The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Experience


I had the chance to attend the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival ( HSDFF) this year.

Festival director Courtney Pledger during the opening weekend of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Photo by Z. Clift.

The festival has an important place in both Arkansas and cinematic culture. As Executive Director Courtney Pledger said in her welcoming address, “We can drive to a cineplex and watch a film, or use one of the many streaming options to access movies anytime we desire, but attending a film festival is as different an experience from either of those choices as night is from day. Film festivals find films for audiences and audiences for films, and they are live affairs that offer one-of a kind screening events. The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is a ten-day cinematic party and communal conversation.”

The festival (which took place October 9-18 this year) is the longest running documentary film festival in the U.S. and serves as an Academy Award qualifier in the Documentary Short Subject category. It features a variety of feature length and short documentaries from around the world and will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year.

The Arlington Hotel served as the main venue of the festival with some screenings taking place at Low Key Arts as well. Along with the films, a highlight of the festival is the special guests, actors, and directors that travel to the festival for the screenings. Below is a quick recap of some of the films and special guests that were at the festival this year.

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky after the screening of the documentary The Primary Instinct. Photo by Z. Clift.

The documentary The Primary Instinct was featured as the opening film of the festival. Actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who the documentary features, was in attendance and had a Q&A session with moderator Matt DeCample after the screening.

October 10 hosted the world premiere of The First Boys of Spring, a documentary about Hot Springs’ role as the birthplace of spring baseball.  The film was directed by Arkansas native Larry Foley, who is an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. Before the screening, there was the dedication of a new historical marker that commemorates Hall of Fame baseball players Dizzy and Daffy Dean. The marker was unveiled in downtown Hot Springs and pays tribute to the Dean brothers, who were born in Arkansas and became a famous pitching duo, leading the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series win in 1934. The marker is part of the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, attended the dedication and also the film premiere.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson speaks at the dedication ceremony. Photo by Z. Clift.

Also on that day, triple-crown champion jumper Harry de Leyer was in attendance for a screening of the Arkansas premier of Harry & Snowman. The film, which ending up winning the Audience award of the festival,  told the story of show jumping legend Harry de Leyer and his champion horse Snowman. De Leyer, a Dutch immigrant and New York horse trainer, found the horse at a horse auction loaded on a trailer and bound for the slaughter. The horse caught his eye, and he paid $80 for him, named him Snowman, and their story together begins. The film received a standing ovation.  De Leyer, who is now 87, was in attendance and there was a long line to meet him after the show. The director, Ron Davis, was also in attendance and answered a Q&A about the film after the show.

Later that night, Arkansas native and filmmaker Harry Thomason screened the world premiere of the documentary The Hunting of the President: Redux, which he

Harry deLeyer after the screening of Harry & Snowman. Photo by Z. Clift.

co-directed. The film was an update to the original film.

The closing weekend of the festival hosted a screening of the film The Great Alone, which is about the Iditarod race in Alaska and dogsled racer and four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. Mackey was in attendance for the screening, along with his mom Kathie Smith and his lead sled dog Amp. Moderating the Q&A session afterward were Philip and Karen Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Also that weekend, Low Key Arts hosted a sneak preview of the documentary Mad Tiger, about the Japanese punk band Peelander-Z. The world premiere of the documentary is set for November 13 in New York City. Band member Peelander- Yellow (Kengo Hioki) was in attendance and there was a Q&A session after the screening moderated by Bill Solleder, who is executive director of the venue. Also in attendance at the sneak preview was Tomi Fujiyama, who is known as

Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Photo by Z. Clift

Japan’s first lady of Country music and was in town for the screening of her documentary Made in Japan, which served as the closing film of the festival. Fujiyama’s career took her to the The Grand Ole Opry in 1964, where she played right after Johnny Cash and received a standing ovation. The film tracks her quest to make one more appearance on The Grand Ole Opry stage.  On a side note, Japan has ties to Hot Springs as Hanamaki, Japan, is the sister city to Hot Springs.

Band member Peelander- yellow with Tomi Fujiyama at the 2015 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Photo by Z. Clift.

Overall, attending the festival in person is an experience that festival staff hope will stay with attendees long after the closing film. “We hope that when the festival is over, you all will depart us thrilled at where your HSDFF passport to the world has taken you,” said Pledger in her address. “That you will feel a kind of narrative experience of cinema and related events has unfolded for you over these day, and that the festival has stoked your love of film, a love that without a doubt brings people together and illuminates our lives.”

If you are a fan of film, be sure to keep next October 7-16 open for the 2016 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and 25th anniversary event. For more details on the festival, visit