Herculean Effort in the Twin Cities: Minneapolis and St. Paul Fest Offers Cinema From 50 Countries
by Jeremy O'Kasick
In high anticipation of the coming hoopla and cinema barrage at Tribeca and Cannes, it is unlikely that even the most well traveled of film festival junkies could locate Minneapolis on a map. Nonetheless, the Minneapolis and St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF), which ran April 4-19, has long been the largest event of its kind in the Upper Midwest, offering the full gamut of international film, from proven triumphs to more obscure premieres from even more obscure nations. (Anyone else on the buzz with the film scene in Kazakhstan as of late?)
In its 21st year, the two-week event crossed a momentous stepping stone in its voyage to gain a higher standing among regional festivals. With more than 130 films screening at seven venues in the Twin Cities, the festival billed itself this year as a "formidable weapon of mass instruction." Wartime puns aside, the coalition of cultural forces -- more than 50 countries were represented -- certainly did liberate the perspectives of local moviegoers before the assault of the Hollywood summer blockbusters.
As the state's marquee annual film event, MSPIFF also brought together the core of the steadfast Minnesota film community. However depleted by production companies that head to Canada and homegrown talent who flee to the coasts, the Minnesota film community continues to trudge ahead, rarely recognized nationally, often taking three steps back for every two ahead.
Many local film dignitaries made appearances at the festival's sold-out opening night gala held at the lavish Historic State Theater in downtown Minneapolis. The festivities got going with the strike of a gong and a tango stride from the seventy-something Robert Duvall, who also introduced his directorial follow-up to "The Apostle." In "Assassination Tango," Duvall portrays a nimble-footed hitman, but it's a character study that lacks both the rhythm and drive of his fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher.
Despite the film's mediocrity, however, the hype surrounding the gala foreshadowed a festival unlike any of its predecessors. Not only did this year's MSPIFF shatter all previous attendance records, but it also brought more than 20 filmmakers, producers, and actors to the Twin Cities to introduce their films and offered nearly 30 national premieres.
As with "Assassination Tango," the higher profile selections, such as Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" and James Foley's "Confidence," amounted to nothing more than a promotional screenings before coming wider releases. The festival also showcased three recent Oscar nominees, including "Zus and Zo," "Winged Migration," and Aki Kaurismaki's quirky existential drama, "The Man Without a Past." ("Moro No Brasil," brother Mika Kaurismaki's brilliant documentary of traditional Brazilian music -- the "Buena Vista Social Club" of Brazil -- also screened at the fest.)
Some of the tried-but-true selections persisted in drawing big fanfare. Despite rising critical divisions over "Stevie," documentary filmmaker Steve James engaged in an animated discussion with the audience after the film's screening. Whether or not you throw the exploitation label at James, a controversy that he has exhaustively addressed both off and on camera, his portrait of his mentally disturbed former "little brother" continues to evoke discussion about economic class and how it is perceived in American cinema, which is exactly what he set out to do.
Another provocative doc, "Bus 174," also takes on an often-sensationalized subject, but does so with the same eye on the economic struggles. Winning awards at Rotterdam and most recently at the Full Frame Doc Fest, the film focuses on the hijacking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro and the roots of such violent crime in Brazil's explosive slums.
Beyond some of the top-notch Iranian selections, such as Abbas Kiarostami's "Ten" and Bahman Ghobadi's "Marooned in Iraq," a few African films proved that no matter how hyper-powered the globalized cultural radar, vibrant film production is growing vaster than can be readily detected. After picking up a slew of festival awards over the past year, "Ali Zaoua," a story of gang-dueling street kids in Casablanca, evidences northern Africa's move into an aesthetic distinct from European and Arab influences. Another film with Arab overtones, "Waiting for Happiness," which hails from Mauritania and picked up a FIPRESCI award at Cannes 2002, still has the hearts of high-brow critics reeling, as they ponder the film's mysticism and stark imagery. Sponsored along with 11 other films by the Rotterdam fest's Hubert Bals Fund, the film screened at Minneapolis' nationally renowned Walker Art Center.
Amid the U.S. premiere stock, "Revenge" stands out as the most prominent. Adapted from an ever-popular 18th-century Polish comedy by Aleksander Fredro, the film resiliently stars recent Academy Award winner, Roman Polanski, as the foolhardy servant, Papkin. It's tale of worthy of Gogol and Shakespeare set in a 17th-century snow-whipped Polish castle divided between two pseudo-noble groups. As the factions vie for power, much of the deceit, love, and balderdash spin around Polanski's droll performance. "Revenge" marks a triumphant departure for both him and its usually more dismal director, Andrzej Wajda.
Japanese director Sachi Hamano introduced "pink film," or Japanese erotica, to MSPIFF with "Lily Festival", an exploration of sexuality among elderly women. It is among Hamano's staggering 300 films of a genre dominated by males, but one that has allowed her to take on many neglected feminine perspectives and some taboo subjects with a lighthearted touch.
Jump from Japanese "pink film" to a heavy-hitting nine-hour documentary on the Chinese rural working class in the wake of recent modernization efforts. Banned in China, Wang Bing's three-part documentary, "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks," was well received at the Berlin festival. MSPIFF picked up the second of the series, "Remnants," which concerns a group of hapless teenagers living in workers housing set to be razed.
