How is the Flyway Film Festival, happening this week in the Wisconsin river towns of Pepin, Stockholm, and Maiden Rock, different from other film festivals? A well-known producer visiting the Flyway once told me, off the record: “Nobody’s trying to suck up to anybody here. People say what they really think about the films and nobody acts pretentious, the way they do at most festivals.” (You can see why this person did not want to be quoted by name.)
The Flyway was recently voted one of the world’s “Twenty-Five Coolest Film Festivals” by MovieMaker Magazine, so let’s hope that the unpretentious atmosphere holds. Last year, more than 2,000 people from 19 states and Canada attended. That’s up from the 408 locals who came in 2008, the year the Flyway was born.
The majority of attendees are Twin Citians who make the 90-minute drive for the films, for the outstanding local food, and for the astonishing scenery along the river bluffs, which will make you think you’ve left the Midwest for the Mediterranean. “Mi scusi,” you might say to a passerby, “I’m, uh, looking for un festival del cinema in Wisconsin, but…? I’m sorry, my Italian is very poor.”
The Flyway opens on Thursday night (10/23) with a huge gala at Pepin’s Villa Bellezza Winery, another sight that makes you wonder whether you took a wrong turn and ended up in Tuscany. Festival director Rick Vaicius will hand out the film awards; Minneapolis band “Sun Gods to Gamma Rays” will play; and there’s a keynote speech by producer/entrepreneur Nick Gonda, who’s shaking up the film world with his innovative distribution model at Tugg, Inc. Past speakers include Emily Best, Brian Newman, Sheri Candler, Kelley Baker, Jon Reiss, Ted Hope, and Scilla Andreen. (Tickets to the gala are available here.)
In the eclectic mix of national and international fiction and non-fiction films, seminars and mentor sessions, several Twin Cities filmmakers are featured:
- Jesse Roesler’s documentary The Starfish Throwers, in the midst of a tour that’s inspiring audiences all over the country to take action against world hunger, will make a stop at the Flyway.
- Jan Selby will present her new film Beyond the Divide, the moving tale of a Montana community’s struggle to heal the rifts of the Vietnam War as antagonism over a graffiti peace sign comes to a head.
- Duluth’s Mike Scholtz produced the hilarious Wicker Kittens (directed by Amy C. Elliott), the story of a St. Paul jigsaw puzzle competition. Roesler, Selby, and Elliott will speak at a workshop on documentary storytelling, led by Columbia College film professor and filmmaker Jeff Spitz (Food Patriots, also screening at the Flyway).
- Several regional short films will screen, including Allison Herrera & Colin Kloecker’s Kathy’s Live Bait, about a Hmong-owned bait shop in St. Paul.
The full schedule and ticket links are on the Flyway website. Tickets are going fast, so it’s a good idea to buy them in advance. The opening night film on Friday, Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible, will likely sell out: it won the jury award at South by Southwest and is creating major buzz with its alarming revelations about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Festival programmers Rick Vaicius and Jim Brunzell III have selected an array of controversial, strange, funny, cutting-edge films; not your usual small-town movie fare. But these are not your usual small towns.
Before the Flyway Film Festival came into existence, the area’s other main attractions for Twin Citians were the art galleries, the sailing, and the Harbor View Café, a beautiful little restaurant that serves the same spectacular-quality food today as it did when it opened more than 30 years ago. People who migrated from the Cities in the 1970s and 1980s – hippies, foodies, artists, nature-lovers and the like – joined the descendants of pioneers in the small towns along the river, resulting in a bold amalgam of fine art and cheap beer.
As such, it became fertile ground for a film festival. The fact that there are certain locals who mutter “I wouldn’t watch that so-called indie film crap if you paid me” just adds to the charm. The festival has grown from its inception in Pepin to include Stockholm (site of the largest screening venue, the lovely WideSpot Performing Arts Center), Maiden Rock, and now Red Wing, Minnesota, where special screenings were held earlier this month.
The name “Flyway” comes from the location: it’s headquartered on a part of the Mississippi River where the river widens to a 40-square mile “lake,” called Lake Pepin, and is a central migratory route for birds. It’s not the “Fly Away” film festival, as I thought when I first heard about it. It’s flyway, like a skyway or a byway, but for birds. They were going to call it “Film Festival in a Place You Probably Never Heard Of,” but “Flyway Film Festival,” it seems, has worked out quite well.