“North Country” portrays real-life Iron Range heroine
Thursday 06 October @ 04:23:36
by Al Milgrom
Special from the Toronto Film Festival
For awhile last winter up on the Iron Range, there were some lively times at the Whistling Bird bar and restaurant in Gilbert, Minn. Hollywood had come to the Range to film “North Country,” and many of the locals were rubbing elbows and quaffing beers with the likes of its Oscar league stars Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand and prizewinning New Zealand director Niki Caro of “Whale Rider” fame.
The film is one of some seven titles with Minnesota angles due to hit U.S.and
world screens in coming months, and is probably the most awaited one, with national
release set two weeks hence (Oct. 21). Shot amid Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth
and Chisholm Iron Range locations, the film is a handsome and authentic look
at taconite Minnesota, with plenty of documentary realism, more than you would
expect of a big budget Warner Brothers picture, short of being “Harlan
County, USA” itself (which is playing at the Oak Street Cinema through
Thur., Oct. 6).
Even a down-state Minnesotan may gasp in awe at the wide-screen look of threatening
dinosaur-size conveyors and haulers he had never before imagined in his own
back yard that conjure images of mega-structures ala Fritz Lang's “Metropolis”
dwarfing the film's vulnerable heroine, Charlize Theron. Theron and other female
workers are threatened at their jobs, and that will lead to the screen's dramatic
showdown over sexual harassment charges and gender politics, which the film
It is based on the page-turning story of women miners in the 2002 book “Class
Action” by former White House Newsweek correspondent Clara Bingham and
Washington lawyer Laura Gansler, a book that changed sexual harassment law.
It portrays courageous Virginia native Lois Jenson, who succeeded over 25 years
in finally winning her case in Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines against corporate,
union and even family and fellow worker indifference. Director Caro, screenplay
writer Michael Seitzman and cast succeed in conveying the essence of the book
even given the formidable task of boiling down more than two decades of stressful
litigation into two hours of authentic drama.
it will play on the Range, however, is another story. En bloc, the male mine
workers of the period, come off in the film as a pretty coarse lot. The book
even depicts harsher scenes left out of the film, said Caro at her Toronto Film
Festival press conference, where it had its world premiere. Some Range residents
feared the film would “give us a black eye,” according to Mesaba
Daily News editor Bill Hanna. “The book painted us with a broad brush,
it was wrong, but in time we have moved on,” he said.
A $5 million subsidy match, granted by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation
Agency, provided major impetus for the Minnesota shoot, with the stipulation
that Warner Brothers also spend $5 million on the Range, according to Hanna.
The 10-day, $7 million Toronto festival, with hefty city, provincial and national
Canadian support, has become the premier North American film showcase, eclipsing
Montreal festivals, as the significant seasonal port-of-entry for both art house
and blockbuster films that many of us will be seeing in months to come.
Of a total of 335 films (109 world and 78 North American premieres), festival
audiences gave its top “People's Choice” award to a powerful South
African film “Tsertsi” (“gangster” or “thug,”
in the street language of the townships), adapted from a novel by eminent playwright
Athol Fugard, about a raw ghetto kid whose redemption after a night of crime
is unbelievably moving.(It is South Africa's Oscar submission.)
Among other recent titles laying claim to Minnesota parentage, getting final
editing touches as we go to press, are St. Paul director Ali Selim’s “Sweetland,”
which is taken from a Will Weaver short story, and “A Gravestone Made
of Wheat,” slated for its premier debut at the Hamptons (Long Island)
Film Festival Oct. 24 (but with no distribution deal yet). The feature, shot
in the Montevideo, Minn., farm country this summer, is an intra-generational
story about a Norwegian bachelor farmer who takes a World War I mail order bride—a
German refugee who happens to be unaccepted in the community.
up Feb. 21 is the long-awaited national debut of “Factotum,” shot
mainly in St. Paul, with some Minneapolis (Augie's Bar) locations, starring
Matt Dillon, Lily Taylor and Marisa Tomei and based on the eponymous Charles
Bukowski 1975 novel. Dillon, under the hand of Norwegian director Bent Hamer
(“Kitchen Stories”), has the archetypal Bukowski role of rootless,
irreverent, dark character who gets fired from a dozen (St. Paul) jobs to end
up playing the horses at Canterbury Downs.
Watch also for the fascinating feature-length documentary “Sketches of
Frank Gehry,” our adopted architecture hero, by Hollywood director Sydney
Pollack. The documentary is a personal project shot over five years with a mini-dv
camera. The film debuted in Toronto, has a winning informality and includes
clips of the University of Minnesota “tin can,” as well as extensive
comments on the Gehry aesthetic from design expert “Mickey” Friedman,
of the Walker Art Center.
A feature from Canada, co-produced by Japan, winning five prizes at the recent
World Film Festival, Montreal, is “Kametaki,” a fictional drama
based on world-famous Japanese potter Shiho Kanzaki, guest of the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts last year and subject of an upcoming exhibit there due 2007.
Peripherally, with a Minnesota “angle,” it is set near Kyoto and
has some lovely Zen Buddhist philosophy about love in a coming-of-age story.
Peripheral also to Minnesota is an Icelandic film noir, “A Little Trip
to Heaven,” from director Baltasar Kormakur, about an insurance claims
investigator (Forrest Whittaker) who comes to a mythical Minnesota town called
Hastings (no relation to our Mississippi River Hastings) to investigate a car
Then there is the Robert Altman film based on "The Prairie Home Companion."
Dates? They have not returned phone calls. ||