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"AREN'T YOU CALLING early?" Al Milgrom asks. "It's daylight savings time, you know, and it's only 8 in the morning." Just try telling the seventysomething head of U Film Society that he was supposed to spring forward, not fall back. And don't even think of mentioning that he's still in his nightclothes at 10 a.m. on Sunday with less than two weeks left until the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. "I called information," Milgrom growls, "and they told me to turn my clock back." Pause. "The operator wouldn't lie, right?" Pause. "Well, then I guess I'm running way behind schedule."
Which has been the norm for Milgrom and his spare staff throughout the festival's triumphant 16-year history. As U Film's major battle in what Milgrom calls "the ongoing war between cosmopolites and the provincials" (i.e., rabid film fans vs. multiplex-loving dilettantes), the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival is easily the largest film event in this region, as well as an essential showcase for the rarest gems of world cinema. And frankly, it's nothing short of amazing that the thing continues to happen.
At U Film headquarters on University Avenue, Milgrom stands in the middle of the cluttered office space, thickening the air with his nervous energy. "Where's Bob?" Milgrom asks, desperately needing to confer with five-year festival vet Bob Strong. "I don't know what he could possibly have going on. Today is the real day." Assistant Festival Director Chris Dotson looks up from his computer, pushes his glasses up his nose, and shrugs. Ditto the two other volunteers feverishly writing film blurbs for the calendar.
Strong eventually arrives and the song-and-dance of controlled chaos begins. The chorus goes something like this: "Bob, because you have to leave early, you'd better start writing these blurbs." Strong faces Milgrom and in a soothing voice asks, "Have you contacted the theater manager about the With or Without You screening?" Milgrom retrieves a fax from an accordion file, which is stacked atop the Yellow Pages in a chair. He then shuffles over to the wall calendar, planning press screenings, festival screenings, and when the films need to be returned to meet their next playdates in other cities around the world.
Meanwhile Dotson takes notes of the conversation on U Film's master program, called "The Big Book." Then the phone rings. It's a film distributor from some godforsaken corner of the world. Milgrom picks up the phone, talks business, shuffles back to the middle of the room, and says, "Bob, because you have to leave early..."
As usual, Milgrom will work the late shift tonight, talking to international film distributors and trying to find the best of the world beyond Hollywood. Somehow, without a full-time staff or major university and corporate backing ("The San Francisco festival gets half a million dollars from some large winery," he says), Milgrom has managed to confirm more than 85 films from around the world this year. It's a credit to his core group of volunteers and his own iron will. "We're a thin staff. A skeleton crew, really. I've lost 20 pounds and I've got rings around my eyes," Milgrom says.
Where does the septuagenarian derive this energy? This year, it seems, it's his excitement about the Russian films that he's managed to book--especially Nadya's Village, a documentary about Russian families who decided to keep living in the Chernobyl area--and the new works by Minnesota filmmakers. "There's going to be a good film about Charlie Mingus [Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog]," Milgrom says. "The director, Don McGlynn, is from here, and his film has been called the best jazz musical in 40 years. Fargo is not the only interesting new Minnesota film."
After the festival ends in early May, Milgrom and crew will take a smaller version of it down to Rochester. And after that, well, there's next year's festival. "I'm feeling a lot of pressure to continue, Milgrom sighs. "I just wish someone would come forth with a lot of money and form a committee. It depends upon what Minneapolis thinks, if it wants to be a major U.S. arts city. If so, then the film festival is part of that scene. But if the provincials don't want to see a film from Macedonia or Lithuania, if they think that the world doesn't extend beyond the 25-mile radius of the Twin Cities...well, too bad for them."