Diversity, Inclusion, Movies: Bentonville Film Festival is meaningful fun

Diversity, Inclusion, Movies: Bentonville Film Festival is meaningful fun
April Wallace

Grab your popcorn and your favorite movie buddy. The Bentonville Film Festival plans to open even stronger than recent years with a free screening series, celebrity coffee talks, panels, NFTs and much more to offer starting June 22.

After the completely virtual offerings of 2020 and a small, on-the-ground experience in 2021, festival organizers are excited to bring events back in full swing this week for the eighth year of programming.

“Bentonville Film Festival has always been about championing underrepresented storytellers on and off screen,” says iconic actress and festival founder Geena Davis via Zoom during a media preview event earlier this month. It “connects storytellers from across the globe right here in Northwest Arkansas through creativity and a sense of belonging.”

Davis hopes to continue that cause while also benefiting this region.

”Our mission-driven festival uplifts its community by using its platform to leave a lasting positive impact on not only the entertainment industry, but the community at home here in Arkansas,” she says. “The festival aims to inspire young storytellers to continue to break down barriers and find strength through diversity and inclusion in all media.”

The breakdown of that diversity is evident in the pool of content creators who entered the juried competition program. More than 82% identify as female or gender non-conforming, 65% identify as Black, Indigenous, people of color, Asian or Pacific Islander; 62% are from the LGBTQIA+ community; 42% are over 50; and 20% have a disability.

But audiences will see the diversity on screen too, with 90% of screen leads being women or gender non-conforming; 60% BIPOC, Asian or Pacific Islander; 25% LGBTQIA+; and 12% with a disability.

Bentonville Film Festival events will be hosted at the Momentary this year, a different location from previous years, where films will be shown in Fermentation Hall. Thaden School will house the main stage area, where some events will take place, and movies will also be screened.

Festivities kick off a night early June 21 with a community bike ride, says Ashley Edwards, director of programming for BFF. The Bike and Film Social will begin at The Red Barn at the Momentary for a “guided public art ride,” and then a happy hour at Thaden. The night will conclude with a 7 p.m. screening of “As We Have Always Done,” a Kiki Ong film starring local cyclist Rachel Olzer.

Opening night June 22 will begin with the world premiere of “The Seven Faces of Jane,” a film by Gia Coppola, Xan Cassavetes, Ken Jeong and others.

“It’s a really incredible film, super experimental,” says Wendy Guerrero, president of the Bentonville Film Festival. “It reminds me of everything going on at the Momentary, which is really contemporary.”

The film has one character, Jane, but was made in collaboration with seven directors.

“It kicks off the festival in a great way with a female character on the screen 99% of the time,” Guerrero says. “Like our statistics show, we go and look at what’s happening in front and behind the camera. We want to know who’s on screen when someone’s talking.”

This year’s BFF festival village will take place outside the Momentary, rather than on the downtown Bentonville square, though organizers say there will still be plenty of activity there as well. In the festival village, guests can look forward to many giveaways for food, popcorn, drinks, a bicycle and other things.

Near the festival village will be an outdoor theater that will feature a free screening area called the Geena Davis Movie Series. Cartoons, animated films and other family favorites will be shown there.

Movies at Thaden’s main stage will start at noon daily and go throughout the evening. Don’t stay out too late, though, because the celebrity-driven coffee talks begin at 9 a.m., also at Thaden. Guests can grab a cup of coffee and listen to the backstory of a different celebrity each day.

A panel discussion will take place at Thaden daily at 11 a.m. Many are focused on body positivity.

“When women or men are auditioning for a role, they ask for a size card,” Guerrero says. “This card has size details, and if it’s given to the casting director, they might think that person is not good for the role based on size. We have a lot of stories … to dig deep on this subject.”

The incredibly popular Geena and Friends event, a panel consisting of Geena Davis and other big name celebrities, will take place at the Thaden Theater this year. Previous events were a table read at the Record and a panel at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Meteor Guitar Gallery will be BFF headquarters and hence the site of a lot of activity between filmmakers and passholders. A BFF pass has a variety of levels to lend exclusive access there for happy hours and takeover events, such as one by the Cherokee Film Nation. Guerrero says this year’s programming includes a lot of Indigenous representation.

A takeover on June 24 will center on the launch of the Bentonville Film Festival’s first NFT, a $50 nonrefundable token that can be purchased as a commemorative object or as a membership that unlocks benefits, such as meet-and-greets with Davis, getting behind the scenes at Geena and Friends and other special offers.

“Raising money for films is hard,” Guerrero says about the decision to offer NFTs. “It’s hard to raise money for any type of art, but especially for women and underrepresented communities, it’s even more important to talk about nontraditional funding like (this.)”

A couple of filmmakers will discuss their experiences raising funds by way of NFT at the takeover.

Three films were selected as BFF spotlight films, which means they represent the festival in a unique way. “How to Please a Woman” is a film by an Australian director about a woman in her 50s who starts an all-male cleaning service. As the business grows out of control, she has to decide if she’s going to make a new life for herself. The comedy has dramatic moments, Guerrero says, and is “a really fun film.”

“MixTape Trilogy” is a documentary featuring stories about the power of music by way of three bands, all entirely from the fans’/groupies’ perspective.

“Nija” is also a documentary about a musical artist. “It made a big splash at Sundance, but I love it because of the Mexican representation,” Guerrero says.

Audiences can look forward to other world premieres in addition to “The Seven Faces of Jane,” including “Good Egg” and “Smile or Hug.”

“Having filmmakers trusting us to premiere (their film) in Bentonville, we hold that special,” Guerrero says. “That’s where its first audience will be.”

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