Real to Reel

Making short films, Minnesota-style

The Minnesota filmmaking scene has abandonment issues. "People hear you're moving in this town and they get kind of cranky," says Minneapolis filmmaker Benno Nelson of the notion that success may send him packing for either coast. Indeed, the question of how long Minnesota's filmmaking talent will abide in the land o' lakes lingers behind the images of MNTV, a televised showcase of several dozen homemade shorts airing on KTCA (Channel 2) each Sunday night this month.

Yet MNTV's featured filmmakers confound predictions of cinematic brain drain, as all but a handful remain locals. For many of the series' fledgling auteurs, such an allegiance goes hand in hand with a scrappy creative ethic. These are filmmakers who spin bohemian tales about lengths traveled to get a film in the can: the dumpster-diving for props, unorthodox fundraising tactics, last-minute casting decisions, and spur-of-the-moment plot mutations. (It bears mention that most of the MNTV films are several years old, which suggests the difficulties experienced in corralling new projects to the screen.)

Marjie Thiemann for example, discovered her Pixel-vision video camera at Diggers' Delight, a per-pound thrift emporium where she bribed a fellow seeker for the coveted cam. Thiemann paid $20 cash for the rare piece. With this equipment in hand, she proceeded to make "Misty Memories of the Junior High Girls' Bathroom" (screening November 7), a six-minute reflection on girls' powder-room rituals and beauty myths (co-directed by Arzu Gokcen).

The lady desperadoes of Tara Spartz's short film "Balls Out!"
The lady desperadoes of Tara Spartz's short film "Balls Out!"

Even the successful adman Rick Dublin reports that his well-padded short "Bubblepac"--a Blue Velvety take on the compulsive properties of plastic wrap (November 28)--came into creation as a result of some beer-inspired brainstorms, Salvation Army finds, and dumpstered props. According to Minneapolis Community and Technical College film instructor Bruce Mamer, who has trained many of the directors on the MNTV roster, low-budget filmmaking requires not only a modicum of inspiration, but an "ability to scrounge."

In that guerrilla spirit, some locals emphasize the renegade aspects of their films. "Misty Memories" originated in a nightclub bathroom where Thiemann and a friend filmed patrons with a camera hidden in a purse. "We got caught," Thiemann confesses. "And we got yelled at. It's against the law, I think. And it scared me, so we just stopped the whole project. But that feeling of getting yelled at in a bathroom reminded me of junior high, so I decided to make a little video."

Chris Dotson, the director of the infomercial-inspired "Bread: The Life and Times of a Self-Appointed Bread Promoter" (November 28) taps into this maverick mythos when he boasts about his hit-up-the-family fund drive and his undercover prop supplier (an outlaw baker-cum-continuity man). Likewise, a number of films revolve around everyday iconoclasm: Lori Neal's gently subversive "Fearsome Dancer" (November 7) features a love affair between a schoolgirl and an elderly stranger, while Tara Spartz's "Balls Out!" (November 7) celebrates the derring-do of some road-tripping girl desperadoes.

Benno Nelson begs to differ with the serendipity theory of filmmaking. Although his piquant short, "Screwdrivers" (November 28), chronicles the erotic and emotional chaos experienced by drunken teenage girls, the uncontrollably talkative director emphasizes the discipline and precision necessary to make movies. "As the director, you get to make the calls," he explains. "Like, 'a blue shirt,' or 'move the camera slower,' or 'let's make that lens wider'; or 'when you move your head, roll it a little bit smaller, cause you're rolling out of frame.'"

If anything, short films demand a uniquely disciplined vision, says Amy Ostergaard, whose film "Whitewash" (November 7) depicts baptism through the eyes of a black child in an all-white congregation. "There's a real talent in being able to tell a succinct, tight, interesting story," she says. "Jesse [Ventura] can squawk all he wants about making feature-length movies here and getting big budgets, and bringing in all this talent, but that's not necessarily where the creativity is."

Sadly enough for us cranky locals, a few of MNTV's up-and-comers have up and gone. Suporn Shoosongdej, for one, has returned to Thailand, with rumor attributing his departure to this country's restrictive visa requirements. Shoosongdej crafted the series' most experimental short, "Vision of Thought (Deformity) Mickey & I Overexpose" (November 21), an eye-goggling meditation on optical philosophy and plastic-rodent hegemony. According to his former employer, Shoosongdej--who waited tables at St. Paul's Sawatdee to foot the film bill--spent more than 12 hours at a stretch in the film lab, and was accustomed to creative control. "The artist, you cannot superboss him," the restaurant's owner, Mrs. Jones, chuckles. "You have to say please."

In a twist on the regional pride theme, Mamer, who instructed Shoosongdej at MCTC, seems to relish the idea of Midwestern influences coming to bear on international film. "Maybe he'll be the first internationally known Thai filmmaker."

 

MNTV will air 10:00 p.m. Sundays through November on KTCA; KTCI (Channel 17) will rebroadcast the program 10:00 p.m. Thursdays through December 2.

 
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