Film festival serves up exotic buffet


If you love films, you know better than to plan a vacation in April, the month of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (M-SPIFF).

For about two weeks, the M-SPIFF serves up an exotic buffet of more than 100 independent, local and international films sure to make a glutton of any true cineaste. Many of the films have won awards at festivals around the world, but don’t appeal to the mainstream enough to appear again on a Twin Cities screen or even in the most intrepid viewer’s Netflix queue. Quite simply, the M-SPIFF is the Upper Midwest’s largest film event. Its size and quality are only a tier or two below the world-class festivals in Cannes, New York, Toronto or Berlin. This year’s 24th Annual M-SPIFF is not an event to take for granted, in more ways than one.

“It really is one of the strongest representations of films in the last 24 years,” said Al Milgrom, M-SPIFF’s stalwart program director. “And next year will be the 25th, if we live that long.”

The reference was Milgrom’s way of acknowledging the well-publicized challenges facing the M-SPIFF. During one dark weekend in mid-January, Minnesota Film Arts (MFA), the organization that runs the M-SPIFF, seemed ready to fold. It faced a six-figure budget shortfall and was on the brink of closing the Oak Street Cinema, a key M-SPIFF venue also operated by MFA. However, a strong turnout for a weekend film screening and some impassioned rallying by concerned staff and board members staved off the funding problems, at least for the immediate future. Challenges still remain. The MFA lost two key staff members: Emily Condon, the Oak Street’s programmer, and Adam Sekuler, who booked documentaries at the other MFA-operated venue, the Bell Museum Auditorium.

The dispute over the potential closing of the Oak Street, which seemed to diminish or at least become less public since January, has reemerged as M-SPIFF’s opening date approaches. On April 11, over 300 community members packed the Varsity Theater for an event entitled “Save the Spirit of the Oak Street.” The event protested the MFA board’s rejection of a proposal to allow a group of Oak Street advocates led by Augsburg College professor and former Oak Street Arts director, Bob Cowgill, to restore programming at the theater to ensure its survival. It has been temporarily closed since April 6 in preparation for the M-SPIFF, but Cowgill’s group fears it will remain closed for good.

“They’re barking up the wrong Oak Tree,” Milgrom said of Cowgill’s group. Milgrom and the board claim the Oak Street isn’t profitable and that its losses are responsible for the MFA’s shortfall. They want the Oak Street to adopt more profitable programming or to sell it so that the shortfall won’t jeopardize the MFA’s viability.

Cowgill’s group denies that repertory programming isn’t profitable and staged the April 11 event to prove it. The group claimed in a press release that the event raised $40,000 in pledges towards its activities. A separate statement also accuses the MFA board of losing touch with its mission to “pursue programming that reflects the continuous re-invigoration of the history of cinema.” While the state of repertory theater at the Oak Street is not directly related to whether and how the M-SPIFF occurs this year, the dispute underscores a rift in the local cinema community that could pose a significant hurdle.

Additionally, Milgrom had heart bypass surgery in February. He has recovered well, but he is 83 years old. The M-SPIFF board decided to secure the services of Laura Mylan to help lead this year’s event as programming manager. She is supervising event sponsorship and day-to-day operations, but the task is imposing. Mylan was hired in mid-March.

“We’ve had a little less time to do this than perhaps you would in a normal year,” she said during a recent interview in the MFA’s offices at Washington Avenue and Oak Street. “And that’s a bit of a challenge.” “Challenge” is putting it mildly. Although she works from 6 a.m. to midnight to make up for lost time, it’s impossible to turn back the clock.

This year’s event begins on April 20, about three weeks later than normal. It also features 30 fewer films and five fewer screening days than last year. The film schedule was finalized only a week ago.

“We’re doing really well,” Mylan insisted. “I think people will be impressed and pleased with the program.”

It’s hard not to wonder, however, whether her words are wishful thinking.

Measuring up to History
It’s the first time in the event’s history that Milgrom has split festival leadership duties with someone else, although he is still primarily responsible for selecting films and venues with the assistance of board member Tim Grady. Milgrom has traveled throughout the world to select films for this year’s festival, as he’s done every year.

“[This year’s] titles are distillations from a lot of very close viewings at Toronto, Munich, Montreal, Seattle, Berlin,” he said. “Almost everything except Cannes, not that I’d want to go there.”

Milgrom is a constant for an event and an organization that eke by on a budget less than half that of Portland’s or Denver’s comparably sized events. He says he needs more staff to raise more money, while others say his staff would be larger if he didn’t have a “far-reaching reputation for abrasiveness,” as one City Pages writer put it. Whether Milgrom is the Twin Cities’ scholarly film conscience or an irritable old film curmudgeon, the MFA manages to present more than 400 titles that reach over 100,000 people per year through showings at the M-SPIFF and the year-round programs at the Bell and the Oak Street.

