The show will go on

It’s opening night at the 24th annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Do you know where your popcorn is?

by Erin Adler

This year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival has already undergone its fair share of drama – and it just started today.

Through the past few chilly months, there had been talk that the annual festival, in its 24th year, wouldn’t take place at all this spring. Financial woes and managerial strains at Minnesota Film Arts, the organization that runs the Bell Auditorium, Oak Street Cinema and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, left local filmgoers and the remaining Minnesota Film Arts staff members frustrated and overworked – not to mention the fact that there just wasn’t enough money to make it happen.

But things looked up when local and national advertisers pitched in, placing ads in the film festival guide, and the festival was on again, said Laura Mylan, Minnesota Film Arts’ acting managing director.

“We raised $40,000 in eight days,” she said.

Even so, the man at Minnesota Film Arts’ helm, Al Milgrom, noted that this year’s festival originally was supposed to be smaller than last, a “toned-down festival,” because of the nonprofit organization’s still-sizable deficit.

The roster of films, though, just kept growing, he said. This year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival will feature 120 films, compared with 140 last year. There will be 12 to 15 U.S. premieres and “a couple” of world premieres. Directors will be visiting, too, but there will be fewer of them – Milgrom estimated seven or eight directors will appear this year.

But if Milgrom’s enthusiasm for this year’s films is any indication, the film festival will not disappoint, despite some lower numbers. Al Franken is set to host the opening-night showing of his film “Al Franken: God Spoke” tonight, and local filmmaker Ali Selim (director of the anticipated “Sweet Land”) will be present on the closing night of the fest.

As in years past, the festival will cover documentaries and fictional films, big-budget (relatively speaking)films and independent projects. Films will explore local, national and international topics, with directors and casts that hail from around the world and around the Twin Cities.

While the documentary and shorts segments are separate, the scope of the festival might seem overwhelming to a new festival attendee. But that’s where sidebars and categories come in.

Milgrom explained that a sidebar is a collection of films on a given subject; each grouping presents variety yet has a common denominator. This year will feature a four-film Scandinavian films sidebar, and a sidebar or spotlight on the works of visiting Mexican director

Arturo Ripstein, who will attend screenings of four of his films from April 26 to 28. Other major categories include contemporary films, documentaries, childish (or children’s films) and “Made in Minnesota,” composed of Minnesota-made documentaries and shorts.

To talk with Milgrom, who is in his 80s, takes energy. He rattles off film titles and his appraisal of them like he’s singing the alphabet. But Milgrom knows film – and film festivals, too. He selected many of this year’s titles himself, after traveling to myriad international film festivals.

Here’s hoping that this year’s festival is as successful as Milgrom’s film knowledge is vast, and that the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival continues for years to come.

Milgrom picks a crop of four rural American films
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This year’s festival features 120 films from around the world. But if subtitles scare you or if you simply find selecting which films to see daunting, you might want to check out a collection of four American films Al Milgrom refers to informally as an “American Pastorales” sidebar. Although it’s not an official sidebar listed in the program, Milgrom said he is enthusiastic about the films as a group.

While “American Pastorales” might sound, well, pastoral – like an amalgamation of “Little House on the Prairie” reruns and a marathon of “The Simple Life,” these four films prove rural America isn’t so simple. And neither is this series.

Below are Milgrom’s four picks; after seeing them, it would be hard not to see rural America in a different light.

Muskrat Lovely: It’s hard to shine in a small town, where everyone knows you. Residents have to take any opportunity that presents itself. High school girls in Golden Hill, Md., who are lucky enough to possess the coveted hot-but-hearty look use their 15 minutes to compete in the Miss Outdoors pageant. This documentary centers on the 50th crowning of Miss Outdoors. Taking place at the same time, though, is the Golden Hill competition to find the world’s best muskrat skinner. It’s like “A Mighty Wind,” only real.

