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40th MSPIFF returns as a hybrid, with 180+ films, outdoor screenings and a tribute to founder Al Milgrom

The 40th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival starts this Thursday and continues through Sunday, May 23.

On closing weekend, audiences can watch “After Antarctica,” about polar explorer Will Steger’s life journey, from their cars.
On closing weekend, audiences can watch “After Antarctica,” about polar explorer Will Steger’s life journey, from their cars.
Courtesy of Will Steger

On Thursday, May 13, the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Allianz Field in St. Paul and the crown of Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis will be bathed in pink and orange lights. These were the theme colors of the first Minneapolis Film Festival in 1981. They will return for opening night of this year’s festival, a hopeful glow after a dark year.

For decades, the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) has been a signature springtime event and one of our great public gatherings. In 2019, the 38th annual MSPIFF drew just under 50,000 people to hundreds of screenings in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester.

Then came COVID. After announcing in mid-March 2020 that MSPIFF would be postponed for the first time in its 39-year history, MSP Film Society scrambled to create an all-virtual festival that ran last year from May 15-May 23.

The 40th annual MSPIFF starts this Thursday and continues through Sunday, May 23. What’s the main difference between this year and last?

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“We actually know what we’re doing,” Susan Smoluchowski, MSP Film Society’s executive director, said in a Zoom last Friday. “Last year, we had to invent the wheel. Not reinvent the wheel, but invent our own wheel.”

Susan Smoluchowski
Courtesy MSP Film Society
Susan Smoluchowski
This meant working with distributors and studios (who were just as stunned by COVID and lockdowns as everyone else), building a platform, figuring out how to show films on the platform, and getting audiences comfortable with using it. The 2020 festival was a scaled-down version of the original – about 40 films instead of hundreds – but it happened. “It was a massive endeavor,” Smoluchowski said.

Then, remarkably, the Film Society stayed alive and vital, launching its own “We the People: Required Watching” social justice/anti-racism series in June in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, presenting its annual “Cine Latino” film festival virtually (as “Cine Latino en Casa”) in October, and managing a well-stocked, constantly changing Virtual Cinema Collection online. (The Virtual Cinema will be paused during MSPIFF and return on Friday, May 28.)

It hasn’t been easy. “Ticketing has been a challenge,” Smoluchowski said. “For the most part, our tickets are less expensive than they would be in a theater. And we’ve been offering much of our programming for free. The rationale behind that was to maintain a relationship with our constituents, but it reflects dramatically on our bottom line. Usually, 40% of the income we bring in for operations every year is earned income from ticket sales. That is down by 85%.”

The loss in ticket sales has been offset somewhat by patrons, board members and institutional funders, and by Film Society members and donors. “We’ve had higher income from core members this year than in previous recent years,” Smoluchowski said. “Whether we can comfortably and confidently move into the future is a question that remains to be answered. But we did get a PPP loan – two, actually. And we’ve applied for SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, formerly Save Our Stages] funding.”

Jesse Bishop
Courtesy MSP Film Society
Jesse Bishop
This year’s MSPIFF includes more than 180 features and shorts. Festival passes went on sale in February, general admission tickets in late April. How are sales looking so far? Smoluchowski passed that question to Jesse Bishop, MSP Film Society’s programming director.

“Last year, we didn’t even offer a pass, because it was just too complicated,” Bishop said. “This year, we did, and there’s good participation. We’ve made a deeply discounted pass available for students, and we’ve had great response there. Every film has many, many tickets reserved, so we’re definitely heartened. In this day, in this virtual world, people don’t plan as far in advance. They wait until the day of.”

Most films will be available on demand from Friday, May 14, until the end of the festival. Once you buy a ticket, you’ll have 48 hours to view a film. About half of the films are geo-restricted to Minnesota; half are available across the U.S.

Five films have shorter streaming windows. First, they will screen outdoors before live, masked and socially distanced audiences. The outdoor screenings are new this year, made possible by moving MSPIFF from mid-April to mid-May and warmer weather.

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Opening night’s “Summer of Soul,” produced by Questlove, was a hit at Sundance in January and will release to theaters and Hulu on July 2. But first, it will come to MSPIFF, screen at Como Lakeside Pavilion and stream on demand for three days.

Other films that will screen at Como are “The Claw,” about wrestler Baron von Raschke, from Minneapolis-based film director Philip Harder (Friday, May 14), and “Hollywood Fringe,” from Minnesota filmmakers Megan Huber and Wyatt McDill (Saturday, May 15).

