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Bentonville Film Festival Celebrates 10 Years With Renewed Purpose

As festivals have increasingly endeavored to showcase more diverse talent, benchmarks of inclusivity occasionally run the risk of feeling like a dutiful checklist.

The Bentonville Film Festival, though, has celebrated — and elevated — underrepresented voices since its inception. Returning for its 10th edition from June 10-16, the northwest Arkansas festival has always taken as its mission statement the centering of work from not only LGBTQ+ and BIPOC creators but also other historically marginalized groups.

That focus shouldn’t be surprising, given that the festival’s roots stretch back to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a nonprofit research organization the actor founded after noticing the disparity in female characters while watching TV series and movies with her daughter.

While co-founder Davis remains Bentonville Film Festival’s chair, president Wendy Guerrero and artistic director Drea Clark, with a combined 19 years of experience with the festival, provide stability and steerage.

“The amplification and representation of intersectionality onscreen and behind the camera is important to how we value ourselves and see ourselves reflected in society,” says Guerrero, whose multiracial upbringing and background in performance (she began her career as an actor, and later co-founded a production company, Publicly Private, with Bruce Dern) helped her develop a deep connection to Bentonville’s mission.

Meanwhile, native Midwesterner Clark lends wisdom from decades of programming experience, ranging from Slamdance and Sundance to work as a producer-in-residence for Film Independent. “There’s a unifying element to film that’s always intrigued me,” she says. “Some of my most formative experiences were going to theaters and then talking about [movies].”

Bentonville aspires to create exactly those memories for its festivalgoers. In addition to doc and narrative competition sections, there are shorts and episodic programs, an expanded selection of panels, conversations, an outdoor film series and more.

Opening night will feature director Amber Sealey’s “Out of My Mind.” Additionally, the festival will host a screening of “Nuked,” which was shot entirely in Bentonville. The film, directed by Deena Kashper, is the recipient of the See It, Be It, Make It grant, co-presented by NBCUniversal and the BFFoundation. The comedy stars Anna Camp, Lucy Punch and Justin Bartha.

Among the festival’s five feature-length world premieres are “Adjunct,” the directorial debut of “Short Term 12” producer Ron Najor, and teen pregnancy drama “If That Mockingbird Don’t Sing,” whose writer-director, Sadie Bones, was only 19 at the time of its making.

Financial backing from corporate partners like Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville, has helped grow the festival infrastructure without sacrificing its unique small-town energy. “When it started, I think Bentonville was maybe seven years into not being a dry county anymore,” says Guerrero. “So we had to learn about our community and start to bring programming in the times and spaces that they would appreciate.”

Bentonville has also studiously established bonds with creatives. This year it will debut a new section, Alumni Showcase, spotlighting the ongoing work of previously featured artists. “It speaks both to our mission, what we’re doing for our community, and the payoff of where these filmmakers go,” says Clark.

The section includes “Ghostlight,” filmmakers Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s follow-up to “Saint Frances”; Fawzia Mirza’s “The Queen of My Dreams”; and Haroula Rose’s “All Happy Families,” starring Josh Radnor and Rob Huebel.

“The city has grown so much in the last 10 years in such an amazing way, and we’re lucky to be growing right along with it,” says Guerrero. “It’s becoming a destination, because [visitors] can check out the Crystal Bridges Museum, go on some bike trails, do some hiking, and see some films — it’s a really fun way to spend a weekend.”

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