The thaw of a long winter is reason enough for Minnesotans to rejoice. For the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Society, the first signs of spring herald an altogether different cause for celebration. The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF), now entering its 42nd year, provides an annual gathering for filmmakers from all over the world to share their works alongside those produced by local talent.
“The organization part is over,” said Craig Laurence Rice, one of the festival’s programmers. “The train is on the track and it will be moving forward on the 13th of April. Our job is to keep it on track until the 27th of April.”
For two weeks, Rice will be moderating a series of panels and exclusive events highlighting exciting new voices in American cinema, including talent based here in Minnesota.
Rice has spent the better part of the past year watching close to 300 submitted features and shorts. That number is a noticeable uptick from the past two years, when COVID-19 threw the entire industry into chaos.
“I think it affected us deeply,” Rice confessed. “Partly because people weren’t making films … with groups of people.”
The Film Society weathered the storm of the pandemic by having to quickly adapt: first by transitioning to a wholly virtual slate in 2020, then a hybrid format for the two succeeding editions. This year will be the first time in four years that the festival will be held almost primarily in-person. The decision was influenced in part by the hesitation of major distributors from having their films screened online.
“You pay one ticket and seven people watch it,” Rice explained. “So they’re stopping from doing a lot of films online.”
However, a small sample of the nearly 200 films featured in the fest will be available to stream, and Rice encourages attendees to wear a mask if it helps them feel safe in a group gathering.
“I think film-watching is one of the last social things that people of all ages can get engaged in,” he reasoned. “Yes, we all watch things on our computer … but I think films are usually made to be consumed in a group. It’s an audience-type of art form, and I think there’s a value to that and I’m glad we’re getting back into that.”
Tales of redemption
Some familiar names in the Minnesota film community are present in this year’s standout selections. Bill Pohlad, the veteran producer, follows “Love and Mercy,” MSPIFF 2015’s closing film, with another musical biopic he directed called “Dreamin’ Wild” to open this year’s festival. Pohlad’s tender ode recounts the remarkable true story of Donnie and Joe Emerson (Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins, respectively), two Washington state-based musicians whose obscure 1979 album saw an unexpected resurgence 30 years later.
As Donnie grapples with newfound fame and lingering regret, the film slowly shifts from a melancholic meditation on the past to an equanimous acceptance of an unknown future. The wistful yet gentle optimism of the film sets a striking tone for this year’s festival. Yet Pohlad demurs from any contemporaneous connections.
“It’s nice when comes in sync with what’s going on in the world,” Pohlad said. “But generally, you’re just doing it because that’s how you feel about the work you want to do.”
That work entailed honoring the intensely personal stakes the Emerson brothers and their family had in seeing their story told onscreen. Thankfully, Pohlad developed a close bond (what he called “a gift”) with his film’s real-life counterparts.
“I ended up loving the family and just thinking they’re great people I admire. So that added to the responsibility but also the desire to do a good job of representing them,” said the producer.
Another stalwart Minnesotan filmmaker, Dawn Mikkelson had endeavored to establish an equally close kinship with the subjects of her documentary, “Minnesota Mean.” Chronicling the Minnesota roller derby team’s performance in the 2017 season, Mikkelson’s film mounts a riotous tribute to the women who create community through rough-and-tumble, high-speed exhilaration.
“All of my films show that we don’t function in a vacuum,” Mikkelson said. “The people in our lives are incredibly important and none of us do this alone.” Her words are equally applicable to MSPIFF, which she first attended in 2002 as a producer of the award-winning “Treading Water: A Documentary.”
“I love … how they are looking at screening local films as part of their regular schedule,” Mikkelson said of the Film Society in addressing “a huge gap in our community” for filmmakers screening their work beyond the festival.
Persistence and perseverance
Part of that mission includes making room for emerging voices for Minnesota filmmakers. Marius Anderson emigrated from Berlin with his wife to Duluth six years ago. With a slew of documentary shorts under his belt, Anderson has waited with bated breath to show his feature debut to a Minnesotan audience.
That film, “40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World,” is a sweeping snapshot of the Arrowhead 135 race, wherein competitors trek from International Falls to Tower, Minnesota on foot, bike or ski. The competitors of the 2019 race were faced with a polar vortex, plunging a region already known as the coldest in the Continental U.S. into subzero temps.
“My wife warned me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”, Anderson recalled. Yet he remained undeterred, explaining, “I just tried to prepare as well as possible with the equipment to make sure that it works, and then I just jumped into it.”
While punishing conditions made the shoot a challenge, Anderson found inspiration in the resilience of his subjects, including Bill Bradley, the former owner of a now-defunct video store chain in California, whose financial and professional troubles sparked a newfound love for competitive sports. “I find (Bill) really fascinating,” Anderson explained. “I often ask myself, ‘What would Bill do?’ He wouldn’t quit right now. He would keep pushing.”
That drive helped Anderson find patience as the pandemic complicated his plans for a festival release where the film could be seen by “as many people as possible in-person.” For Anderson, the wait was never a cause for concern.
“The film is kind of timeless. It’s not a topic that has to be told right now or else it’s old news. To me, that was always clear, which was a good thing,” said Anderson.
The belated arrival of timeless stories is a timely reminder of what Minnesotan filmmakers provide for each other as well as audiences.
“You want to get in touch with the audience (to) see … what they’re interested in and where we’re all going,” Pohlad remarked.
For Mikkelson, the future is one rife with room for invention.
“The more I do film, the more I’m like, ‘all I want to do is make cool things with people I like.’ Because at the end of the day, that’s where the joy in filmmaking is,” said Mikkelson.
The 42nd MSPIFF takes place from April 13-27. Further information can be found here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Bill Pohlad directed “Dreamin’ Wild.”