Different Worlds Invade the Twin Cities; The 22nd Minneapolis & St. Paul Film Festival
by Jeremy O'Kasick
With more than 130 films from 50 different nations and nearly 20 U.S. premieres, the Minneapolis and St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) wrapped up its second week on April 17. While they didn't roll out the red carpets for the largest fest of its kind in the Upper Midwest (After all, in Minnesota it often still snows in early April!), dedicated filmgoers still found plenty of gems from April 2-17 in spite of naysayers who felt that the fest lacked last year's flash.
In many ways, the 22nd annual MSPIFF's catchy theme, "Escape Reality," and accompanying trailer served as paradoxical foreshadowing of the fest's strongest selections among its experimental and true-to-life documentaries. Nevertheless, the festival opened with a gusto of glitz and decadence in "Bright Young Things," a film that follows a pack of filthy rich Brits on the romp in Depression-era London. As the directorial debut of the witty British writer and actor Stephen Fry, the film shows promise but wanders aimlessly at times much like the film's self-indulgent characters themselves. Overall, "Bright Young Things" could have used just a smidgen of the narrative drive from Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," the film's polar opposite on all levels.
Other prominent promotional screenings included Miramax's latest foreign box-office contender, and yet another coming-of-age Italian thriller, "I'm Not Scared," and a dark, atmospheric drama set in Bangkok adapted from an Alex Garland novel, "The Tesseract." Yet again, "Dogville" from Lars von Trier also had a well-received screening and has since finally gone into wide release. Curiously enough, von Trier's Depression-era drama set in a Colorado mining town somehow ended up in the festival's Scandinavian Spotlight series. The Danish filmmaker's experimental documentary "The Five Obstructions" better exhibits true Scandinavian stock and exemplifies multiple themes of the festival. As co-directed by von Trier's moviemaking forefather and idol, Jorgen Leth, the doc follows the action when the duo collaborate in remaking Leth's 1968 short, "The Perfect Human," five times over under five different technical and creative conditions. After screenings at Sundance and last year's Toronto Film Festival, "The Five Obstructions" continued to delight filmmaking aficionados in Minneapolis among the festival's many stellar documentaries and notable Scandinavian selections.
With a huge population of Scandinavian descendants, Minnesota has always kept Nordic culture dear to stoic heart. Other celebrated films of the like included the Swedish-Finnish feature, "Elina: As I Wasn't There" and the mid-fest gala screening of "Presence," a documentary about the great Swedish photographer, Georg Oddner, as directed by the great Swedish filmmaker, Jan Troell, who was present himself for the screening. Troell, who famously captured the lives of a Swedish émigré in Minnesota with "The Emigrants" (1971), received the festival's award for outstanding artistic achievement. While "Presence" was not Troell's most memorable effort as of late, Oddner's brilliant photography and method keep the audience captivated if sometimes torn between the seemingly competing imagery from two Swedish legends.
Of the many other docs, "The Corporation" clearly stood out as the audience favorite. Aptly enough from Canada, the hard-hitting doc examines the very underpinnings of 21st century U.S. (and thus Western and global) society: corporate structure, corporate thinking, and corporate being. And in this hyper-politicized election year, that's a whole lot more thrilling than it sounds. From CEOs to social critics, such as Michael Moore and Naomi Klein, the film's poignant historical analysis and commentary on the present-day dominance of trans-national corporations has earned it numerous awards on the festival circuit over the past year and is sure to do well in wider release this summer.
Far removed from American corporate life lies the harrowing Armenian doc, "The Documentarist," directed by Harutyun Khachatryan. Chronicling 1990s life in Armenia over eight years, Kharchatryan has made himself the film's weary, silent protagonist. A U.S. premiere, "The Documentarist" feels, sounds, and looks more like an experimental horror film than a documentary of people whose genocide has long been forgotten in the Western world. Via seven vignettes and with sparse dialogue, the highly visual and symbolic film comments with a disturbing montage that includes the systematic slaughter of stray dogs in a village to footage of abandoned children a ghastly orphanage.
Almost as equally as tense, but with a more conventional approach, "The Letter" focuses on the divisions in Lewiston, Maine, over the past several years as the dominantly white, Christian small town has become home to a large community of Somali refugees. As the Twin Cities have the largest population of Somalis outside of the war-battered East African nation itself, "The Letter," whose director Ziad H. Hamzeh led Q&As after both of the film's screenings, stirred animated discussion and powerful responses.
For those who were looking for some docs on the lighter side, MSPIFF offered such Americana pop-cultural forays as "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," "Overnight," which tracked the rise and fall of would-be Miramax filmmaker, Troy Duffy, and "Slasher," a glimpse of the nation's fastest used-car salesman via the direction of John Landis.
On the other side of the world, both geographically and cinematically, "Alexei and the Spring" moves subtly through Budische, Belarus, a town abandoned by all of its non-elder residents, sparing the thirty-something young man Alexei, after the nearby Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Visually as rich as the town's enduring old country ways of life, the film has much in common with "The Story of the Weeping Camel," which tracks the birth and life of an albino camel among the nomadic shepherds in southern Mongalia's Gobi Desert. The Mongolian doc's African cousin, "Asshak, Tales from Sahara" is a stunningly beautiful exploration of the Tuareg nomadic culture through the Sahara Desert in Niger. Unlike other overly narrated documentaries of people who are much exoticized in Western culture, "Asshak" lets the Tuareg themselves, the desert landscapes and skies, and the camels do the talking.
As directed by José Manuel Novoa and produced by the Pedro and Augustin Almodóvar's El Deseo films, "Eyengui, The God of Dreams" delivered another strong African selection to the festival that, in truth, is a fictionalized documentary acted out by a pygmy tribe, the Baka, in the Cameroon jungles. While it carries all the stereotypes of so-called "primitive" Africa, complete with grass skirts, spears, cannibals and witchcraft, the film still stretches narrative and documentary bounds and, like so many of the films at MSPIFF, takes you to world you've never seen before.
MSPIFF showcased many inspiring docs this year, and so it's easy to overlook some of the more notable feature selections, such as "James' Journey to Jerusalem" and "Raja." Among the many filmmaker and producer presentations, Barry M. Osborne, Oscar winner and producer of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, gave a dialogue at sold out '50s-retro Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis.
Instead of a competition, MSPIFF only gives out special awards and screens a "Best of the Fest" extended run for those films voted as the most popular by viewers out of those selection that the festival's shoe-string budget will allow extended distribution rights.
Further U.S. premieres that are also in the "Best of the Fest" series include "Dutch Light" and "The Master and His Pupil" both from the Netherlands, "Bored in Brno" from the Czech Republic, "Sibelius" from Finland, and "Sabado," a real-time hour-long film from Chile that mimics over-the-top reality TV.
"The Naked Proof" won debut director, Jaimee Hook, the fest's Emerging Filmmaker award. It's a bit rough-edged and may only find a cult audience among all of you whackos out there who read Nietzsche and Hegel for fun. But the film still comes through with quirky humor, wry narration from the evocative playwright, August Wilson, and the inner mental workings of the 10-year-running grad student protagonist who obsesses over the ontological conundrum: "Do other people exist?"
After spending two weeks in the dark, watching an average of three films a day, this Midwest critic isn't so sure about the answer to that question.