Movie Magic

Movie Magic

Fayetteville Film Fest expands online


Russell Leigh Sharman is a busy man. In addition to being a genre-spanning author — his play, “The Interrogator,” was performed at TheatreSquared’s Arkansas New Play Festival, and he has written several screenplays, numerous essays and two books — he’s a filmmaker and an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. This year, he took on the role of executive director of the Fayetteville Film Fest. It almost seems like kismet that he’s assumed this role, given that he caught his first glimpse of Fayetteville while attending the 2013 event.

“[My wife and I] started to fall in love with the place right then and there,” he says. “We moved here the following summer. I won’t say it was because of the fest, but it certainly helped knowing there was already a core group of filmmakers and film lovers in the region who clearly had a deep passion for encouraging the local film scene.”

Sharman took on the top role in what surely is the most challenging of times for any organization planning a large event. By working quickly and creatively, he and his team have managed to offer a plethora of new films online, where viewers can watch from the safety of their own living rooms. But they haven’t sacrificed the opportunities for viewers to get an up-close-and-personal look at filmmakers and the filmmaking industry; six livestream events are planned, including panel discussions with titles like “Behind the Camera: Building a Diverse Film Community in NWA and Beyond” and “Crew Call: Building a Community of Film Professionals in Arkansas.” As a bonus this year, access to the films is on a pay-as-you-can basis in a nod to the financial difficulties many people are experiencing because of covid-19.

Russell Leigh Sharman

“It has not been the year anyone expected, but it’s been an honor to shepherd the organization through this rare and interesting time,” says Sharman, who answered four questions about the upcoming festival for What’s Up!

Tell us a little bit about the festival this year — anything you’re particularly excited about?

The films are like my children; I love them all the same. OK, I don’t actually have any children, but if I did, I would (probably) not have a favorite. We actually have more feature films — 11 total — than we’ve ever had before. The online format makes scheduling a non-issue, so that embarrassment of riches meant we could invite more films.

All of them are wonderful. But I always love to champion the local, Arkansas-based films, like “The Rock of Gibraltar,” a throw-back film noir in rich black and white, shot in Fort Smith. Or the love letter to the Cate Brothers from local documentary filmmaker Ben Meade. Our opening night film, “Electric Jesus ” has a local connection as well, and it is a BLAST. Anyone who had a Christian rock phase will connect with it instantly. I don’t know how large a slice of the demographic that might be, but it’s a crowd pleaser. And our short films are stellar. Narrative and documentary. There’s a short documentary film, “All That Perishes at the Edge of the Land,” that is as harrowing as it is mesmerizing, I could watch it on a loop for hours.

But beyond just the films, I am REALLY excited about our livestream panels. We always have one or two panel discussions, but because we are all online, we could really run with those this year. Not only will we have the Fayetteville Film Prize pitch contest livestreaming on Nov. 14, but we will also have four really wonderful panels to kick off the week starting Nov. 5 — a discussion of the local film industry with some of the most important players in film production in the area, a conversation with Arkansas-based crew about working on set in the state, and roundtable discussion of film in higher education with faculty from around the state as well.

But I think I’m most excited about a panel on building a diverse film community in Arkansas. Led by local filmmaker and historian Airic Hughes, we’ll have a conversation with the amazing LaToya Morgan, a writer, producer and showrunner who has worked on shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Into the Badlands” and just signed a deal with J.J. Abrams and Warner Bros., followed by a candid conversation with local BIPOC filmmakers about their experience in the creative industry. That panel is part of our ongoing commitment to Black, Indigenous and people of color in the community, filmmakers and audiences alike.

We’ll also be announcing a new initiative at that panel that will further that goal, and I could not be more excited about what it means for the future of the fest and our community. You do NOT want to miss that panel!

Obviously, one big change being made to the festival as a result of the pandemic is that it’s all virtual — are there any pluses to changing to this format? Any other changes being made because of the pandemic?

Back in March, we really wrestled with how we should respond to the crisis. As the months dragged on, we knew one thing for sure: We would not put anyone at risk by holding in-person events. But we also just weren’t sure if an online festival would fulfill the mission of the organization, to bring filmmakers and audiences together, celebrate independent cinema and really encourage the local filmmaking community. We considered postponing or even canceling this year altogether.

But then we decided to ask our filmmakers. We wanted them to have a voice in the decision. We sent a survey to every submitter asking if they would like to shift their submission to next year, continue with a 2020 festival completely online or get a full refund. Nearly 90% wanted the festival to go online in November as planned. And no one asked for a refund.

Once we embraced that decision, it became immediately apparent that there would be some big advantages — like the livestream panels, for example, a great way to make sure the fest still had that sense of community and connection. And the scheduling. Now we could jam much more content and spread the event out over 10 days without worrying about theater space. But one thing we decided early on was that we were not going to make anyone pay for the experience. This is a difficult time for everyone, including our organization, but offering a pay-what-you-can model means that if you want to enjoy great cinema but don’t have the money right now, you don’t have to pay. But if you are fortunate enough to still have some spending money, you can kick in a few dollars. We also have a Friend of the Fest All Access Pass; $40 will unlock all of the content and help support the organization. And if you’re one of the first 50 to buy a pass, we will hand deliver (or mail) a Fayetteville Film Fest tote bag full of fun fest swag so you can pretend you’re there with us right off the Fayetteville town square.

