Minneapolis Film Festivals

By Nick Dawson | October 5, 2009
Al Milgrom MSPIFF founder and festival head Al Milgrom

As part of Movie City Minneapolis, Nick Dawson checks in on the film festival scene in the home of the Coen brothers.

Minneapolis is the second most active theater hub in the United States (after New York), the most literate city in the country according to a recent study, and the home of the esteemed Walker Arts Center. Its musical sons include Prince, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Tommy Stinson from Guns N’ Roses, and it boasts the massive Minneapolis Institute of Arts museum, which takes up 8 acres and holds 100,000 works of art. However film culture is also alive and well in Minneapolis, so to celebrate its status as a Movie City we look below at a selection of the city’s premier film festivals.

Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival

The Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) is the most famous and oldest running film festival in the area. The event, which takes place in April each year – just as the bitter cold of winter is receding – was started in 1983 under the name of the Rivertown International Film Festival.

Al Milgrom, the man whose brainchild the festival is, continues to be the event’s director nearly three decades after he founded it. Though in his eighties, festival head Milgrom is not thinking about giving up any time soon. "The thing is, the festival is tsuris, yes," he said in an interview last year. "But what isn't a pain in the ass? Taxes, the recession, your car insurance, your health — all of life is tsuris. …It's like having a tiger by the tail. Once you've grabbed it, you've just got to hang on."

Films are what inspire Milgrom to keep going, and he’s always looking to the future of filmmaking, as exemplified this year by the fact that he programmed the movie Beeswax, directed by “mumblecore” director Andrew Bujalski. On the subject of this new wave of American cinema, Milgrom recently said, “The [young] people in the office here recognize some of the names that I have no idea about. I’m from the antediluvian era. So it’s an educational experience for me to get up to date on the new, hip names.”

One of the festival’s most popular sections – and a constant source of new names – is called Minnesota Made, and in 2009 one of the hits of the festival was Wyatt McDill & Megan Huber’s feature Four Boxes, a movie which was written and shot entirely in Minneapolis.

Nevertheless, for Milgrom, the local and the international are all the same really, as MSPIFF always has a very strong international line-up that brings together the best in world cinema (including films aimed at the city’s famous Scandinavian community). "I've always maintained that Minnesota film culture derives from international film festivals," says Milgrom. "Otherwise it would be an ad torn out of the New York Times."

Greg Yolen, the mastermind of MUFF

Greg Yolen, the mastermind of MUFF

Minneapolis Underground Film Festival

A similar passion for film in the city is visible in the efforts of the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival (MUFF), which takes place in December, usually a wasteland for film festivals. Diversity is what it’s all about at the festival, where at this year’s edition you can go from Greg Blatman’s Porndogs: The Adventures of Sadie – the story of a dog who runs away to escape spaying and finds a career in erotic cinema – to a very different kind of canine themed movie, doG/gone Aaron skulls Joe, a Northern Minnesota-set prose poem on film from director Arne Mostad-Jensen which follows an old dog wandering around in the woods.

For Greg Yolen, who founded the festival back in 2006, MUFF is a rebel yell, a retaliation against the status quo. As Yolen explained in a 2008 interview, "I saw the corruption of the film-festival circuit and I said, 'You know what? I've had enough. I'm starting a film festival of my own. The artists whose voices aren't being heard? Whose works have literally been hidden underground, in their basements? They have a place now."

A filmmaker who has himself been to Sundance and Slamdance, Yolen saw the upside of showing work at those festivals as “not being about instant fame but connections with other filmmakers. And that’s what I tried to create here.”

What’s more, the festival is a personal response to Minneapolis itself, says Yolen. “There is a community here and a lot of independent filmmakers making films. Everybody gets along and makes some of the most original films that I’ve ever seen.”

“There is a real underground film culture,” he continues. “People are constantly writing, constantly making films, and this film festival brings that to light.”

And, unsurprisingly, Yolen’s approach has been met with an enthusiastic response from the directors who have shown their films as MUFF, such as Minneapolis native Nicole Brending. "For a filmmaker like me who does things that are …hard to take sometimes, this is a really great venue to see films like that and see the artistry that goes with the dark side," says Brending.

According to Yolen, there is a distinctive character to the creative minds in Minneapolis. “Do you know why Minneapolis writers are so great?” he asks. “It’s because of the incredibly long winters. Joel and Ethan Coen could testify to this. You have to have an overactive imagination to survive the Minnesota winter. And in the spring, it’s a like a great blossoming as all these people come out, ready to shoot their films.”

