Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Ozark Foothills Filmfest #NEAFall14

“That’s the other thing that I think the film festival has done for Batesville is give it a sense of what can happen culturally. Because it was an unlikely proposition when it was first put forward… so just having something that’s that unusual in a rural community exist and thrive and continue to grow is empowering for people in terms of when they’re deciding on other initiatives they might want to launch.”— Judy Pest

When you hear “film festival” you usually think of glitzy, celebrity-packed affairs like the ones at Cannes or the Sundance Film Festival in Aspen. What the Ozark Foothills Filmfest in Batesville, Arkansas, a recent NEA Challenge America grant recipient, might lack in glamour and star-power, it more than makes up for in heart. Founded in 2001 (the first screenings took place in 2002) by Judy and Bob Pest, a husband-and-wife team who’d long been engaged with independent filmmaking, the festival was the brainchild of “a very forward-thinking community bank president,” as Judy put it. It was a classic example of creative placemaking: the festival could be an economic boon to the town, as well as enhance the quality of life for its residents and strengthen community bonds. While there were initially some concerns whether Batesville, a rural, working-class community about 10,000 strong, could host an event that would attract quality filmmakers not to mention if a film festival would even be of interest to local residents, more than a decade later, the festival is still going strong. And while no prizes may be given at the festival, it’s schedule is jam-packed with top-notch films that have won many awards at other festivals. We spoke with Judy Pest to learn more about the festival (the next one is in April 2015) and get her take on why cultural events are crucial to the life of rural communities.

NEA: What makes the Ozark Foothills Filmfest unique as compared to other film festivals?

JUDY PEST: One of the primary differences is that we’re non-competitive. We don’t have any prize money, and we [don’t] have any kind of industry presence in terms of advancing the careers of filmmakers. What that means it that the filmmakers who choose to participate, their motivation is a little different. They are people who make it a priority to try and get feedback from as many different kinds of audiences as they can. They like to present to non-traditional audiences. And they’re just concerned about getting the widest possible exposure for their film as opposed to, you know, maybe finding a distributor or some of the more sort of nitty-gritty stuff that goes on at larger festivals.

We try to provide, you know, as many opportunities as possible for audience members and artists to interact, but more at a sort of conversational level…. We make it a point of trying to have our festival be a lot like other festivals in the sense that it includes all the essential components of a festival, but, of course, it’s much smaller in scale and we pretty much, most of the time, only screen a single film at a time. So that means that the people who attend go from film to film together and more or less spend a day or two, you know, in the same physical space and get to know each other, I think, a little more than typically will happen with large crowds of people.

I’d say we also do try to maintain a rural focus in our programming. That’s sometimes challenging because there’s not often a lot of films that focus on rural concerns and are set in rural areas. But we do try to find them and seek them out. A good example, there is a film is we screened last year, a documentary called Medora, and it was about a small town in Indiana that had a basketball team that hadn’t won in years. The documentary drew parallels between what was going on with the team and what was going on with the town in terms of this sort of disintegration of the community. So we try to find films that are going to have that degree of relevance to our audience as well.

NEA: You’ve said that one commonality among films that are screened at the Ozark Foothills Filmfest is that they relate to the concerns of rural communities.  Are there other things that the films tend to have in common? How do you know a film is right for your festival?

PEST: I guess the sort of essential component is that movies kind of tend to, in my mind, fall in two camps: Their motivation is either connecting people or escapism. And I think those are both reallysound goals. I don’t have anything against escapism, but I think we have it covered in the commercial film realm. So I feel like independent films, for the most part, tend to focus more on connecting people and connecting people’s personal lives with other lives that kind of make sense to them. And I think that’s done largely through a focus more on the small moments in life as opposed to the big ones. You know, big films, Hollywood films, for dramatic effect and all sorts of reasons, tend to really focus on big dramatic, momentous occasions, whereas independent films, to my mind, are slower in pacing. They unfold more slowly so that you can kind of get into the heads of the characters and the focus is on these small moments in life that maybe outsiders would not even recognize were going on, but they’re emotionally meaningful to the people who are experiencing them. We have a couple of features coming up this year that kind of embody that. One is called Life Inside Out and it’s about a middle-aged woman who had been a singer-songwriter when she was younger and then stopped doing that when she had her family. A couple of decades later, she stumbles on her guitar and it reawakens her interest in playing music. And through that interest she also connects with one of her sons who has been troubled and evidently shares her passion for music. So it’s about transitional moments and how people come to a sense of personal discovery about things that are going on in their lives and empowerment in terms of how we might be able to change or affect those things. 

