Jennifer Burchett first heard about Fort Smith having a film festival as a "wild idea" from a friend.
That friend, Brandon Goldsmith, has worked with Burchett over the past year to develop the Fort Smith International Film Festival. The pair initially thought they would launch the festival as a trial run and grow it from there.
But the opposite has happened: In its inaugural year, the festival has received 396 submissions from filmmakers in 43 countries and has earned praise from a United Nations arts ambassador.
"This year was much bigger than we ever imagined," says Burchett, the festival's marketing director and treasurer.
Scheduled for Aug. 13-14, the festival will show 23 hours of full-length features, music videos and short films from around the globe. The film submissions will be shown at four venues in the downtown Fort Smith area, which Goldsmith says will show off the city to the outside world.
The festival specifically aims to celebrate the experiences and artwork of Native Americans and people of color through mediums including music, film and panel discussions, according to its website. The film touts the theme "through their eyes" -- a theme that encourages seeing the world through different perspectives, Goldsmith says.
"When you tell a story, you want an avenue to be able to share it," says U.N. Arts Ambassador Ibiyinka Alao, who spoke at the June unveiling of the film festival poster.
Goldsmith's idea for the film festival was initially born from producing "The Western District," a documentary about corruption in the Western District of Arkansas. He says this process highlighted the number of filmmakers in Fort Smith; he says there are "dozens" of bona fide filmmakers in the city.
In summer 2019, Goldsmith began the River Valley Film Society to showcase those filmmakers. He brought Burchett into the fold when he decided to launch the film festival because of her expertise with nonprofits, he says.
Goldsmith and Burchett began organizing the film festival in mid-2020 and formally announced its launch in January 2021. The festival has drawn 10 sponsors, which has allowed it to have a budget of $30,000 in its inaugural year. Half of this money will go to prizes and scholarships, the latter of which promotes the idea of creating film content as a career, Goldsmith says.
The festival also lends itself to Fort Smith's international ties, Goldsmith says. Organizers have partnered with the Cherokee Nation Film Office, which Goldsmith worked with on his documentary, and the partnership yielded the inspiration behind the festival poster, which illustrates Cherokee History Preservation Officer Catherine Gray with a rose emerging through her left eye. The words "through their eyes" is in a speech bubble next to her face.
It's also yielded several submissions to the Indigenous Films category, which the festival organizers put as a category to increase representation.
"I've seen a lot of Native American submissions not only from Oklahoma tribes, but from other tribes around the country," says Jennifer Loren, director of the Cherokee Nation film office and original content, "so I'm really excited to see who gets selected and what those films will look like."
Fort Smith International Film Festival
WHEN — Aug. 13-14
WHERE — The Bakery District, The Majestic, 906 Lounge and 5 Star Productions in Fort Smith
COST — $10-$30
INFO — FortSmithFilm.com