The M-SPIFF began life as the Rivertown Film Festival founded by the old U Film Society back in 1983. The festival’s name changed to the M-SPIFF (actually MSPIFF, the hyphen appeared just last year) in 1996 to more readily identify itself with the Twin Cities. The U Film Society later merged with Oak Street Arts (operators of the Oak Street Cinema for 10 years) to form MFA in 2002.

Through it all, Milgrom has been the event’s essential public persona and, really, the face of independent and art house cinema in the Twin Cities for over 40 years. He helped found the U Film Society in 1962 and was its (and later the MFA’s) first and only director until 2005. This is the first year that he hasn’t been the M-SPIFF’s managing director.

Few can deny he is a Twin Cities film legend whose connections have earned the M-SPIFF an impressive reputation in the world film community. Milgrom has brought such luminaries as Jean-Luc Goddard and Pauline Kael to past festivals. Last year, he corralled an M-SPIFF record 20 film premieres and counted the renowned Wim Wenders and French great Benoit Jacquot among the directors on hand to present their films.

In fact, last year’s M-SPIFF was arguably the best ever. Its 163 films were the most in the M-SPIFF’s history. The Festival Central at the Suburban World Theater in Uptown offered filmgoers a party-like atmosphere that featured drinks, music, food and film shorts daily. A slew of commercial endorsements led to the development of a slick new color program. The event had really built some momentum for future years.

Moving Forward
Now, no one’s expecting this year’s M-SPIFF to be bigger than last year’s. Everyone’s just happy it’s happening at all, given the hurdles. About two weeks before this year’s opening date, the atmosphere in the MFA’s offices was a mixture of urgency and composure. Staffers chatted on the phone or scribbled on notepads. Huge bulletin boards slotted an evolving schedule of films and venues on scores of three-by-five note cards. Music hummed from a boom box.

“Turn off that rock-n-roll music, Nick,” Laura Mylan shouted, smiling. The music wasn’t really that loud. She turned back toward me. “You’re in the heat of the battle with us today.” Mylan is a Twin Cities public relations all-star. Before joining the M-SPIFF she worked as vice president and director of PR at Periscope. Three years before that she was vice president/shareholder at the Maccabee Group. Both are top-25 Minneapolis-based ad agencies. Their clients include the likes of Target and the Minnesota Zoo.

Although Mylan is working long hours, she’s familiar with the heat of battle and knows how to pace herself. And she’s creative, too. She worked on an ad campaign for WaterShed Partners in 2003 that featured an obituary for Lake Patricia that drew attention to Minnesota’s polluted water resources.

“I really believe in the festival,” she said. “People want to see film continue to be a resource for the community. That’s the mission of this organization.”

Some changes were necessary. Obviously the M-SPIFF needed to scale back its film count and some amenities, like film parties at the Suburban World, to make planning more manageable because of the time crunch that left Mylan less than four weeks to plan the event.

But this year’s event maintains most of the usual trappings, including the opening and closing night galas, a director’s retrospective (with Mexico’s “greatest living director,” Arturo Ripstein), and Scandinavian and “childish” film themes.

The M-SPIFF has also added the Edina Landmark Theater. According to Mylan “it opens us up to a new audience. The Edina is starting to show more independent film. It’s a venue that people are accustomed to going to.”

While the move addresses a need to branch out to different areas of town, it does not address criticism from The Minnesota Daily and others that the MFA needs to increase its outreach to college students. And, of course, there is that nagging Oak Street issue, which has opened up a huge chasm between the staunchest supporters of the M-SPIFF. Mylan would like to help repair the rift, but there “hasn’t been enough time in the day to talk with all the vendors for the fest,” let alone resolve a deeply impassioned dispute.

Her attention has rightly focused on staging the best possible event with limited resources and time. An unsuccessful event could sink the futures of the MFA, the Oak Street and Cowgill’s group. Mylan has set a goal of 30,000 attendees as a benchmark, a level on par with years earlier this decade and comparable enough to last year to merit a success.

She is very aware of what’s most important about the M-SPIFF. “It’s the quality of its content. It’s the size and the scope of the festival. It’s recognized across the nation, and even across the world, as a very high-quality fest.”

Programming is Key
Mylan and Milgrom believe that programming is the key to attracting large audiences and that this year, it’s second to none.

