2012 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival: A scavenger hunt full of prizes


Over the next three weeks, I’ll be discussing some of my favorite films, some bona fide stinkers, and other film happenings going on at the biggest and longest film festival in Minnesota: the 2012 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

A great scavenger hunt consists of many challenges and obstacles: a priority first and foremost is a map with different clues. Scavenger hunts for the most part are done outside, and while this one has parts that take place outside, the majority of the festivities are inside: buying tickets, standing in long lines, getting your concessions, staking out your seats, and sitting comfortably in your seat as you wait for the adventure to start. The scavenger hunt I’m speaking of is the biggest one in Minnesota, taking place every April at the St. Anthony Main Theatres down on Main Street near the lovely banks of the Mississippi River (with a few off-site screenings taking place at the Heights Theater): the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, running Thursday, April 12 through Thursday, May 3, presented by the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

When you first receive your map—your festival catalog—you’ll notice the considerable size of this catalog, filled with descriptions of 250+ films, including shorts, narratives and documentaries. Now, how does one go through all these clues and pages to map a journey? One can take one’s time studying the map and closely plotting each move, from theater to theater, day to day, or venue to venue. However, some veterans of this event will show up at the theater with little planning and try to find as many political, light-hearted, uplifting, hilarious, horrifying, surprising, truthful, insightful, magical, sexy, and entertaining stories as they can.

Now this scavenger hunt starts with the hardworking folks at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul, who begin constructing this map. They start out with a blank canvas or chart, thinking about what clues should be included in each of our adventures. The festival is made happen by everyone from the co-directors to the executive director to the multiple programmers to marketing and outreach coordinators to the festival coordinator to the countless volunteers to the theater staff and, most importantly, the projectionists, who bring the films into focus. It’s not easy to make decisions like these, but we all accept this challenge: everyone, in the end, does in fact win a prize in the opportunity to see great films that may not be shown in the Twin Cities again.

Going behind the scenes of how this adventure is put together is always a delight. Walking into the offices of MSPIFF to seek out some of the festival’s architects to discuss this year’s festival, I sat down with executive director Susan Smoluchowski and assistant programmer/programming manager Jesse Bishop to talk about the bounty of goodies, discoveries, highlights, and parties, we can expect with this year’s gargantuan slate of films.

I started off by asking if there was anything remarkably different in the 2012 edition compared to the 2011 adventure, and Smoluchowski mentioned that in regard to the number of films from last year to this year, it is relatively the same number of films, but she was quick to point out that it was a significantly jump from the 2010 festival, which was only two weeks long, to the new standard of a three-week event. She also added, “We tested the three-week festival run and our audiences loved it. The festival kept building momentum and it gave people an opportunity to see more films and to see ones that were repeating later in the festival, that maybe they missed in the first week.”

Bishop added, “This year we have a spotlight on the Middle East, which was co-curated by Alissa Simon [a former Walker Art Center film employee and currently a reviewer for Variety magazine], Al Milgrom, and Tim Grady, which will consist of 25 Middle Eastern titles that also include films from Arabian-speaking countries and Turkey and Israel. We felt it was important to showcase the Middle East due to the response of the events in that part of the world that arose last year and that are ongoing and there are very ambitious and interesting work coming out of those countries after what has happened there over the past year.” MSPIFF’s closing night film, Where Do We Go Now?, has been garnering acclaim since its premiere at Cannes last year, hailing from Lebanon via gifted director Nadine Labaki, who previously helmed 2008’s Caramel. “We’re also delighted to present Where Do We Go Now, as a capstone to the ending of the festival“, Bishop added with a smile.

Another new program added this year is a section called “Broadcast Cinema,” featuring five titles that have either played on PBS or HBO or that will be screening on one of those stations in the near future. “We feel these films should be screened not only on a TV but in front of an audience and have a discussion with the filmmakers after the screenings,” said Bishop, mentioning Raising Renee as one to look out for—by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (the duo behind the Oscar nominated documentary Troublesome Creek), who will be attending the festival and be taking part in a panel discussion on “The Doc & The Artist: Painting the Portrait,” on Sunday, April 22 at MTN Studios.

Smoluchowski is excited about the panel discussions, but also says there are two more panels being held during the festival. “We’re having one during the opening weekend, Sunday, April 15 entitled ‘Media & The Middle East’ [being held in Theater 1 at St. Anthony Main], and we’re using this panel as an opportunity to introduce and illuminate the films we’re showing in our spotlight.” The panel will include U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison and Rabbi Amy Eilberg, “along with many University professors and others who will bring richness to the panel. The third panel, Sunday, April 29 [taking place at MTN Studios], is our Minnesota filmmakers panel, which was put together by our Minnesota programmer Tom DeBiaso, who has been invaluable in selecting our Minnesota titles at the festival.”

As far as Minnesota-made titles screening at the festival this year, DeBiaso went through 200-plus titles to select eleven feature-length narratives and documentaries and four short programs, including one documentary Bishop is excited for audiences to see: King for Two Days, about local drummer extraordinaire Dave King and his two-day concert at the Walker Art Center. Another highlight will be from returning Minnesota filmmaker Joe Dressel; his film Hope which is a world premiere (Friday, April 13) and the first to kick off the Minnesota program.

“The documentary To Make A Farm is one film I think people will be talking about by the end of the festival,” Bishop said when asked what is a film that could be a potential breakout. It’s about five young Canadians who give up their urban life to start an organic farm. Smoluchowski says its’ hard to pick from among so many films, but another one that could be a sleeper is The Curse of the Gothic Symphony, a documentary about a group of eccentric music fanatics trying to perform the largest and longest symphony ever written. “I think it’s a film that may not have people talking at the beginning of the festival but by the end, could have people wishing that they had caught it. However, our opening night film, the French blockbuster comedy The Intouchables, is one that we’re really excited to be presenting as our opening night film and one we hope audiences love.”

For those who remember the Festival Central Pavilion (a.k.a. “the big tent”) from last year, it will be making a return, although it will be located next to the Aster Café, not underneath the 3rd Avenue Bridge like last year. It will be hosting a slew of parties and events, including the opening night party featuring plenty of food, drinks and music after the screening of The Intouchables

Lastly, how can you go wrong with a tribute to the godfather of the Twin Cities film scene, “Al Milgrom Day”? The 2012 edition of MSPIFF marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the U Film Society by Milgrom. On Saturday, April 14, you can stop down at the Pavilion, where Milgrom will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. There will be music by Willie Murphy and a celebration of the man, the myth, the legend, and the “perpetrator,” as he has dubbed himself in the festival catalog, on this once-in-a-lifetime day. Milgrom has also selected six films as part of the “U Film Society Retrospective” that screened perhaps one or many times on campus at U Film Society. They’re important films that hopefully many people have seen, but for those who have not seen any of the six titles—including Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo, starring regular Kurosawa actor Toshiro Mifune; and, from Ukraine, Sergei Paradjanov’s 1964 Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors—they are not to be missed.

Wrapping up the conversations, Bishop added what he’d like to see audiences take away from the MSPIFF experience: “I hope audiences come down to the theaters and really take in the atmosphere of the festival. We have some great venues partners and restaurants by the theater, and we hope you discover a new film and you’ll be able to discuss it with the other patrons and get to know other people seeing the same or different films than you. We all go to the movies to enjoy them, but part of that enjoyment is talking to others about what you just watched.”

So there you have it: a little sneak preview of what to expect from this year’s some 250-plus films filled with drama and intrigue, crying and laughter, and early mornings to late nights. I hope everyone has a successful hunt and can remember how to get back to the beginning once it’s over.