One Child Nation's Nanfu Wang earns Impact Award and Flannery gets world premiere on festival's opening night
Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks (left) moderates a panel with the filmmakers of "Flannery" on the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival's opening night. L-R director Mark Bosco, director Elizabeth Coffman, cinematographer Ted Hardin, co-producer Christopher O'Hare. Friday, October 18, 2019. Photo by Matt Carey
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is underway in the spa resort town of central Arkansas, the 28th annual edition of the longest-running all-documentary festival in North America.
The event running from October 18-26 kicked off with the world premiere of Flannery, the documentary by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco about the renowned Southern "gothic" writer Flannery O'Connor.
The filmmakers headed to Hot Springs from Washington DC, where on Thursday night their documentary received the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which comes with a $200,000 award.
This is a huge and powerful moment not just for Hot Springs but for the festival circuit in general.
Introducing the film, Coffman likened the process of filmmaking to an observation O'Connor made about the craft to which she dedicated her life.
"'Writing is like giving birth to a piano sideways,'" she quoted O'Connor as saying. "'Those who persevere are either talented or nuts.'"
The evening began with a welcome from HSDFF executive director Jen Gerber, who noted the range of programming in store for festival attendees.
"This week we have 123 films from all around the world. We have almost a hundred filmmakers in attendance," she said, adding that more than a thousand films were submitted for consideration.
In addition to Flannery, the festival will host the world premieres of Objector, director Molly Stuart's "intimate profile of Atalya Ben-Abba, a 19 year-old Israeli, who refuses conscription and becomes an accidental activist," and Quest of the Muscle Nerd, directed by Jared Young and Matthew Young. The latter film focuses on Jerry Peacock, who aims "to organize the first ever Cosplay/Bodybuilding competition" in the U.S.
Director Nanfu Wang, whose acclaimed documentary One Child Nation screens at HSDFF, earned the festival's Impact Award Friday night. HSDFF director of programming Jessie Fairbanks presented the honor, calling Wang "a maverick and an inspiration."
One Child Nation exposes the brutal reality of how the Chinese government enforced its one child policy, a population reduction effort that began in 1979 and was scrapped in 2015. Wang's 2016 film Hooligan Sparrow criticized Chinese government authorities in Hainan province and their treatment of activists who tried to protest the sexual abuse of schoolgirls.
Accepting the Impact Award, Wang talked of coming to terms with a desire to see her documentaries produce immediate results.
"When Hooligan Sparrow came out I thought, 'Now I show the entire world how the Chinese government arrested activists and lawyers illegally and they would have to release them under the pressure.' And of course [the] Chinese government didn't do it," she told the Hot Springs audience. "And it was then that I started to question my original choice of documentary filmmaking. I questioned if it doesn't bring concrete changes right away, what is the significance of documentary filmmaking?"
Wang said it was hearing from audience members affected by her films that altered her perspective on that fundamental question.
"With One Child Nation, too, numerous people have told me that the film showed how propaganda worked in China, but it reminded people how in their own country propaganda and disinformation worked," she noted. "It was then I realized documentary filmmaking, the change that it brings is really, really gradual. Sometimes probably it would probably take years to change... It's more like planting a seed that would grow in the next 10 years or 20, rather than for the switch at this second."
She said in the case of Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation being patient about seeing an impact is worth it, because the alternative is to allow China's government alone to dictate the narrative of history.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.