Minnesotan takes ‘Lady of Woods’ on leap of faith

Filmmaker Aleshia Mueller networking in Cannes.
MinnPost photo by Rob Nelson
Filmmaker Aleshia Mueller networking in Cannes.

CANNES, France — Minnesota-based filmmaker Aleshia Mueller is working the market at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France. For her, that means putting up fliers –“propaganda,” as she jokes — for her film “Lady of the Woods,” a 10-minute documentary portrait of octogenarian North Country cookbook author and botanist Alma Christensen.

“I was worried about whether the [fliers] would get noticed here,” said Mueller last week amid the late-morning bustle of the Short Film Corner, where visitors screen shorts on computer monitors in an area below ground level of the gigantic Palais des Festivals. “I wanted the publicity materials to be very simple and natural looking — like Alma — and that’s a risk when there’s so much flash in Cannes. But someone told me the other day that the simplicity of the design is exactly the reason she picked up my postcard — because it had a more organic feel compared to the other [ads]. That simplicity drew this woman in and made her want to know what the film was about. And she liked that the film was available in French, too!”

Mueller, a Carleton College grad born and raised in Backus, Minn., came to the world’s biggest international film market on her own dime in order to get the word about her short and to do some networking. Making the most of her opportunity in Cannes — seeing films, meeting people, soaking up the atmosphere and occasionally the sun — Mueller found herself sleeping only a couple of hours a night.

“People here tend to be really excited and inexhaustible in doing what they believe in,” Mueller said, “and it’s infectious. I spend a lot of time just milling about, walking up to strangers and saying, ‘Hi — do you have a film here? What is it?’ You can meet a lot of people that way — people from every corner of the world. Especially in the lobbies of the big hotels — the Carlton, the Majestic, the Martinez.”

But isn’t that scary, particularly for someone who describes herself as “occasionally timid”?

“It can be overwhelming, yeah, but you’ve got to be fearless,” she says with a laugh. “There are so many people here who look very impressive and accomplished. You just have to say to yourself, ‘I want to meet that person.’ It’s like when you’re 8 years old and going to summer camp — you don’t know anyone there, and you’ve got to make new friends.”

Support for women in the industry

Back home, Mueller is vice president of the Minnesota chapter of Women in Film and Television, a networking organization that holds monthly meetings in the Twin Cities. “It’s a group designed to support women in an industry that is still very male-dominated — to help them on the set and in post-production, including younger, up-and-coming women filmmakers. And it’s not just for women — it’s also for men who want to help support women.”

Mueller’s proactive, self-sufficient approach is impressive even by the standards of her subject, Austrian immigrant Christensen — who, as the film fondly observes, made her way through the Great Depression and World War II to become northern Minnesota’s renowned creator of acorn pancakes, dandelion coffee, and other genuine curiosities in her book, “For Soul and Kitchen: Wild Food Cookbook.”

Mueller hadn’t heard of the author’s literally wild culinary style until an acquaintance — Christensen’s granddaughter — brought blueviolet jelly to the filmmaker’s dinner party. “I’d never seen blueviolet jelly before,” Mueller said. “I’m interested in homemade things, so I wanted to know more about it. I found out that [Christensen] goes in the woods and collects all this stuff herself to make at her house.”

Having already spent a decade making short films, Mueller — a geology major at Carleton — saw Christensen as the ideal subject for her next movie, got in touch with her, and filmed the interview that makes up the bulk of “Lady in the Woods.” Conveniently, the Minnesota Historical Society was planning its Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Moving Pictures Film Project just as Mueller had finished editing, and hosted the film’s premiere. (“Lady” also screened in the “Fearless Females” edition of the Fearless Filmmakers series.)

In Cannes, Mueller’s documentary was projected twice on a big screen in the Short Film Corner, and was available for on-demand viewing throughout the 10-day event.

Advice taken to heart

Mueller appears to have taken to heart the advice of her subject as given in the film’s most moving passage. “Enjoy life, every moment of it,” Christensen says. “Now — not tomorrow, but today.”

For Mueller, le festival is a carpe diem deal that the lady of the woods would surely appreciate — a leap of faith.

“Being here as an independent filmmaker is about believing in yourself,” Mueller says. “It’s about stepping outside your boundaries and pursuing your interests. I had a taste of it last year in Cannes, when I was making a video blog for [Atlanta-based director] Ken Feinberg (“Foreign Exchange”). That’s when I thought, ‘You know, I could come here, too. I’ve made my own films. Why don’t I put something in the Short Film Corner and see what happens?

“You can always look at your own films and find something wrong — this could have been better, that could have been different, on and on. But I can’t think about those things, because they’re the things that are going to keep me from advancing in this industry that I love. I just have to say, ‘This is what I want to do, and I’m gonna do it.’ As a filmmaker, I have faults and flaws, and now they’re out there for the world to see. But I’ll learn from my mistakes and just keep going.”

Or, as resourceful chef Alma Christensen would put it: “Use everything but the squeal on a pig.”

Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics, an adjunct instructor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the former film editor at City Pages. His writing also appears in Film Comment, Cinema Scope and the Boston Phoenix.

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