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While sweating out their many months of labor on a feature, few filmmakers consider that the eventual destination for all that hard work is a festival--and even fewer, a festival in Minneapolis. Peter Lynch's documentary Cyberman premiered a year ago at Rotterdam, a festival known for its edgy content and amiable atmosphere. Strong reviews at that festival, and later at Toronto (including a rave in Film Comment), failed to lead to overtures from U.S. distributors, which rarely if ever jump at opportunities to release documentaries--and so Lynch continues to travel the circuit. Cyberman--a quirky look at the world's first cyborg, University of Toronto professor Steve Mann--has screened at more than a dozen festivals internationally, from Buenos Aires to Berlin, and most recently at South by Southwest in Austin.
Lynch isn't a rookie director--he has made two prior features, including the documentary Project Grizzly (which enjoyed a healthy run at U Film some years back)--yet he still struggles to raise interest in his films, past, present, and future. Naturally, there are benefits that come from such struggle. But what possible benefit could be gleaned from an R-list fest like the MSPIFF? "I don't underestimate any screening," Lynch says over lunch in Toronto, the day after he has found out that there's a visit to Minnesota in his future. "At South by Southwest, someone from HBO really liked Cyberman, and so I sent him my proposal: Maybe I can build a relationship for my next film. In America, if you don't go to these things, you don't really exist."
With the support of the Canadian government, the MSPIFF is flying Lynch in and putting him up; it'll be the first time he has been in Minneapolis since attending the Siggraph computer festival at Walker Art Center in 1984. Not that he knows how the invitation came about. "I met Al Milgrom at the Toronto festival, on September 11," Lynch recalls. "We were standing in front of a TV at the time." Lynch was reintroduced to Milgrom at Berlin in February, though he can't recall whether their conversation was about Cyberman. (A late-night party, perhaps?) Still, the filmmaker is coming, and he's excited about it, as the MSPIFF offers advantages that he can't find at home. "The one thing I do like about going abroad to international festivals is being taken outside of a Canadian context, and having Cyberman be seen as a film--and not as a Canadian film, or a documentary, either."
Lynch's attitude is typical of directors who show up for regional festivals--where the films themselves ultimately make or break the trip, and where guests are often less widely recognized than they are at home. "With Minneapolis, I don't have any great expectations," says Lynch. "For me, it's a chance to get my work out there. Regional festivals are about audience-building, and film festivals are based on personal relations. And sometimes you get to see other filmmakers in a relaxed way. In Austin, I hung out with some actors whom I'd like to be in my next film. If I had wanted to speak to them in Toronto, I would have had to call their agents. At most festivals, the real business takes place between midnight and 5:00 a.m.--and depending on the collection of people that come together, something important can happen. You never really know."
Lynch also hopes that his festival appearances might lead to a series of strategic screenings at places like Film Forum in New York, to be followed by play dates at art museums and in key university towns. "Maybe at a smaller festival, there'll be someone from one of these places, and they'll have a chance to see your film in a more relaxed environment than at Toronto or Berlin--these giant machines that you can't even penetrate. It might also help toward having later screenings in Minneapolis, like at the Walker. Festivals tend to attract a specialty audience: Many people go because they've decided to focus in on the event. I see a huge university crowd in Minneapolis, and I don't think a festival screening would soak up the entire audience."
The potential benefits of the regional circuit apply to more than just a director's most recent film. "People came up to me at South by Southwest because they had seen Project Grizzly," Lynch recalls. "Other people had read about Cyberman, or were curious about the subject. People do follow your work. And in some places, a hit can start as a virus. Certain films have a long shelf life. Cyberman is somewhat time-based: As it gets older, I think it will get even stranger, because there's a retro quality to what Steve is doing; the film is not that much about his state-of-the-art technology. Project Grizzly is also out of time, so both films can still be discovered."
Directors, though, are ultimately people, too, and many of them see festivals, however small, as--believe it or not--rewarding vacation time. "After a while, it gets to be tiring," admits Lynch. "Right now, the thought of another festival is hard for me to take. But I'm also a curious person: I like traveling, going to new places and soaking up some local color. In Austin, it was chicken-fried steaks and cold Mexican beer. And I went on an archaeological dig. There's always a mystery lying around the corner--even in Minneapolis."