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In the cinematic imagination, the South is often frozen in time and stereotypes. The complexities of the region are denied in favor of broad statements, leaving swathes of its population unseen and unheard. Yet in late October, in an old resort town in the heart of Arkansas, the programmers and volunteers of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival showed a different side of the South than the one frozen in plantations and Civil War monuments — in touch with its history, confronting some of its uglier footnotes, and reflecting on its place in today’s world. The movies there proved that while state lines may clearly delineate the South, they don’t neatly define the people living within them.
Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s Flannery, one of the showier titles in the festival’s Southern Features program, opened things on a historical note. Covering the revered Flannery O’Connor, it tackles both familiar biographical territory and the less savory side of her work, with cameos from Tommy Lee Jones, Conan O’Brien, and Alice Walker. Although spiritually similar, Janice Engel’s Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins felt like a kind of antithesis to the reverence sometimes reserved for our literary folk heroes. Instead it takes on a more personable tone befitting its plain-spoken subject, allowing the audience to enjoy Ivins’s homespun, merciless wit. Like O’Connor, Ivins was a kind of underdog, a bit out of place in the South as an outspoken woman. But she wrote about her experiences in very different ways, fighting her battles in the columns of Texas newspapers and television appearances, in contrast to O’Connor’s withdrawn manner and preference for short fiction. The differences between them — and the documentaries about them — are just a sampling of how Southern women express themselves.
Of course, these stories don’t stop in the past. Hannah Dweck and Yael Luttwak’s Guest House focuses on women grappling with drug addiction in Northern Virginia, following three of them as they prepare to rejoin society with the help of a transitional housing program. It is a candid portrait of the opioid crisis and the work it takes to survive addiction. In Jaddoland, Nadia Shihab explores identity and memory in Lubbock, Texas. She turns her lens on her family, especially her mother and grandfather, who came to the US as refugees from Iraq. The hopes and dreams of four Black and Latino high-schoolers in a small town in Southern Florida lead Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s Pahokee. In capturing the excitement of senior year, it observes their desire to explore the world beyond their town’s borders. It’s a common feeling in the South, but not something everyone has the chance to pursue.
Other films bring the world to the South’s doorstep, like the wild ride that is Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross’s We Believe in Dinosaurs. It looks at Ark Encounter, a Kentucky theme park which boasts an enormous replica of Noah’s Ark, as well as the nearby Creation Museum, dedicated to a Biblical literalist version of science. Thanks to their tax breaks, the religious attractions have drawn the attention of national and international observers, including atheists, scientists, and PhD-carrying fundamentalist Christians. The film explains these differing points of view in a way that’s accessible and not bogged down by any dogma. The ramifications of global upheaval and commerce come to a head in powerful films like Tim Tsai’s Seadrift, about Vietnamese refugees settling in a coastal Texas town and the hatred they met when they arrived in the ‘70s, and Alexander John Glustrom’s Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, the heartbreaking tale of a Louisiana town founded by freed slaves whose descendants are uprooted by a chemical plant for a company started by the South African government during Apartheid.
Although the stories in each of these documentaries start abroad, the problems they address affect countless communities across the US. The xenophobic fears of Texan locals toward their new neighbors seen in the period footage in Seadrift are similar to modern attitudes toward Central American immigrants. The corporate neglect and poisoning of Black, brown, and poor communities are not limited to Mossville, but a widespread systemic issue. Mossville would end up winning the Southern Features program’s “True South” award. It’s a compact view of how the region is changing, but relates its crisis to a larger conversation about global warming and environmentalism.
Many Southern stories fall by the wayside in the rush to profile random Trump voters or laugh at the latest “Florida Man” headline. The kind of stories seen at Hot Springs need just as much oxygen — if not more — if we’re to give the region its due respect. Festivals like this surface these narratives for local audiences who may not otherwise have access to these movies, or even know they exist. And out-of-towners just stopping by the festival will hopefully discover a Southern story they wouldn’t normally have ever heard.
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival ran October 18 through October 26 at various venues in Hot Springs, Arkansas.