The North Woods Project

Native Minnesotan filmmaker Katie Koskenmaki turns Vermont into the scary "Minnesota" of "The Windigo"

Within the first minute of her short film "The Windigo," native Minnesotan Katie Koskenmaki cuts to an aerial shot of a frozen, snow-covered lake surrounded by seemingly decaying woods and mirrored by an equally lifeless overcast sky. The only sign of the living comes from two black dots in the frame's lower half, trekking slowly across the gaping white expanse.

If you're a Minnesotan still recovering from five months in the deep freeze, the image will trigger an all-too-familiar feeling of isolation and affliction. And if you're a moviegoer, "The Windigo" (which screens Wednesday at the Heights Theater as part of the MSPIFF's "Minnesota Shorts Showcase," beginning at 7:00 p.m.) will call to mind the long litany of Minnesota-made snowbound films ranging from Fargo to Grumpier Old Men. Set in a wintry Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Koskenmaki's 15-minute survival thriller comes complete with stoic Scandinavians, arctic imagery, and even a dumb mosquito joke. Look carefully at the terrain, however, and you'll notice a few oddities that you won't find within our hallowed northern forests--such as rolling hills without a pine tree in sight. You see, this archetypal "Minnesota" film wasn't filmed in Minnesota at all.

"We actually shot it in Vermont because I didn't have enough money to go to Minnesota," says the 28-year-old Koskenmaki, who wrote and directed the short as a requirement for the graduate film-studies degree that she's pursuing at Columbia University. "All the New Yorkers on my crew thought I was loco, because I didn't want them to shoot the mountains or certain things you just don't find in Minnesota. They just didn't get it."

Now in her fifth year at Columbia film school, the aspiring director expects to graduate in May and is currently working on her thesis film, for which she received a $10,000 development grant from the Minnesota habitués at New Line Cinema (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Sugar & Spice). With a father who's a researcher at 3M, and a mother who writes and edits inspirational-quotation books, Koskenmaki was inspired by both the arts and sciences growing up on St. Paul's Summit Avenue. After graduating from St. Paul Central High School in 1990, she majored in anthropology and theater studies at Yale University, and she would later incorporate both disciplines into her films. While she cannot stop professing her love for her home state, Koskenmaki confesses that she never really considered staying in the Twin Cities to pursue a film career.

"Minnesota is really good to its filmmakers, and a person could make a career there," she says by telephone from her Upper West Side apartment. "But the film community seems more technically based, and I always wanted to go to New York to learn the highfalutin' art of filmmaking." (Koskenmaki will return to the Twin Cities this week to attend the screening of her film at the Heights.)

"The Windigo" is anything but typical of the work of some Ivy League film student eager to flaunt her cinematic erudition. The low-budget thriller follows two biologists, Sandy (Allyn Burrows) and Gerard (Henry Leyva), as they track and study wolves across the great white North. After they lose all their food rations when Gerard momentarily falls through the ice, the duo must make a five-day survival-of-the-fittest hike back to home base, struggling along the way with Gerard's fear that they will starve, and that they're being hunted by a Sasquatch-like beast from Ojibwe mythology: the Windigo.

Most of the subsequent suspense feels somewhat forced because of Leyva's overacting and a few holes in the plot's formulaic development: Call it the Blair Witch Project of the North Woods. But Koskenmaki parallels the film's transparent dramatic tension with a deeper psychological and cultural tension between the two biologists. Throughout their wilderness voyage, Gerard constantly ridicules Sandy's reliance on Western science, blabbering various teachings from some pop-spiritual rendition of Native American culture. When Gerard descends into a hunger-stricken panic, however, it is the Scandinavian, nature-savvy Sandy who retains his "Native American" cool.

"I have a real problem with some so-called spiritualists who appropriate Native American thinking," Koskenmaki says, adding that she felt some regret for using an Ojibwe myth in the film. "Many times they don't really understand much about the culture or about nature." Koskenmaki based Sandy on her Finnish-descended father, who frequently took the family camping in the Boundary Waters. "My dad really has a deep respect for nature," she says, before starting to chuckle. "He's also such the typical Minnesotan: quiet, tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed. All he could say after he saw my film was, 'Hey, that was a nice tent you used in there.' I couldn't believe it. It was such a Finnish response!"

As the Scandinavian and Minnesotan references in "The Windigo" are all indirect, Koskenmaki believes that most East Coast natives still don't recognize her film as being particularly "Minnesota." In fact, she suggests that most of them still think of Minnesota either as just another part of the big void between the coasts or as something resembling the world of Fargo.

"They're still not terribly perceptive on that front," she says, recalling one New Yorker who asked if she was from the state of Milwaukee after she'd reported growing up in the Midwest. "I got a greater response at a film festival in France [the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival] than any of the screenings around here. At least there they could pick up on the Scandinavian connection."

While it would be nice to see a "Minnesota" film that doesn't reduce its inhabitants to a pack of Wasp ice kings and queens ruling over a tundralike nothingness, it's not like we Minnesotans are any less culturally ignorant than others; after all, how many of us can really say anything substantive about our dear Canadian neighbors, even after multiple viewings of Strange Brew? But perhaps Koskenmaki, who is planning to move to L.A. to hunt for work after she graduates, will one day vindicate Minnesotans in need of a warmer representation.

"I would love to write a film set in the Twin Cities that really reflects the vibrancy of its arts and culture. And if I become the filmmaker I want to become, I would definitely move back to Minnesota. I love everything about that state, even waking up in the morning to the sounds of people shoveling."

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