And apparently the Minneapolis filmgoer is also somewhat unique, as a result of the cultural environment they live in. “Minneapolis people are exposed to a lot of different art forms – they’re highly involved in theater, dance, lots of other disciplines,” says Yolen. “Our audiences [at MUFF] come from a very broad art perspective, it’s not niche. You also have your hidden art lovers in the suburbs who want new interesting stimulating stuff. They don’t want to go to Red Lobster for dinner, they want to have a unique culinary experience. And it’s the same with their movies.”

The Secrets was a daring opening film selection for the MJFF

The Secrets was a daring selection for the MJFF

Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival

As Joel Bleifuss details in his FilmInFocus article Jews in the USA, St Louis Park – the home of Joel and Ethan Coen – is a Minneapolis suburb that has a vibrant Jewish community, and since 1993 the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival (MJFF) has been providing them with an annual celebration of global cinema’s perspective on all things Jewish.

However that’s not to say that the festival is squarely aimed at the Coens’ old neighborhood. With five theaters across the city, from the Hopkins Cinema 6 on the west side to the Oak Street Cinema on the east, the MJFF in fact reaches out to a broad audience and recently stepped up attempts to fulfill its mission to bring Jewish-themed film to Minneapolis.

What’s more, the festival is looking to make connections with all communities within the city, as its director Miryam Kabakov explains: “We strive to reach out beyond the 40,000 Jews in the city, so each film has an appeal to another group or interest. For example, last year we had a focus on immigration.”

Three years ago, the volunteer-run festival, which is tied to the Center for Jewish Arts and Humanities at the Sabes JCC, hired a professional director for the first time. Nevertheless, it has retained its roots as an event run by average citizens thanks to its unusual selection process. Rather than having a team of normal festival programmers selecting the films, the MJFF line-up is chosen by a committee of people which represents a cross section of the community in terms of age, gender, sexuality and even faith. Meeting regularly to talk about the submissions they’ve seen, the committee slims down a pool of almost 200 movies down to around 20.

And the decisions made by the committee are often surprising, such as the selection of The Secrets, a provocative look at Judaism and lesbian sexuality, as a centerpiece film of the 2009 festival. However, screening that film allowed Kababov to partner with the currently dormant Flaming Film Festival, which alerted its own audience about The Secrets and all other LGBT movies screening at the MJFF.

“The films we choose cross religious barriers and sociocultural lines,” stresses Kabakov. The festival is also always seeking to screen films which show both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Kabakov is hoping to tap into the Muslim Jewish dialog by collaborating in the future with the nearby fest Mizna, the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival.

A native of New York, Kabakov is very enthused to be involved in Minneapolis film culture. “There are a lot of theaters that show independent film, and there’s an avid filmgoing audience.” In her experience, the filmgoers in her adopted city are more polite than New Yorkers, and she reveals that during last year’s festival she had “to teach the audience to yell if they couldn’t hear,” an example of having to counteract the famous “Minnesota nice.” Thankfully, though, she says, “people have a lot to say about the films, and they’re not shy about telling you.”

Beyond Borders co-director with programmer Jim Brunzell III

Beyond Borders co-director with programmer
Jim Brunzell III

Beyond Borders Film Festival

Another fest which combines a religious angle with an impressively inclusive attitude is the city’s Beyond Borders Film Festival, which in 2009 rose from the ashes of the 2007 Twin Cities Tibetan Film Festival. The event is run by Jennifer Manion and Robb Quast with financial support from the Rimé Foundation, an organization which aims to spread Tibetan wisdom in the West (as well as the Midwest).

"There aren't enough Tibetan films to fuel an annual film festival,” explains festival co-director Jennifer Manion. “So we're trying to really emphasize cross-cultural understanding."

One of the great strengths of the festival in its new incarnation is the way borders are indeed crossed in the breadth of the programming. While there were indeed Buddhist-oriented films in the 2009 line-up such as The Dhamma Brothers, Unmistaken Child and The Unwinking Gaze, and a “Native Voices” strand which focuses on indigenous cultures around the world, the Beyond Borders programmers also found room for surprising choices such as animator Bill Plympton’s Idiots and Angels, Irish indie romance Kisses, and the powerful Austrian drama Revanche.

"There are so many amazing films, both local and domestic and international,” says Manion, “they could fuel many more film festivals in the Twin Cities."

And what of the aims of the festival? “We are hoping that the people who come will see a glimpse of a world they hadn’t seen before,” said Manion in an interview on public radio. “We hope that people will have an expanded understanding. We also have a mission at this festival to get the audience members involved with groups they weren’t already attached to.”

For Manion, the aim of Beyond Borders is in fact to exceed normal expectations for such an event. “It’s just a festival,” she says, “but if we can spread a happy virus, some commitment to make this community stronger and more interconnected, and maybe make the world a better place. Wouldn’t that be something?”

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