Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Offers Unique Fare

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By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF) is pleased to announce that “FLANNERY,” the Opening Night Film for the 28th edition of the festival, was just awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco directed film will make its World Premiere at the festival on Friday, October 18th.

“FLANNERY” explores the life and writings of Flannery O’Connor, whose provocative, award-winning fiction about southern prophets, girls with wooden legs, and an assemblage of unique and often fantastic characters has inspired artists, musicians and writers around the world.

Deep within the Ouachita Mountains, in what Native Americans have named the Valley of the Vapors, amidst turn-of-the-century bathhouses and on the doorstep of a national park lies the unforgettable spa city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, host to North America’s oldest all-documentary film festival. The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival will celebrate its 28th Anniversary October 18-26th at the historic Arlington Hotel in downtown Hot Springs.

The HSDFF offers an extraordinary mix of documentary features and shorts, both domestic and international, as well as exclusive film panels, tributes to industry greats, and local access to a host of celebrity guests and visiting professionals. HSDFF is a designated Oscar-qualifier in the category of Documentary Short Subject by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Among the films screening at the Hot Springs Arkansas Documentary Film Fest under the Southern Documentaries Slate is “17 Blocks,” directed by Davy Rothbart. 
Filmed over the course of 20 years, the tight-knit Sanfords live 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Struggling with addiction, poverty, and gun violence, an unexpected tragedy leads to a journey of love, loss and acceptance.

To follow a family for 20 years is an ambitious undertaking, and Rothbart nails it with this case study of a family living about two miles from America’s seat of power but actually subsisting with so many issues—drug addiction being the primary one.

The matriarch, Cheryl, grew up in a middle-class, two parent home, but by the time the documentary wraps up, she’s in her early 60s with three children—one daughter and two sons—and her weathered face shows all the misery that she has endured. She’s finally figuring out that she needs inpatient treatment for a drug habit that has consumed her for decades and manifested itself in one son who sells drugs but overall crippled the entire family because she hasn’t been an attentive mother.

Using much family video, this striking, authentic doc doesn’t pretty up anything. The family moves from one small apartment to the next; Cheryl briefly finds solace and hope in a male companion who also uses drugs, as her children brace themselves for the next binge or volatile argument.

The one shining hope is son Emmanuel, who is innocently gunned down in the family home about half way through “17 Blocks.” He had just graduated high school and had been accepted in a program on a path to becoming a firefighter. In fact, Emmanuel was the family’s documentarian—in that he started recording family events when he was 9 years old.

After the family tragedy, mom and family are never the same again. The daughter Denise tries to keep the family together, and the surviving son, Akil (Smurf) falls into slinging drugs until he wakes up and decides it’s time to tow the line.

After roughing it out for about 20 years, all the while sharing their joys and sorrows for the world to see, the Sanford family appear to be on the right track. It was brave of them to let the world in on their lives, while drug addiction led to poverty and gun violence grew all around them. “17 Blocks” is a great slice of American life—lives that many families eke through—whether in D.C. or Chicago.

Look for its nationwide release soon. For more information about HSDFF, visit www.hsdfi.org.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, editor91210@yahoo.com.

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