Sweet land: The next time your grandparents tell you life was different back on the farm, believe them. St. Paul director Ali Selim’s narrative focuses on Inge, a mail-order bride from Germany and her journey to southern Minnesota. Amid the post-World War I prejudice of local Norwegian farmers, Inge falls in love with Olaf Torvig – but theirs, as Inge explains, was a “different kind of happy.” Relying on flashbacks and rolling vistas of Montevideo to fill in the starkness, “Sweet Land” is beautiful in a quiet, ordinary way.

The Last Western: As the “Cheers” theme song taught us all, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Other times, you want to go to a place where it’s OK to not fit in, like Pioneertown, Calif. The town was built as a B movie set for filming Westerns in 1946, but was abandoned by the late ’50s. Misfits, convicts and Hell’s Angels, however, found they enjoyed the town’s weird atmosphere, as well as those residents who hung on to life there. This documentary gets inside the town that time – and mainstream society – seem to have forgotten.

The Hole Story: Filmmaker and would-be television producer Alex Karpovsky had heard about Brainerd and the mysterious hole that appeared in a nearby lake in the coldest part of winter. He had no idea what to expect, but as a curious man with an interest in puzzles, he decided to see it for himself. Dubbed “the black hole” by locals, the hole somehow engulfs Karpovsky, his pilot and Brainerd residents in its strangeness. And Karpovsky gets it all on film. This movie is unexpectedly funny, personal and sad.

A mixture of documentaries and more fictional films, Milgrom’s “American Pastorales” sidebar mixes the ordinary and the odd, offering something for everyone. And if you don’t like this collection of films, remember, you always can choose a few films on a common topic to make your own sidebar. Need a suggestion? “There are also a fair number of sexier films that will be shown at later times (in the evening) this year,” Milgrom said. Sounds like one salacious sidebar.

Minnesota docs and shorts go from real to reel
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When Minneapolis filmmaker Chris Newberry approached the Minnesota Film Arts about showing one of his shorts at the upcoming Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, he got more than he expected.

Against the backdrop of films from across the world, Newberry was asked to coordinate the film festival’s two nights exclusively devoted to Minnesota filmmakers.

“To give local filmmakers an opportunity against all this worldly material, it shows that they’re looking globally and looking locally,” Newberry said.

Newberry said there was a call for entries, while other directors familiar with the festival submitted their entries early.

The festival will show “Minnesota Shorts,” 12 short films ranging from one to 15 minutes, Sunday at the Bell Auditorium. The following Saturday at the Riverview Theater, a similar lineup will be shown for the directors of “Minnesota Docs,” short documentaries of about the same length.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated of the latter group is a documentary by Minneapolis director Sonya “Sonny” Tormoen, whose film “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” chronicles the lives and careers of a longtime Minneapolis polka band. The three-person Ruth Adams Band has played at Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis for 30 years.

Tormoen’s film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as she focuses on the aging members of the Minneapolis institution. She gives special attention to 88-year-old Al Ophus, the band’s drummer for 23 years. As a look inside a local mainstay, Tormoen’s film should be a perfect nightcap to an evening devoted to local talent.

Newberry’s own film, “Sweet Caroline,” is one of several among the short films that explore human relationships from their most awkward to their most serene.

In “Sweet Caroline” we watch a laconic security guard gradually fall for a spirited nurse at a hospital, and we’re treated to the surprisingly poignant advice of a drug felon chained to his hospital bed.

“I think I’ve driven this car till it’s just about out of gas. I might have run a few red lights along the way, but at least I kept drivin’. At least I got no regrets,” he said.

Equally unconventional is Jesse and Connie Kuntz’s “Conjugal Cobwebs,” which follows an ill-natured husband aiming to please his equally ill-natured wife by euphemistically “vacuuming the basement.”

And Jon Nowak’s “Butterscotch Dawn” mercilessly takes us across the spectrum of love and loss in just five minutes as the main character searches with color swatches for the perfect hue.

For Newberry, who has attended the film festival as a filmgoer for years, the international scope of the event offers a rare chance for the Twin Cities to see films from across the world.

But Minnesota is part of that world, and the local offerings undoubtedly will beg as much reflection and introspection as many of their international counterparts.