From all preliminary indications it appears so. Mylan’s and Milgrom’s descriptions of several of the highlights emphasize a very independent and local slant to this year’s program. They’re counting on filmgoers to feel a personal connection. “Go to the festival,” Milgrom entreated M-SPIFF fans. “We need people there to help support it. This year we’re going down to the wire.”

Al Franken: God Spoke
The M-SPIFF kicks off with a political football, so to speak. The documentary film Al Franken: God Spoke trails Al Franken for a year to chronicle his brand of active citizenship and conservative-media bashing. Both Mylan and Milgram were delighted to secure the film’s Midwest premiere at the M-SPIFF and to have Franken himself attend the screening.

“Franken will introduce the film and answer questions afterward,” Mylan said. “It adds an exciting dramatic element to the event.”

Its local roots and piquant subject matter make it a great selection for an opening film. In case you’re not from the Upper Midwest or have been in a coma the last few years, Al Franken is the Minnesota-born comedian who rose to prominence as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live and is rumored to be planning a run for Norm Coleman’s senate seat in 2008.

Franken’s life seems to mirror Michael Moore’s in recent years. Both are vocal liberals who use their comic wit and the media to expose the ridiculousness of conservative icons like Rush Limbaugh or George Bush.

Moore has written a best-selling nonfiction satire (Dude, Where’s My Country?) and so has Franken (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). Moore had his own political documentary, Farenheit 9/11. And now so does Franken, although he didn’t make it himself and hopefully it will not be as polarizing.

The filmmakers are Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus. They’re the same duo who created the 1993 Oscar-nominated documentary The War Room, which revealed the tense last months behind the scenes of the Clinton campaign with George Stephanopolis and James Carville.

This film, however, promises to be lighter than their earlier collaboration, if for no other reason than the farcical title, God Spoke, and that Franken is a more witty subject than Stephanopolis or Carville. The film follows, among other events, Franken’s very public lawsuit victory over Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, as well as Franken’s campaign stumping against Bush.

Turnout for the opening screening on April 20 should be brisk indeed.

The screening of Al Franken: God Spoke occurs at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Theater with a gala to follow from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Salt Sea Eatery at 4825 Minnehaha Avenue South. Tickets to the screening include the gala. Price is $25.

Camp Out
The festival has a strong lineup of GBLT films this year, and at the top of Milgrom’s and Mylan’s list is the documentary Camp Out. The film’s title has a double meaning, referring to the nation’s first-ever sleepover Bible camp for openly homosexual teens. It’s Brokeback for youth groups.

Directors Larry Grimaldi and Kirk Marcolina filmed at Bay Lake Bible Camp in northeastern Minnesota in August 2004 for about a week, returning one year later to find out how the camp, and the kids, had fared. Ten teens attended the camp, eight from Minnesota and two from Wisconsin.

The premise is fecund with thematic possibilities. For starters, given fundamentalist intolerance of homosexuality, how can teens simultaneously identify themselves as gays and Christians?

During a phone interview, Grimaldi responded to the question with an almost visible laugh.

“Yeah, a lot of people had that question. How do you be a part of something that hates you? But these kids don’t want to have to make a choice. They love God and they love people of the same sex.”

The idea for the film resulted from a chance encounter between Grimaldi and the pastor who runs the camp. Their conversations reinforced Grimaldi’s belief that until religion changes, the general public will not accept homosexuality.

Grimaldi and Marcolina wanted to make an inspirational story out of the film. Grimaldi grew up Catholic and homosexual and couldn’t bring himself to come out until his early twenties. Many of his friends didn’t do so until their thirties. But these teens have the strength of mind not only to come out, but to do so in an environment traditionally hostile to them.

Over the course of filming, though, he discovered that they’re just normal kids, not über-liberal Christian activists or avatars of gay wisdom. Like most teens, they’re confused about their identity and their sexuality.

“What I didn’t realize is that a lot of gay young men are afraid to hang out with other boys.” Grimaldi laughed for emphasis. “Most straight high school boys are making fun of them, so they hang out mostly with girls. At the camp they learned it’s OK to just be friends with other boys.”

Post-production on the film wrapped at the end of 2005. It has appeared in two festivals to date and has sold out each of its screenings. Viewers have flooded Grimaldi and Marcolini with letters about the film, many of which came from parents of gay children expressing gratitude for insight into their son’s or daughter’s experience.

There has been almost no backlash from Christians so far, other than a few Christian record labels that refused to sell the film rights to use their songs. Grimaldi expects most Christians don’t know about the film yet, but hopes that maybe it will help them accept the kids as fellow Christians.

“I wanted people to see them just being teenagers, and, like, how can this be wrong,” Grimaldi said. “And this film is NOT heavy in scope. These kids have a lot of humor; being a teenager is funny.”

