Dustin Prince, a millworker from Monticello, moonlights as star of the indie film Pretty Canoe. He gained 30 pounds to portray a buff convict who spent years in prison lifting weights. Like big-name actors before him, Prince learned that losing the weight is harder – and much less fun – than gaining it.

Independent filmmakers from across Arkansas and the nation converged on the El Dorado Film Festival from February 8 to 11. The South Arkansas Arts Center in El Dorado hosted the festival, founded a decade ago and returning from a three-year pandemic hiatus.

Nicholas Holland directed the action-drama Pretty Canoe. The movie begins with a jailbreak that some viewers compared to the one in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou by Joel and Ethan Coen. The fast-moving plot packs a two-hour feature film into 19 minutes. An unlikely act of betrayal leads to an explosive finale. 

The filmmakers conceived the movie on a hunting trip to the Ouachita River, not far from El Dorado. Justin Collie, a well-known singer-songwriter in Arkansas, wanted to try his hand at screenwriting. The resulting movie is as stark and atmospheric as some of Collie’s country songs, two of which are on the soundtrack.

More than a dozen other films with Arkansas ties played at the festival, including:

 Criterion, directed by Junction City native Jeremy Enis, is an 11-minute dark comedy about a young woman at a competition for fine-art painters. She elevates the technique of Jackson Pollack-style splatter painting to a new level. 

Banana Triangle Six, directed by Marc E. Crandall, is a dark comedy about euthanasia in a nursing home, The 24-minute film stars Bill Rogers and versatile character actress Cassie Self. It was filmed in Fayetteville. 

The Hill We Climb, a 31-minute documentary by director Raeden Greer, examines attempts to renew the African-American neighborhood in Benton known as Ralph Bunche or “The Hill.” 

Greer grew up with children from the neighborhood and attended local schools with them. She observed firsthand a shocking level of segregation and violence that devastated the community. The film examines attempts to revitalize the neighborhood – mostly without the billions in anti-poverty grants that flowed to northern cities.

Greer’s directorial debut is powerful and relevant, but she’s better known as an actor. She has appeared in movies with Saoirse Ronan, Will Ferrell and Jason Statham. But acting isn’t always glamorous  – when Greer guest-starred on American Horror Story, her character was slashed to death, revived as a zombie, and eventually decapitated with a chainsaw.

Mama Love, directed by Mary McDade, is an intergenerational drama that contrasts youth and beauty with aging and memory loss. It concerns “things we never knew about loved ones and never will,” the filmmaker said. 

Photographed in crystalline Panavision, Mama Love is ethereal as it slips between black-and-white and color. The 15-minute film features pro actors and a haunting chamber-music score by virtuoso cellist Helen Gillet.

University of Arkansas-Fayetteville communication professor Ringo Jones remarked that Mama Love “belongs in a museum.” At the El Dorado festival, it won the prize for Best Short With Arkansas Ties.

Jones brought his own 11-minute film to the festival. The well-received documentary Arkansas Maternal Health Community Hackathon focuses on activists determined to improve  Arkansas’s services for women’s and children’s health.

Another crowd favorite was The Candy Lady directed by Monique Derouselle, the 2023 winner of the $50,000 Louisiana Film Prize. The 12-minute comedy is about a candy maker and short-story author who awakens a magic typewriter.

El Dorado is less than 100 miles from Shreveport, home of the prestigious Louisiana Film Prize, which also provides smaller seed grants. A cross-pollination between filmmakers in the two cities seems to have fostered a particular school of films – short comedies that are long on human intelligence and life lessons. Two examples were show-stealers at the El Dorado festival.

Clownfish is the third film by 21-year-old director and Smackover native Clayton Henderson. The 11-minute comedy concerns the practice of “catfishing” in online dating. Hundreds of mainstream movies and TV episodes have riffed on computer dating since Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. But Clownfish manages to bring a fresh, heartwarming approach to the topic. 

Caught on Tape, directed by Alexander Jeffery and Chris Alan Evans, is a 13-minute comedy about an adolescent boy’s first experiences with pornography. Young star Finnegan Collins plays opposite co-director Evans as a wise parent who turns a traumatic incident into a teachable moment.

Jeffery is also executive director of the El Dorado Film Festival. He said, “I had several filmmakers tell me that they are leaving this year inspired to create new work which, in turn, inspires me to make next year’s event even better.”

The four-day event delivered fun and excitement, networking for the filmmakers, several big parties, and plenty of snacks and drinks to fuel the brainstorming for future collaborations. Community support was generous and enthusiastic. The festival has made a strong recovery from its Covid hiatus.

The quality of the films at the El Dorado Film Festival varied a little, but none were even close to bad. Independent filmmakers are known for indomitable commitment to their art and the associated technical crafts. They endure eat ramen, plead for parents to donate, cajole friends and other filmmakers to work for free, cast boyfriends as leading men, and max out their credit cards. Low-budget filmmakers are among the hungriest starving artists.

A Saturday night showing of the 110-minute psychological thriller Shudderbugs closed the festival. Johanna Putnam, who studied theater and film at Dartmouth College, is the writer, director and star. The 2022 feature film has an 8.0 rating on IMDB and won multiple earlier awards on the festival circuit. 

In Shudderbugs, a young woman returns to her family’s rural home after the death of her mother under puzzling circumstances. Cryptic posthumous notes, a missing amber ring, an evasive coroner, and the requisite creepy guy in a dilapidated shack set the stage.  

Putnam, co-star Brennan Brooks, and several friends made the movie during the pandemic. The location is her parents’ farmhouse in Cobleskill, NY, southwest of Albany. High summer in the Adirondack foothills brings steamy days and torrential rain, with thunder echoing through the valleys. 

Summer in the upstate New York farmlands also means bugs – lots of them – in many shapes and sizes. The hypnotic cacophony of chirping crickets and other insect noises underlies the film’s sparse musical score.

As she unravels the mystery, the protagonist becomes deranged to the point where she  fashions a crown of rusty barbed wire. The ending resolves her grief and remorse with an emotional payoff for viewers that often eludes first-time directors.

What’s most remarkable about Shudderbugs is the excellence of its moving parts. Beyond the strong writing, directing and acting, the cinematography, set decorating, sound design, and editing all exemplify what a determined handful of filmmakers can do with a budget of only $11,000. At El Dorado, the film received the two awards: Best Narrative Feature and the Pam Callaway Spirit of the Festival Award 

Like most independent filmmakers, Johanna Putnam hopes for bigger things someday. For now she’s working as a waitress in Brooklyn and planning a new indie movie with her Shudderbugs crew.