While the pandemic shut down many community events in 2020, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival — the longest-running nonfiction film festival in North America — did not simply fade to black.
Explains Jennifer Gerber, HSDFF director: “Last year, because of COVID-19, we had to put on our festival in a very different way. It was primarily virtual; most of the festival was entirely online. So, our guests could watch from the comfort of their homes.”
The festival that showcases others’ creativity tapped into its own, offering several innovative activities.
“We hosted three large drive-in events during the week of the festival,” Gerber says, adding HSDFF also initiated a Wellness Series “in response to COVID, just acknowledging that we’re living in tough times.”
She continues, “We wanted to create a program that focuses on mental health and physical health. We had hikes. We had a bike parade, yoga on the lawn. And we will be doing those programs again this year because they were super popular, and it’s a chance for our attendees, especially our out-of-town guests, to participate in the beauty of Hot Springs.
“It’s a nice addition to the festival and something that will stick with us for a long time.”
Speaking of a long time, the HSDFF will celebrate its 30th anniversary at this year’s festival, scheduled for Oct. 8-16. As such, its website (hsdfi.org) says, “We’re designing a festival this year that commemorates our 30 beautiful years and launches us into the next 30. HSDFF will return to theaters with in-person screenings while embracing an expansive hybrid approach, making films also available on a virtual platform.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the festival started with the screening of 10 films in 1992. It was put on by a “small group of arts enthusiasts” after “Sy Gomberg, who was then head of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, visited Hot Springs. He loved the city and encouraged the idea of a documentary film festival.”
The festival, a qualifying event for filmmakers vying for Academy Awards in Best Documentary Short Subject, continues to expand. Gerber estimates this year’s event will include about 35 feature films and 30-35 short films.
Expect many screenings to take place at the Malco Theatre, the HSDFF’s headquarters before financial trouble forced it to sell the venue in 2013.
“We’re returning to our home venue,” Gerber says. “The last few years, the festival has been hosted at the Arlington Hotel. We still love the Arlington, and we’ll have plenty of events hosted there, and our guests will be staying there. But our screenings will primarily take place at the Malco Theatre and the Central Theater in downtown Hot Springs.
“I think it’s a chance to return to our roots and acknowledge the birthplace of the festival and use that as an opportunity to look at where we’re going in our next 30 years.”
For schedule and ticket information, visit hsdfi.org. Visitors must show proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results to attend events; masks are mandatory.