Crossing Over

Twin Cities documentarians seek national exposure in New York

Twin Cities-based filmmaker Matt Ehling says he would have liked to collect some digital-video images of Ground Zero were it not for Mayor Rudy Giuliani's recent ban on photography near what remains of the World Trade Center. "Apparently it's to protect those grieving at the site from being exploited," says Ehling of the prohibition. "But it seems weird."

So, too, it seems indicative of the nation's undemocratic turn toward extreme assertions of law and order--the focus, ironically, of Ehling's Urban Warrior, which weds talking-head interviews to harrowing archival footage of the militaristic crackdowns in Waco, Seattle, and other U.S. cities. (Ehling was in New York City last week to screen a ten-minute portion of his latest documentary work in progress for potential investors at the annual Independent Feature Project Market.) Among the many alarming moments in this tightly edited and timely work--inspired, Ehling says, by the 1999 raid on the Highway 55 encampment--is former Minneapolis police chief Tony Bouza's typically enthusiastic endorsement of law-enforcement firepower. "Flame throwers? Tanks? Yes--use 'em," he says. "Helicopters? Bazookas? Cannons? Sure."

Market strategy: All the Pretty Horses' front(wo)man Venus (right, with wife Lynette Grandell) in Venus of Mars
Market strategy: All the Pretty Horses' front(wo)man Venus (right, with wife Lynette Grandell) in Venus of Mars

In the filmmaker's own battle for completion funds, his arsenal includes a dynamite résumé (Ehling has directed the acclaimed "Access" and "Forbidden City"), as well as a work ethic worthy of RoboCop. In addition to screening clips from Urban Warrior in New York, and shooting new footage for it in D.C. (not to mention getting married last Friday in St. Paul), Ehling has been busy assembling the long-awaited feature-length cut of his documentary made with former presidential candidate Jim Taylor, Run Some Idiot.

"He's the hardest-working man in showbiz," proclaims fellow Twin Cities documentarian Emily Goldberg. And she would know, since Ehling somehow made time to serve as cinematographer of her own Venus of Mars, another noteworthy Minnesota project whose trailer screened at the IFP Market this year. A sort of Midwest documentary version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (complete with trippy animated interludes), Goldberg's film gives the transgendered, vinyl-corset-clad lead singer of the local glam-rock outfit All the Pretty Horses his/her 15 minutes. Actually, in deference to the divided attention of industry audiences at an event that showcases more than 300 indie efforts each year, Goldberg's velvet goldmine currently runs no longer than the extended remix of Bowie's "Changes"--although the filmmaker fully intends to finish it as a feature. In this, she's encouraged by the positive reaction to her promo reel from those among the 30 or so film-biz players who caught its afternoon market screening. Indeed, one of them stood up and exclaimed, "It should be on HBO right now!"

"A lot of making this movie has involved being holed up with my computer for hours on end," says Goldberg, whose long association with KTCA-TV led to a job directing a Jane Goodall bio-doc for PBS in 1999. "Seeing [Venus] on the big screen, with people responding in all the right places, reminds me that there really is an audience for this."

That Goldberg considers Venus of Mars "a pronoun-challenging documentary" reflects her subject's own self-described state of being "in between genders": taking female hormones, but not planning to have surgery. Likewise, as kindred transgressors, both filmmaker and front(wo)man consider it their mission to reach straight--and even homophobic--spectators. "I don't care if they have tits, they have dicks, they have hair--they fuckin' rock," raves one young convert featured in the film. As for Goldberg, her own crossover bid appears flamboyant as well by virtue of the fact that nearly the film's entire budget--not counting a relatively small $15,000 grant from the Jerome Foundation--is being held on her credit card.

"Venus [a.k.a. Steven Grandell] exposes herself because she thinks that [transgender identity] is something people need to know about," says Goldberg. "I know I've learned that, as hard as things get in this business, you've got to believe in yourself."

 
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