Out of the shadows

This year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival draws big names and restructures its program

The 15-day revolution known as the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival starts Friday.

For two invigorating weeks, the rules of Twin Cities cinema will be rewritten.

Movie regulars usually find complaining about Hollywood is as common as the smell of fake butter. The industry’s relentless marketing machine and the concentration of media resources have led to an era of homogenization and degeneration.

A film festival, however, bypasses all these filters.

Gone are the multinational conglomerates, movie studios and monopolistic theater chains. In their place is a temporary haven of cinematic democracy: 163 films from 63 countries come directly to eager moviegoers.

A breakout year?

This could be the breakout year for the festival. Even Jamie Hook, executive director of the festival’s parent, Minnesota Film Arts, admits it is still a B-list event.

“What keeps it from being an A-list festival is its organization structure in years past and its deference to the film industry,” Hook said.

But the times, they are a changin’.

Fresh from Seattle, Hook has started to shake things up at the organization.

Working with festival programmer Al Milgrom, Hook has done everything possible to resolve the conflict inherent in most modern film festivals, between being too innocent or too commercial.

“In a way, the film festival has lost its innocence,” Hook said. “Before, Al could just bring back 100 films that he thought people should see.

“But now, at Sundance, everyone has to face the fact that getting Roger Ebert to come to your film festival and having some stars is as much a part of the industry as checking box-office grosses,” he said. “The challenge is to play both sides of that field – play that game and then also keep its innocence.”

None of which is to say this year’s event is devoid of big names.

Two internationally renown directors will be appearing in person during the course of the festival. Wim Wenders, best known for his cerebral “Wings of Desire,” which Hollywood remade as “City of Angels,” will appear Monday at the Riverview Theater with his new film, “Land of Plenty.”

French director Benoit Jacquot is also scheduled to appear in conjunction with a special series of his films to take place during the week. He will appear in person after a screening of his recent work, “A Tout de Suite,” on April 7 at the Riverview Theater.

A year of changes

Hook, Milgrom and the other planners at Minnesota Film Arts have worked diligently to revamp the format and make the festival a more accessible event.

“I characterized (the previous festival) in terms of 150 films in search of a graphic designer,” Hook said. “We needed to make it more user-friendly.”

Hook’s plans are simple but imperative.

They start with a more fluid schedule and easier-to-understand marketing materials. They also include a significant increase in parties and social events.

“I love that festivals take place in the spring and people can get a beer and remember that life is good and is going to keep getting better as the sun comes out,” Hook said.

Most noticeably, the colossal, 160-film lineup has been streamlined.

“This year, we break the program into distinct parts and highlights. Here’s the world cinema, here’s the nonfiction, the new American, the childish and so on,” Hook said.

This year’s ‘childish’ ways

This year, the festival’s themes include shorts, emerging filmmakers and the special series “Europe at 12.” But the most inspired addition is the Childish Film Festival, curated by Deb Girdwood.

“It’s looking ahead at the next audience,” Girdwood said, noting these films attempt to develop a new generation of sophisticated movie audiences.

Running the length of the festival and featuring a number of free screenings for area grade school students, the Childish Film Festival boasts an international collection of 12 feature-length programs.

One such program, the animated “Princes and Princesses,” is a collaborative event presented in partnership with the Children’s Theatre Company. A live reading of the film’s script by members of the acting troupe will accompany the film.

Girdwood insists, however, the Childish Film Festival is not just for children.

“Children’s cinema is great for dates,” Girdwood said. “It has a great deal of idealism and nostalgia, and at the center, there is some kernel of a moral lesson and often some subversive political content.”

This ambitious lineup is only one of many changes Hook, Girdwood, Milgrom and Minnesota Film Arts said they hope will make the festival an even more essential aspect of the Twin Cities arts community.

“Film festivals are the one last place where film can be this pure, bizarre art,” Hook said, “where people don’t know what they’re looking for and have no preconceptions.

“I used to think that was a common experience for someone, to have a life-altering experience at the movies. As I get older, I realize very few people have that experience.

“It’s really rare.”