Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF)

The internationally recognized ten-day Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF) takes place each October in Hot Springs (Garland County). It also maintains a year-round schedule of film-related activities. Since its inception in 1992, sponsored by the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, the HSDFF has become renowned as a prestigious venue for showing documentary films and attracting celebrities, filmmakers, and audiences from around the world. It bills itself as the oldest nonfiction film festival in North America. The festival has been awarded grant funding by organizations including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Deltic Timber, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. It also receives sponsorships from local businesses.

The festival is a qualifying event for filmmakers competing for Academy Awards in Best Documentary Short Subject. The festival is one of three dozen such qualifiers among thousands of film festivals. In 2016, the festival attracted submissions from film makers in more than eighty countries around the world. The festival traditionally includes the “Women Behind the Lens” series (sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), featuring the work of female filmmakers, and the “Films for Grownups” series sponsored by AARP, which spotlights the festival nationally in its AARP Bulletin. Other popular annual features have included a series of environmental films sponsored by Deltic Timber, the Spa City Sports Series, Family Day, and numerous opportunities for students throughout the festival.

The mission of the HSDFF, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is to provide unique educational and cultural opportunities, to advance the documentary genre as a meaningful art form, and to the yearly festival as the premier documentary film festival in the world. More than 100 documentaries are screened each year during the festival, which is put together by a small staff and a board of directors assisted by several hundred volunteers. The festival’s screening committee views nearly 1,000 films submitted each year from throughout the world and selects the films to be presented at the festival.

The festival traces its history back to the early 1990s when 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. In 1992, a small group of arts enthusiasts in the Hot Springs area initiated the first Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. A special attraction that year was award-winning actor James Whitmore. Ten documentary films that had been nominated for Academy Awards were shown.

In 1993, the number of entries quadrupled, with forty-four documentary films being screened. Actor James Earl Jones was featured that year at a fundraising gala and stated, “I see the 1990s as holding the promise of an unparalleled era of popularity for nonfiction film and video, with the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival as one of the genre’s most important venues.” In 1994, more than 5,000 people attended the festival. Several dozen films were screened, and fourteen documentary filmmakers were present. Establishing a tradition of filmmaker participation in the festival, they met with the audience, answered questions, and took part in discussions about their work.

In 1996, the Malco Theatre was acquired in order to become the festival’s permanent home. The two-screen movie theater, located at 817 Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, was a catalyst in providing a year-round schedule of activities and an enhanced mission. After experiencing financial troubles, the HSDFF sold the Malco Theatre in 2013 in order to retire its debts. In subsequent years, the festival would be held at Hot Springs’ historic Arlington Hotel, the festival’s host sponsor.

In February 1997, the festival was selected as a stop on the Library of Congress Film Preservation Tour featuring films from the National Film Registry. The tour was created to bring noteworthy American movies to big screens across the country, to celebrate a century of American movie-making, and to promote awareness of the need for film preservation. The Hot Springs event was attended by then-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, director Arthur Hiller.

While the festival is truly international in nature, it also serves to spotlight its home state of Arkansas. Featured films have included a documentary about Arkansan Glen Campbell, a film by documentarian Pam Maus on women in politics noting Arkansas’s own Hattie Caraway, and the critically acclaimed Command and Control about the 1980 Titan II Missile Explosion near Damascus (Van Buren and Faulkner counties). A Japanese entry is traditionally sponsored each year by the Sister City Foundation due to the close relationship between Hot Springs and its sister city of Hanamaki, Japan.

Among its special events, the festival hosted Dee Wallace Stone, who played the mother in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 hit film, E.T. The November 2007 fundraising event included a screening of that movie. Other celebrity guests who have attended the festival and special events through the years include Ed Asner, Barry Bostwick, Beau Bridges, Geraldine Chaplin, Eleanor Coppola, Peter Coyote, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Todd Fisher (son of Debbie Reynolds), poet Allen Ginsberg, Louis Gossett Jr., Tess Harper, Billy Hayes (focus of the movie Midnight Express), Tippi Hedren of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, “Good Ol’ Freda” Kelly (longtime secretary to the Beatles), Susan McDougal, Connie Stevens, Star Trek’s George Takei, Harry Thomason, Stephen Tobolowsky of Groundhog Day, Brenda Vaccaro, and Robert Walden.

The festival amassed a documentary film library containing thousands of films. In early 2016, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Archives were moved to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). Housed at UA’s Special Collections, the archives include extensive film holdings focusing on art, culture, environmentalism, and politics. The archives include thousands of documentary films, as well as an extensive collection of artifacts, photographs, and film memorabilia. A number of the documentaries in the collection, such as those screened at the film festival before the digital age, were never publicly released.

According to the HSDFF, in addition to a small staff and a board of directors, there are more than 100 volunteers who have traditionally greeted thousands of visitors to Hot Springs each year, having a significant economic impact on the region.

Under the leadership of executive director Jennifer Sue Gerber, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was not possible for people to watch films in a large group setting, the HSDFF screened movies through a virtual platform and a drive-in series held at the parking area of the Hot Springs Mall.

For additional information:
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. (accessed September 20, 2022).

Johansen, Sandy. “Documentary Film Festival Ready for 30th Year.” Hot Springs Village Voice, January 12, 2021, p. 1B.

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society


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