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Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute (HSDFI)

The internationally recognized Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute (HSDFI) sponsors the annual ten-day Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which takes place during October in Hot Springs (Garland County), as well as a year-round schedule of film-related activities. Since its inception in 1992, HSDFI has become renowned as a prestigious venue for showing documentary films and attracting celebrities, filmmakers, and audiences from around the world.

The mission of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, is to provide unique educational and cultural opportunities, to advance the documentary genre as a meaningful art form, and to establish HSDFI’s yearly festival as the premier documentary film festival in the world. Almost 100 documentaries are screened each year during the festival, which is put together by a three-person staff assisted by several hundred volunteers.

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, with free admission.

In 1993, the number of entries quadrupled, with forty-four documentary films being screened. 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 documentary film.

In 1996, the Malco Theatre was acquired and became 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, reflected in the festival organization’s assumption of the name Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute. The 36,000-square-foot institute building, owned by HSDFI, is adjacent to the Malco Theatre. After experiencing financial troubles, the institute sold the Malco Theatre in 2013 in order to retire its debts.

In February 1997, HSDFI’s mission was spotlighted when it 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 (The Americanization of Emily, Love Story, The In-Laws, Silver Streak). Other celebrity guests who have attended and praised the HSDFI include Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of film legend Charles Chaplin), Eleanor Coppola (filmmaker and wife of Francis Ford Coppola), poet Allen Ginsberg, Tippi Hedren (from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), Connie Stevens, and Brenda Vaccaro.

Since 1997, HSDFI has been awarded grant funding by organizations including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. It also receives sponsorships from local businesses. To underscore its educational mission, HSDFI has also joined in a promotional partnership with the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN). Through the “Reel Mobile,” HSDFI is able to “take the show on the road” by screening documentaries at educational institutions around the state.

Among its special events, HSDFI hosted actress 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.

HSDFI’s educational programming includes a children’s documentary film festival each spring called “What’s Up Docs?” Filmmaker workshops are presented throughout the year as well, along with multicultural and intergenerational programs for diverse audiences.

Beginning in December 2007, HSDFI inaugurated its series called Saturday Matinee Classic Movies at the Malco. Films have included Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Christmas Carol.

The institute houses a documentary film library with approximately 17,000 films. More than 600 volunteers support the year-round events, including about 500 at the annual documentary film festival alone. The festival attracts more than 30,000 visitors, both audience members and filmmakers, to Hot Springs each year.

For additional information:
Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute. (accessed December 15, 2007).

Stanley, Jonathan. “Escaping to Reality in Hot Springs: Too Poor to Sue.” The Herald (Arkansas State University). November 6, 2003, p. 2.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 9/3/2014

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