NEA: And what do you hope that the filmmakers who bring their work to the festival take away from it?

PEST: I would say just a connection with the audience. As I mentioned earlier,  there’s not going to be as much potential for them to either interact with industry representatives or for that matter to network with as large a number of other filmmakers as they would have in larger festivals. But the connections are more intimate and filmmakers who do get to interact with each other tend to do it over a longer period of time and the discussions, I think, gradually, after they’ve spent a couple of days together, the discussions get more complex.  For most independent filmmakers, [the motivation is] to connect with as large a number of people as possible. So I think that a lot of them welcome the opportunity to do that in a slightly different context from what they typically experience.

NEA: And what do you want the people in the audience to take away from the festival?

PEST: I’d say in terms of our mission as an organization one of the things we’re looking for is a sort of heightened sense of media literacy among people, an expanded ability to evaluate and analyze media and understand how it informs their daily lives. And, in addition to that, to have a slightly more open view of what kind of media they might want to personally experience. After attending the festival maybe [they will] seek out media that is kind of outside of their comfort zone and less mainstream. [We want to] widen people’s view to what a film is and what a film can be and make sure that people are getting enough exposure to non-commercial cinema as possible. In small communities and places where there’s either no movie theater or there’s a fourplex that shows whatever the four blockbusters that week are, there’s really not a lot of exposure [and] people don’t know that that whole realm of art exists. Once they know it exists and once they’ve experienced a couple films and felt for themselves what the differences are, then we hope that they’ll have an expanded view of what they might be interested in viewing from there on in.

NEA: How important is the NEA grant you just received to the festival?

PEST: Well, NEA funding has been really pretty much critical to our existence since we were first eligible. We applied as soon as we were eligible and have received a grant every year since… The funding primarily pays for the audience-artist interaction component. It allows us to pay the travel and lodging expenses for our artists. And, of course, you know, since now at this point in time pretty much anyone can view whatever they want to view on their own devices, it is essentially that artist-audience connection that makes the film festival sort of worth doing and makes it an enriching experience for attendees. So the money is crucial for keeping that going.

It’s also very important to raising other money. It provides leverage for getting sponsorship support in the community. It’s a big motivator if you can tell a potential sponsor or donor that what they’re doing is matching a public grant with community money. It makes that whole fundraising dynamic go a lot smoother. I would say that it’s definitely fair to say that we wouldn’t probably have lasted this long if the NEA hadn’t been as supportive as they have been.

NEA: Why do you think film continues to matter as an art form?

PEST: I think film is kind of a transformative art form, because we have both fiction and non-fiction strains and it can be about virtually anything. And it has an ability to convey sort of essential experiences that individuals in communities face. I think it’s important because of all of the life experiences, worldviews, and just sort of general knowledge about how people navigate their lives that it’s able to convey and provide insight on.

In terms of our event we also believe that community celebrations are really important in terms of strengthening community and providing some community pride, some cohesion. There’s kind of a perception, I think, in the large part of America that rural communities are increasingly irrelevant and rural residents, if they’re around that perception, can buy into it, too. And it’s important that the country generally understand that just because we’re smaller in numbers that does not make the reality of rural America passé. It’s something that actually still exists and will continue to exist and all sorts of wonderful, artistic things come out of rural communities, and sometimes the inhabitants of those communities need to feel that sense of pride and possibility. That’s the other thing that I think the film festival has done for Batesville is give it a sense of what can happen culturally. Because it was an unlikely proposition when it was first put forward… so just having something that’s that unusual in a rural community exist and thrive and continue to grow is empowering for people in terms of when they’re deciding on other initiatives they might want to launch.

You can read about other grants we've awarded lately, including our Literature Fellowships, here, here, here, and here


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