On closing weekend, two films will screen at the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board Headquarters on West River Road, where audiences will watch from their cars. (They were originally going to screen at Bohemian Flats, but the location has changed.) The films will include  “Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera” (Friday, May 21) and “After Antarctica,” about polar explorer Will Steger’s life journey (Saturday, May 22). Fun fact: “Riders of the Purple Sage” was commissioned by Ryan Taylor when he was general manager of the Arizona Opera. Taylor has been Minnesota Opera’s president and general director since 2016.

A scene from “Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera.”
Courtesy of MSP Film Society
A scene from “Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera.”
Bishop is pleased with how this year’s festival took shape. “Last year was such a different episode. We retooled a festival that we already had in place, and we wanted to share the work we’d been doing, and our audiences really wanted to experience the festival.

“This year has the same sort of breadth that you’ve seen over the past 40 years. We have 57 countries represented, and more cultures and autonomous regions. The 105 feature films are from all over the place. These artists are continuing to tell stories and make work that we want to bring to Minnesota.”

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Smoluchowski said, “Our films are still films that if we didn’t bring them, nobody would see them, and they are so reflective of the great world out there.” That took on special importance in the year of COVID. “Many of our constituents have sent me personal notes saying, ‘Thank you for allowing us to travel the world during a year when we’re at home.’

A scene from “Rita Moreno: Just Another Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
Courtesy of MSP Film Society
A scene from “Rita Moreno: Just Another Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”
“We also want to bring in films that will reflect the growing international populations that exist right here in Minnesota. Part of doing this work is to reflect those communities that don’t find themselves well-served. The festival is a way to elevate their stories and their cultures.”

MSPIFF also includes virtual classes on cinema, panel discussions, and pre-recorded Q&As with filmmakers available immediately following their films.

Al Milgrom shown at MSPIFF 1999.
Courtesy of MSP Film Society
Al Milgrom shown at MSPIFF 1999.
New to MSPIFF this year: “The Milgrom Tribute.” Al Milgrom, founder of the U Film Society, later renamed MSP Film Society, ran MSPIFF for several decades. He died in late December at the age of 98. What was formerly known as the festival’s International Auteur Tribute has been renamed in Milgrom’s honor. In its inaugural year, it will feature Polish writer and director Angieszka Holland, a favorite of Milgrom’s.

The tribute will include a live Zoom dialogue with Holland on Sunday, May 15, and two of her films, “Charlatan” (her latest) and “Europa Europa” (her best-known). You can also watch a 10-minute short about Milgrom.

If you’re perusing the line-up and find yourself wondering, “Has someone at the Film Society actually watched this film?” the answer is always yes. “The curatorial process is what drives this whole thing forward,” Smoluchowski said. “We don’t ever put a film on our screens unless at least one of us has seen it, most often two or three of us.”

And while neither Smoluchowski nor Bishop loves being asked for recommendations – it’s like asking them to name a favorite child – we asked anyway, because they’re the experts. The following films are among their picks for this year’s MSPIFF:

“Summer of Soul.” In 1969, Woodstock took place on a farm in New York. And the “Black Woodstock” – Black musicians performing for a Black audience – happened in Harlem. Questlove’s documentary feature debut brings to light a major musical event that has been little known outside the Black community.

“Air Conditioner.” A parable, a metaphor, and a political commentary from Angola, directed by first-time filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Fradique.

“Rita Moreno: Just Another Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” Moreno is best known as Anita in the 1961 film version of “West Side Story.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson travels across the country. The 7 p.m. screening on Monday, May 17 will be followed by a live “We the People: Required Watching” conversation with Robinson and the filmmakers led by MSPIFF programmer Craig Laurence Rice.

A scene from “Writing With Fire.”
Courtesy of MSP Film Society
A scene from “Writing With Fire.”
“Wishlist.” A Spanish comedy about two women who meet in the worst place: a doctor’s office, waiting to hear the results of their cancer screenings.

“Riders of the Purple Sage: The Making of a Western Opera.” Turns out that Westerns and operas have a lot in common.

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“Writing With Fire.” A group of women from the Dalit caste – India’s “untouchables” – start their own newspaper, a dangerous and courageous act.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz.” An illegal refugee in Germany vows to become a good man but finds it impossible under the circumstances of his life. This multiple award-winner brings Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel into the 21st century, bypassing Fassbinder’s 1980 version.

If you’re looking for something to watch with your kids, Bishop recommends the Nextwave Global Features program. “These are eight films about youth coming of age, and they’re all age appropriate.”