Camp Out shows at the Bell Auditorium on Fri., Apr. 27 at 7 p.m. Grimaldi will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session afterwards.

The Hole Story
Films don’t get much more independent or strange than Alex Karpovsky’s The Hole Story. In fact, the best way for Karpovsky to describe the film during a recent phone interview was to describe the story of how he made it.

Karpovsky was a karaoke video editor in Boston with an idea for a documentary TV series. He’d thought of a title, Provincial Puzzles, and constructed a pitch for a show that would “explore some kooky, off-beat, weird mysteries” that were nonetheless true. Think Unsolved Mysteries but quirkier. The idea, however, didn’t appeal to producers. Enter some extreme twists of luck.

He chanced upon a news-of-the-weird variety story about a hole in the ice cover on North Long Lake in Brainerd, Minn. The area has over 450 lakes, and all of them covered with several feet of ice, except the hole on North Long Lake. When scientists couldn’t explain the phenomenon, nearby residents decided to publicize it as a draw for tourists. Voila! Karpovsky had a ready-made event for a pilot episode.

He hired a video crew with his own money and flew with them to Brainerd in early January 2005 (talk about determination). But by the time they arrived, the hole had frozen up (talk about cold-blooded).

Karpovsky didn’t give up easy, though.

He and the crew thought they might fake the hole back into existence. They tried optical illusions and inserting computer generated imaging (CGI) to recreate the hole, but nothing worked. The story was slipping away and Karpovsky was running out of money to pay the crew; he’d only planned on a four- or five-day shoot. After nine, everyone left him but his cameraman.

Yet, another phenomenon was occurring. The hole began to assume metaphorical qualities: the hole in Karpovsky’s plans, the hole in his life, the hole in his dreams. He realized the true story was in his own psychological transformation.

So he decided to change the focus and mix up the genre. What was a documentary TV show became a comic-reality film about his transformation. He quit his Boston job, allowing him and his cameraman to stay in Brainerd to shoot from early January through the end of March.

“I’d realized I didn’t come here to go back to Boston without a complete film,” he said. “It was unthinkable that I’d go back to editing karaoke videos.”

And he didn’t. He finished editing a rough cut of his film in just three weeks. The rough cut gained entry as a sneak preview to an independent film festival in Boston. But after he produced a final cut, he suffered through seven months of rejection letters. Finally a small festival in Northampton, Mass., featured it in a November 2005 competition, which it won. The win quickly opened doors to other competitions.

The M-SPIFF is already its 10th or 11th festival screening, Karpovsky said. Word of mouth spread so fast that he didn’t have to apply for its last two festival screenings; the organizers solicited him. Despite the success, The Hole Story” hasn’t found a distribution deal.

“No sex, no stars, no violence—it has absolutely nothing going for it from a distribution point of view,” Karpovsky said (don’t tell that to Morgan Spurlock, whose documentary Super Size Me was profitable largely because of its humor and personal drama). But, then again, distribution wasn’t his goal.

He has a stack of six or seven unfinished screenplays, and this is the first that he’s completed and filmed. He’s no longer a karaoke video editor, and critics have raved about his film.

“The good reviews will allow me to shoot another film in the not-so-distant future, and hopefully it won’t just be me and a cameraman.”

The Hole Story shows on Sat., Apr. 29 at 9:15 p.m. in the Bell Auditorium. Director Alex Karpovsky will be present to introduce the film and speak with the audience after it.

Appropriately, the M-SPIFF closes with the work of a first-time Minnesota director, Ali Selim, set against a rural southern Minnesota backdrop. Selim isn’t exactly a novice. The MFA website states he’s directed 856 television commercials, and slyly adds he’s coached 857 little league baseball games. The film won audience awards at the Sedona, Florida and the Hamptons film festivals.

Sweetland is a love story about a mail-order bride who comes from Germany to meet a husband in a small Norwegian-immigrant farming community just after World War I. It is remarkable for Selim’s lively adaptation of the source material, A Gravestone Made of Wheat, and the performance of rising star Elizabeth Reaser as the bride.

“The bride is very urban and sophisticated and is out of place in this very rural town,” Mylan said. “The young star who plays her does a great job of showing it.”

The film also features, get this, British star Alan Cumming as the Norwegian desperate enough to order her. He’s joined by established Hollywood stars Ned Beatty and John Heard.

The screening occurs of Sweetland on Sun., Apr. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Theater. Admission is $15. Selim will be on hand to introduce the film and talk with the audience afterwards. There might also be a few closing-night toasts, and with any luck, a managing director and a program director that can breathe one huge sigh of relief.