves owners of the 1886 Rix building at 520 Central Ave., now owned by Dr. Mary Mason.

And so it began. We moved from Florida, and started a major renovation according to National Historic guidelines of a building built in 1886 that was originally a hotel, but at the time we bought it, had ceilings open to the stars. Walgreens was our neighbor to the south.

It was our good fortune and the good fortune for the film festival, that soon Dr. Paul and Suzanne Tucker bought the adjoining two buildings and began renovation on them. We called them the Three Sisters, or the Three Old Ladies. Eventually, our building and one of the Tuckers' buildings served as social headquarters for the film festival for many years.

One day when we were living in the building, Benini and I had a visit from Little Rock architect Bill Asti who brought screenwriter Joe Bransford of Southern Film Alliance with him. They shared their idea and enthusiasm for a film festival focused entirely on documentaries. They said they had support in the film world in California and wanted to learn if Hot Springs was interested in hosting this event. Benini and I immediately saw the merit of their proposal. We wanted to widen the circle of support, so we hosted a dinner party. The Tuckers and other city leaders were invited, and Bill and Joe spoke about their concept. The reception was unanimous. Hot Springs was receptive!

Dr. Kelly Mahone became an invaluable supporter that first year. As a film lover, he immediately embraced the idea and hosted a private party at the Malco Theater that brought in much-needed funds to get the film festival established. Yet more money was needed. We made a commitment that first year to bring in the director(s) of the documentary films that were nominated for the Academy Awards, regardless of where they were coming from. That first year we brought French filmmaker Eric Valli from Kathmandu! He made the National Geographic film "Shadow Hunters: Birdnesters of Thailand." His stories, including the technical difficulty to light the deep caverns where the birds were nesting without spooking them, were fascinating.

Five short length and five feature-length documentaries were nominated for Academy Awards each year. We all decided the HSDFF would host the documentary filmmakers, show their films, and provide support events to begin the process of building a world-class film festival.

The first year, Asti and Bransford made good on their promise, bringing Sy Gomberg, the chairman of the documentary genre of the Academy Awards, as well as the beloved actor James Whitmore and his former wife/actress Audra Lindley.

Academy Awards, Tony awards, Golden Globe Awards, Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards -- Whitman had earned them all in his long stage and film career. For us, he brought great encouragement and more than anyone, I think, taught us the value of our focus on the documentary genre.

He spoke about the important work of the filmmakers who often did not have the budgets or the celebrity actors of most feature films, yet they strive to bring to light significant topics and subject matter that might otherwise be lost to time.

Audra Lindley made another comment that Suzanne and I overheard that set a pattern for years to come. She said when the celebrities arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to receive their Academy Awards, all the flash bulbs of the photographers were blinding. Yet, when the documentary filmmakers emerged from their limos, the flashes stopped. No one knew them. They were unknown to the paparazzi. Hearing that, Suzanne and I said we wanted to make the filmmakers feel like the stars. All of us at the HSDFF adopted that commitment for years to come, from the volunteers who drove to pick up filmmakers at the airport to the ones serving tickets and popcorn at the theater. It was Suzanne, however, who opened up her antique store and allowed us to borrow crystal plateaus (I did not even know what those fancy dishes were called until then), her crystal goblets, her fine china and silver.

The filmmaker receptions held at 520 Central Ave. were feasts of gourmet delights from Hot Springs chefs -- Chef Paul, Diane of Café 909, Ellen McCabe, and celebrity chefs Like Graziano Perozzi from California who cooked for Connie Stevens, to name a few, with service fit for kings and celebrities -- and the filmmakers loved it.

Mikel Kaufman from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foundation attended that first year, as well as Betsy McLane, the executive director of the International Documentary, who continued to lend significant support for years to come.

"When a city like Hot Springs pays attention to documentaries it can only encourage filmmakers to go on to create even more important work," McLane wrote in a letter after the inaugural event. "I believe that the filmmakers who attended felt that their time was very well spent and I, as a participant/observer, was gratified to find documentaries being treated with such great care and respect. The concept of a documentary film festival in the state of Arkansas is a good one, not only for the residents of the state, but for the entire film community in North America."

We needed a 501(c)3 designation, so we asked attorney Jim Williams III, who donated his services and made that happen. His expertise in legal matters, Kirby Williams in promotions, Joe Correia shooting everything and everyone for the archives, Stan Jackson and Jacqui Michel in design -- this was just the beginning -- acts of dedicated people who gave a serious and highly professional front to the world at large.

The money to bring Valli and all the other film makers required a serious budget. Benini took on the first effort. He drove to the Bank of Hot Springs and had a meeting with President Paul Offutt. As an Italian, he lured them with the suggestion they could be "The Medici of Hot Springs!" And he spoke of a big banner across Central Avenue as the official sponsor of the film festival. Mr. Offutt sent bank representative, Richard Poole, to investigate. Soon they sent a check for $10,000 and became the first official sponsor for the Hot Springs Film Festival.

The first year was our learning year, of course. We had only about five months to get ready. We did it, but there were things we learned and vowed to never let happen again. For example, we showed 35 mm films at the Malco but that year we screened the 16 mm films at the Central Theater. A projector bulb burned out, we were stalled, and finding another one was impossible on a weekend. Our search did not pan out, and several films were canceled. A tough lesson for us.

My personal involvement that year was due to another oversight. James Whitmore, as the first HSDFF guest star, was to be interviewed on camera. One of the great things we always did was document our documentary film festival -- more on this later. He showed up at our building at 520 Central Ave., and so did the camera crew, but no one was assigned as an interviewer!

I did not want him to know this, so calling on my background in journalism and communications, I sat down with him as if I was the assigned interviewer and started asking questions. It was easy because he was such a gifted and elegant actor. Throw a thought or a question and he was "on!"

What came out during the interview was something to have long-ranging potential for the film festival. That year, the year we started the film festival, was the 50-year anniversary for docs being saluted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences!

I asked him if there was a repository where all these films could be viewed. He replied there was not, and between us we determined that would be a noble goal, perhaps for our own film festival to undertake -- to find, recover, rescue and house all the 50 years of documentaries. This topic surfaced at board meetings through the years to come.

NEXT WEEK -- Part II: The "Night with the Stars" -- the first HSDFF gala, and why it was so important, and the first board of directors.

Local on 09/11/2016

Print Headline: Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival: How it all began

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