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Pain -- and gain -- at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

Power and Control
Hillcrest Films
Power and Control explores the shocking persistence of violence against women, as told through the story of Kim, a Duluth mother of three.

"Chaos," warned the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival's harried operations manager, Ryan Oestreich, would be the featured presentation if I were to visit him at work one afternoon early this week. Needless to say, I came right over.

What I saw upon arrival at the fest's new headquarters — just behind Pracna at St. Anthony Main — wasn't quite chaotic. But neither was it unworthy of big-screen treatment.

Picture a quarter-century-old multiplex at river's edge, high noon. Under the marquee sits a table sporting a dozen-odd stacks of bright-colored fliers, their numbers barely held down by rocks that festival volunteers might've been sent to gather at some ungodly hour.

These fliers — literally flying, or at least blowin' in the wind — are the first indication that the festival, aka MSPIFF, is where the local gets global. The flapping pages tout "New Films From the Middle East" and six other regions; movies of Native-American, African-American, and GLBT interest; human-rights films; music and dance films; "genre-bending" films; and, further watering one's mouth, a side dish known as "Culinary Kino" (movies about food).

'Max Manus': World War II espionage thriller
Twice the size of these fliers are posters for the gala opener, "Max Manus," a WWII espionage thriller from Norway. (The film screens tonight at 7.) On the poster, Max is being held at gunpoint by the Gestapo, although fest patrons are merely urged to "avoid hit opener sellout." (In other words, advance tickets for tonight's screening and all others over the next two weeks can be purchased online.) 

Inside MSPIFF headquarters, roughly 80 hours before mad Max takes his audience captive, sleepless Oestreich winds his way through an office strewn with newly shipped film prints and copious Post-it notes, not to mention several eager-beaver volunteers hunched over laptops.

He's in charge of countless details for yet another marathon MSPIFF: some 145 films from 60 countries, including more than 20 U.S. premieres. Speaking of numbers, Oestreich figures he has approximately "17 million" signs to hang in the next three days.

He also needs an unspecified number of moderators for post-screening Q&A sessions. He needs to follow up on the travel arrangements of filmmakers winging in from Poland, Finland, Norway and Australia, among other far-flung countries. He needs to create ads for printing in daily newspapers, deadline yesterday. And he desperately needs to locate some easels that at last check were somewhere in the dark recesses of Oak Street Cinema – where, unsurprisingly, not a single festival film is being shown.

Moved from East Bank to St.  Anthony Main
"These days you don't hear much about the loss of our campus audience," Oestreich says of Minnesota Film Arts' recent move to St. Anthony Main from the East Bank, effectively ending almost 50 years of alternative film exhibition at the U of M.

"There's nostalgia – I'm nostalgic myself for the on-campus era – but there's not much negativity."

Indeed, die-hard patrons of Minnesota Film Arts' campus venues seem to have been sapped of activist energy after years of irregular deathwatch notices for Oak Street and Bell Auditorium. Plus, Oak Street fans have been somewhat placated by the happy emergence of The Trylon microcinema, which in the past year has taken up some of the slack in local repertory programming.

Oestreich asserts that MFA, which year-round occupies one of the five auditoriums at the St. Anthony multiplex, has managed to cultivate a new audience of cinephilic ticket buyers among retirees and young professionals in the Riverplace neighborhood.

Recent runs of the Frederick Wiseman documentary "La Danse" and the Hal Holbrook vehicle "That Evening Sun" were held over, Oestreich says, because of this crowd's support.

"You can't count on [campus-based] students to show up these days unless you're screening something for free, from Hollywood, or assigned for extra credit," he says. "But we've done really well with people from the neighborhood, who tell us they're grateful not to have to drive to Edina for art-film programming."

As for changes at the festival this year, Oestreich cites the influence of associate programmer Linda Blackaby (formerly of the San Francisco International Film Festival), whose coastal clout enabled her to land some films that, by MSPIFF standards, are newer and "more niche-oriented."