The sprawling festival is run by Minnesota Film Arts, a newly formed merger between the University of Minnesota Film Society and a nearby revival theater, Oak St. Cinema. Despite this year's success, a visit to the non-profit's disheveled office reveals how the festival is still severely understaffed and lacking funds.
With a bare-bones staff of mostly of young volunteers, it is something of a Herculean effort how the group and the festival director, Al Milgrom, a locally renowned iconoclast and indie film champion, have been able to keep the festival going for 21 years.
"Film festival work is like everyday putting out a hundred brushfires," Milgrom grumbled at the end of a particularly ugly day midway through MSPIFF. He recently had to scratch two promising screenings from the festival: the print of Ken Loach's "Sweet Sixteen" had been so damaged by a previous venue it was worthless and Emir Kusturica, the Serbian co-producer of "Strawberries in the Supermarket," axed that film's screening even though its German co-producers had promised it to MSPIFF.
"We're not an A-festival, but we act as if we are," said Milgrom. "We do just as good of job or even a better job than Cleveland and Palm Springs with fewer people and less financial backing, but that is no virtue. Every year you just keep knocking yourself out."
Milgrom launched the University of Minnesota Film Society in 1962, first bringing French New Wave to the Twin Cities and veritably creating the international cinema audience in Minnesota. He started the festival with the same inspiring vision he has today: bringing international indie film to the Midwest masses. Instead of competition and prizes, MSPIFF screens a second run of 20 or so choice films and then goes on the road for two weeks to two smaller Minnesota cities.
MSPIFF has survived with the support of the film community and Milgrom's tenacity in getting filmmakers and distributors to show their films for free in a place unknown to some of them. The festival has long been stocked with a wealth of films from Scandinavian countries (15 this year), of which many Minnesotans are descendants. Eastern Europe has also traditionally had a strong presence and this year offered seven films from the Czech Republic and five from Poland. Other highlights included the wordless avant-garde Hungarian murder mystery, "Hukkle," and the U.S. premiere of a Serbian romance, "Zona Zamfirova," which has already been dubbed "My Big Fat Serbian Wedding."
Besides fighting for films from the likes of Tajikistan and Lithuania, MSPIFF spotlighted some talent closer to home. The wisecracking neo-noir, "Detective Fiction," won local prestige for recently becoming the first Minnesota-made feature screened at Sundance. Director-writer Patrick Coyle, who also starred as the male lead, a recovering alcoholic and closeted hardboiled fiction writer, originally wrote the script for the stage and later adapted it for the screen.
Also evoking praise in Park City, the documentary on train hoppers, "Long Gone," won two awards at Slamdance. Minnesota native, David Eberhardt spent more than seven years on and off the rails getting footage for his highly stylized film, which has a gritty, powerhouse soundtrack from Tom Waits. The Minnesota-based filmmaker, Kathleen Laughlin, also chronicled the stories of grown-up orphans who passed through a "school for neglected children" in rural Minnesota in her documentary "The Children Remember."
The three aforementioned films reflect the current vigor of the Minnesota film community. While not currently based in Minnesota, Eberhardt graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, whose film program has turned out thousands of filmmaking professionals over the years. Other technical programs and local production have allowed the state to sustain nearly 10, 000 active film and television related workers, a significant population considering the Twin Cities small market.
"Detective Fiction" was produced, in part, with logistical support from IFP/Minneapolis-St. Paul. Formerly IFP/North and one of six branches of the Independent Film Project, the office promotes the work of scores of filmmakers, screenwriters, and photographers in the Upper Midwest. It offers classes, workshops, and resources to get artists what they need, whether an eight-plate 16mm flatbed or a prestigious McKnight screenwriting grant.
Recently merged with a video co-op, IFP/Minneapolis-St. Paul also puts on a regional film festival, the Central Standard Film Festival, to add to the plethora of burgeoning small fests, film series, retrospectives, and micro-cinemas in the area. From the underground mini-SXSW spin-off, Sound Unseen, to the new and upcoming doc fest, Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival, the Minneapolis scene seems to have reached critical mass.
Some dream big, hoping that MSPIFF will gain momentum from this year's success in attracting star power and larger market films. (If the weathered Al Milgrom embodies much of the history of indie film in Minnesota, perhaps these optimists envision Hollywood hunk, Joshua Hartnett, a Minneapolis native who introduced a MSPIFF benefit this year, as a more suitable future festival icon.) Others question the capacity of the Cities to support its current load of venues and festivals, nonetheless talent, especially given the current statewide budget panic.
The state recently cut the Minnesota Film and TV Board's "snowbate" program, a rebate incentive of up to $100,000 for production companies, which has subsequently led the loss of three major film productions to Canada with another one on the brink. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has proposed scrapping all of the board's state funding next year, more than 40 perfect of its budget, a move that would cripple the organization.
As many similar state organizations have folded in recent years, the executive director of the Minnesota film board, Craig Rice, expressed fears of how a fatal blow to his group would impair the film community as a whole. He is currently engaged in an exhaustive lobbying effort to show the state government how the board has brought in more than $57 million into the economy in the past five years. He remains optimistic that they will survive and perhaps brand Minnesota as something more than flyover country.
"We have been making feature films in Minnesota since 1920. We're not Seattle or Macon, Georgia; this is not a trend," Craig said. "But Minnesotans have never promoted themselves well; it's in the Scandinavian roots. We don't stand the rooftop and say, 'This is who we are!' Well, now is a good time to start."
Jeremy O'Kasick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and critic.