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Well-timed ‘protest’ fest offers visual notes from Underground

Across the river from where “artists” of one sort or another are clogging streets for the RNC is an underground movement designed to empower those who’ve been disenfranchised from the conventional system.

Minneapolis Underground Film Festival director Greg Yolen at his favorite restaurant.
MinnPost photo by Rob Nelson
Minneapolis Underground Film Festival director Greg Yolen at his favorite restaurant.

Across the river from where “artists” of one sort or another are clogging streets for the RNC is an underground movement designed to empower those who’ve been disenfranchised from the conventional system.

“If an injustice is done, and you sit by and don’t do anything about it, then you’re just as guilty of that injustice,” says 37-year-old Greg Yolen, sitting in a restaurant near the campus of Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), his alma mater.

“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.”

Yolen’s first-annual Minneapolis Underground Film Festival, running three days at MCAD starting tonight, doubles as an organized protest of the “party mentality” by which movies are chosen by major festivals largely on the basis of their industry affiliations. Its weekend-long series of 40 films, long and short, includes work from around the world, beginning with Berlin-based director Julia Ostertag’s experimental feature about drug-addicted urban squatters, “Saila.” (Ostertag, who flew over the pond on her own dime, will be present to introduce the screening at 7:30 tonight.)

A creation of frustration
But despite the globe-trotting schedule, the Underground Film Festival was born out of Yolen’s frustration with the festival fortunes of a movie he photographed near his home in Minneapolis.

‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ was rejected by every festival that [director] John Koch sent it to,” says Yolen, an award-winning cinematographer who considers his work on Koch’s film to be his best ever. “For me, that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I called a friend of mine who works at the Berlin Film Festival and asked why [‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’] wasn’t chosen there. He said, ‘Well, [the chief programmers] probably didn’t even watch it.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They don’t really watch those [submitted] movies. They already know which movies they’re going to show.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘What? That’s completely corrupt.’ “

A short while later, still reeling from this rude film-fest wakeup call, Yolen phoned his fellow MCAD grad and friend Koch — who owns and operates the DVD rental store Cinema Revolution —  and spontaneously said, “Hey man, great news! You got into a film festival!”

Yolen laughs while recalling the story. “John was like, ‘Wow, that’s great — what festival is it?’ And I said, ‘You got into the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival.’ He wanted to know how long that festival has been around. I’m like, ‘Well, honestly John, it’s been around about 20 minutes.’ “

MUFF includes several Minnesota films
The Minneapolis Underground Film Festival — or MUFF, for short — will be featuring one other movie shot by Yolen: director David Eberhardt’s train-hopping documentary “Long Gone” from 2003 (screening Saturday at 5 p.m.). Beyond that, the program is impressively diverse, including the L.A. comedy “Marta’s Sex Tape” (Saturday at 9:30 p.m.); a documentary profile of Satanic priest Steven Johnson Leyba called “Unspeakable” from San Francisco; and a dozen or so movies made by Minnesota-based filmmakers, including Melody Gilbert’s “Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness” (which closes the festival on Sunday at 11 p.m.).

Also to the fest’s credit is the fact that at least some of the work is not to the programmer’s own personal taste. Indeed, during a technical run-through of scenes from “Unspeakable,” including an image of blood-soaked scarification, Yolen emits an unmistakable “Ugh.”

“There are some films in the festival that I don’t particularly like,” Yolen says later. “Some of them display a certain immaturity, for instance. But at least those directors had the guts to make a movie. And their films will be shown here. That’s the secret to our success. We show the films.”

For that, Yolen claims, his festival will grow to be one of the most significant in the United States — this at a time when, as he puts it, “independent film is dead.”

Yolen hardly lacks for chutzpah. An experienced world traveler and self-described “hustler” whose other major entrepreneurial idea is to revolutionize the auto industry through video technology, Yolen was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, where his journalist father Steven Yolen ran the South American bureaus of UPI and AP and broke the news of Augusto Pinochet’s Chilean coup to the world. At age 19, Yolen moved to Minnesota — “Brazil was too hot and sunny, the people were too skinny, too beautiful,” he jokes — and began studying at MCAD.

Now, almost 20 years later, Yolen — who’ll be mounting a show of his painting work this fall — has returned to the school he credits with giving him his training as an artist. (Disclosure: I teach at MCAD.)

And, in another example of keeping things close to home, Yolen is at this moment giving an interview in the literal hot spot — The Bad Waitress, his favorite restaurant — where he gained artistic experience of a slightly different sort.

“We were shooting ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ here at the Bad Waitress and I burned a huge hole in one of the tables,” Yolen recalls over big bites of his scrambled egg- and chorizo-filled Matador. “It was a guerrilla production and I was using all these China balls, one of which started a fire. The restaurant [manager] wasn’t happy. John felt bad and offered to refinish the table himself. But the manager was like, ‘Um, just pay us.'”

Alas, even underground filmmakers sometimes get stuck with the bill.

An opening night MUFF party will be held at Jasmine 26 Restaurant & Bar (8 E. 26th St., Minneapolis) at 11 tonight.