Russell Leigh Sharman, executive director of this year’s Fayetteville Film Fest, says although the covid-19 crisis caused a decrease in submissions, “the upside was that the films themselves were astonishingly good. We really had an embarrassment of riches from the submissions we did receive. I’m not sure what accounts for that, but I am certainly grateful.”
(Courtesy Photo)

Do you see a robust film making future for the area?

Northwest Arkansas, and Arkansas in general, is poised to be the next go-to location for large and small-scale film production. Not only do we have the natural beauty and variety of locations, we have the infrastructure. Companies like Rockhill Studios and others are building soundstages, providing first-rate production services, and attracting larger and larger productions to the region and the state. And now we are working with the University of Arkansas to develop more courses in film production, and eventually a degree program, so that we can join with John Brown University and University of Central Arkansas in training local crew to support that growth. It is a tremendous opportunity for the region, not just in terms of the tax and business revenue, but also the job creation that intensive film production can bring. We have already have seen an exponential growth in local, home-grown productions, and once we start competing with states such as Louisiana and Georgia in terms of rebates and tax incentives for out-of-state productions, there will be no stopping us.



12th Annual

Fayetteville Film Fest

WHEN — Nov. 5-14

WHERE — Online at

COST — By donation


FYI — A Friend of the Festival film pass is available for $40 with access to all the films, livestreamed events and a swag bag.



Fayetteville Film Fest


Nov. 5

5 p.m. — NWA Industry Roundtable (livestreamed)

7 p.m. — “Electric Jesus”: It’s the summer of 1986. Erik (Andrew Eakle) is the shy, quiet type — but far more passionate than most teenagers when it comes to God and rock ‘n’ roll. His dream comes true when he is asked to run sound for his favorite band, 316, a Christian hair metal band made up of older kids from his church. After a blistering performance at a church camp talent show, 316 is introduced to a flashy Christian Rock promoter with a plan. (Narrative Features)

Nov. 6

3 p.m. — “Dear Child”: A documentary which follows the lives of children recovering from their involvement with the drug war in Brazil. (Documentary Features)

5 p.m. — Behind the Camera: Building a Diverse Film Community in NWA and Beyond (livestreamed)

7 p.m. — “Foreign Puzzle”: Suspended between life and death, a Mexican-American mother communicates the impermanence of life through dance while juggling the roles of a recently divorced parent of a 6-year-old, a choreographer and a primary school teacher amidst intensive treatments for breast cancer. (Documentary Features)

9 p.m. — “Vagrant”: Frank, a homeless alcoholic, lives a fruitless existence until he finds a puppy that was left to die in a garbage bin. (Narrative Features)

Nov. 7

10 a.m. — Narrative Shorts (Block 1)

11 a.m. — Documentary Shorts Block

Noon — Narrative Shorts (Block 2)

2 p.m. — Crew Call: Building a Community of Film Professionals in Arkansas (livestreamed)

4 p.m. — “Hamtramck, USA”: Through the exploration of daily life and democracy in America’s first Muslim-majority city, “Hamtramck, USA” examines the benefits and tensions of multiculturalism. (Documentary Features)

6 p.m. — “A Dim Valley”: A curmudgeonly biologist and his slacker graduate assistants muddle their way through a summer research project. Deep in the Appalachian woods, they encounter a trio of mystical backpackers who change their lives in mysterious ways. (Narrative Features)

8 p.m. — “Love and Fury”: Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo follows Indigenous artists for a year as they navigate their careers in the U.S. and abroad. (Documentary Features)

Nov. 8

8 a.m. — “Indians, Outlaws, Marshals and the Hangin’ Judge”: While set in the late 19th century, the stories documented in this film resonate today: gun violence, racial strife, police brutality and American Indian rights. This is a true tale of Indian removal, crime, capital punishment and a charismatic federal judge who sentenced scores of felons to “hang by the neck until you are dead.” (Documentary Features)

10 a.m. — Student Narrative Shorts Block

Noon — Student Documentary Shorts Block

2 p.m. — Arkansas Film School: An Education Roundtable (livestreamed)

4 p.m. — “The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday”: In the 1980s, a group calling itself First Friday sprung fully formed from the imaginations of a group of lesbians living in the small city of Roanoke, Va. Some of the women were locals and some moved to the Roanoke Valley for employment. It was the Reagan era, and homosexuals were vilified, especially in the Bible Belt. Spurred on by the pure serendipity of finding each other, the group created safe space, threw fantastic events and grew a community of lasting friendships, all in the shadow of the Moral Majority. (Documentary Features)

6 p.m. — “The Rock of Gibralter”: When a vicious criminal mastermind escapes prison in 1940s Arkansas, the retired detective who put him there is recruited to hunt him down one last time and avenge the death of his partner. (Narrative Features)

8 p.m. — “Arkansas Rock and Soul Royalty: The Cate Brothers Band”: The history and current performances of a legendary band in Northwest Arkansas who spawned The Band and the solo career of Levon Helm. (Documentary Features)

Nov. 14

Noon — Fayetteville Pitch Prize (livestreamed)

7 p.m. — Awards Ceremony (livestreamed)

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