Familiar amid change: director Al Milgrom
One of the things that hasn't changed at MFA, thankfully, is the presence of MSPIFF director Al Milgrom, whose flurry of comments on the state of local specialty-film exhibition appears at once enjoyably agitating and comfortingly familiar.

"If [Jean] Renoir were alive today, he couldn't possibly make a masterpiece," opines Milgrom, an old-school cinéaste for whom last-minute festival details can't fully interfere with his pressing need to wax theoretical.

Within a span of five or 10 minutes, Milgrom poses a wide variety of provocatively rhetorical questions.

He wonders if the "kibitzers" interviewed in a recent Star Tribune article about the MSPIFF's myriad challenges know "what it takes to run a festival in Minneapolis with these [limited] resources."

He wonders whether any of the "unwashed in Burnsville" will patronize this year's fest. He wonders whether the moneyed supporters of the Guthrie Theater and Walker Art Center have been lured away from MFA by their hi-def video projectors and Netflix subscriptions.

Moreover, he wonders "what has happened to the film experience"; whether the current "youth culture" has any knowledge of directors besides Scorsese and Tarantino; and what Soviet filmmaker and theoretician Sergei Eisenstein would have to say about the newfangled "abomination" known as 3D.

At this, Oestreich – representing "youth culture" – interjects.

"Maybe D.W. Griffith would've appreciated 3D. He was into spectacle, right?"

Milgrom, in a rare moment of concession, agrees that, yes, Griffith probably wouldn't have been intolerant of "Avatar."

At the risk of driving overwhelmed Oestreich over the edge, I mention that I didn't notice any fliers for local films on my way in.

"Yeah, we should make those," he says, mentally lengthening his already "Avatar"-sized to-do list.

Eight Minnesota-related films included
Oestreich informs me that of 35 submitted features made in Minnesota or with distinctly local themes, eight were selected, and that, of those eight, one I might want to see right away is a documentary called "Power and Control,"  set in Duluth. So, exercising my own power and control (!), I take a DVD and watch it at home.

Subtitled "Domestic Violence in America," "Power and Control" proves to be a sharply detailed and occasionally heart-wrenching look at what Duluth-based activist Ellen Pence calls an "outgrowth of patriarchal society."

As co-founder of the Domestic Violence Intervention Project almost 30 years ago, Pence is one of the key architects of what has come to be known worldwide as the "Duluth Project" — a once-radical and now simply levelheaded manner of looking at abuse through the overlapping lenses of culture, politics and gender.

The Duluth model is also known for having instituted the law of mandatory arrest of abusers at scenes of domestic violence.

Pence, who was recently diagnosed with terminal breast cancer (and will appear in person at the MSPIFF screening), gives the documentary some of its pathos and nearly all of its historical scope. But the film's protagonist is Kim Mosher, who, along with her two young daughters, moves to Duluth from Wabasha in order to escape her abusive husband.

As Mosher and her jittery kids take up residence at the Safe Haven Shelter in Duluth, New York-based director Peter Cohn observes the difficulties of a single-parenting survivor's quest to find work, housing and peace of mind.

At the same time, and rather amazingly, Cohn turns the camera on Mosher's abuser, and includes the views of those who take aim at the Duluth model for allegedly ignoring the needs of male victims. There's a certain gallows humor in scenes with these conservative academics and "men's rights activists," who have indeed been given plenty of rope.

Highly recommended
Equally a useful primer on aspects of domestic violence and a purely harrowing story (with a walloping twist), "Power and Control" is highly recommended, as are 10 other MSPIFF films listed below.

But of course, this festival would be nothing without the discoveries that a viewer can make on his or her own.

MSPIFF picks (in order of preference):

 "I Am Love" (Italy)

 "Bluebeard" (France)

 "The Oath" (U.S.)

 "Last Train Home" (Canada/China)

 "Night Catches Us" (U.S.)

 "35 Shots of Rum" (France/Germany)

 "The Secret of Kells" (Ireland)

 "Trampoline" (U.S.)
 
 "I Killed My Mother" (Canada)

 "The Wild Hunt" (Canada)

Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics. His writing also appears in Variety and the Village Voice.

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