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).
by Paul Bachleitner
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
Opening Night, “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."
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
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
GBLT, “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
“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."
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
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."
Out” shows at the Bell Auditorium
on Fri., Apr. 27 at 7 p.m. Grimaldi will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A
Independent, “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
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.
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."
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.
Closing Gala, “Sweetland”
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.
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. ||
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