Where to Aim, When to Shoot

Film as a weapon in a time of war: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival coverage.

 The War of Art
It's still a battle of the bank for world cinema at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival

Now in its third decade of thinking global and acting local, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival began its campaign back in the days when a Hollywood actor was busy producing an eight-year retrospective of '50s Americana for the world stage. Whether or not the Reagan revolution helped inspire U Film commander in chief Al Milgrom to arm himself with world cinema, the mspiff has always maintained a more principled foreign policy than that of our nation at large. Yet the gulf, if you will, between an event that invites dozens of nations to share their views with middle America on one side, and a cinematic-industrial complex of blockbusting omnipotence on the other, has never been greater than it is in this, the fest's 21st year.

When Milgrom and his new colleagues at Oak Street Cinema announced their plan to join forces a year ago, they couldn't have imagined that their Coalition of the Willing (a.k.a. Minnesota Film Arts) would need to put the next mspiff up against the most mammoth adventure in American imperialism since The Phantom Menace. Nevertheless, their diplomatic act of uniting some 130 films from around the world couldn't amount to a more striking counteroffensive if it were part of a full-blown assault. Not to sound sappy here, but the mspiff makes you wonder: What if everyone in the world had a camera instead of a gun?

It is in this spirit of letting other voices be heard that we at City Pages decided to try something different with our coverage of the festival this year. We invited contributors from beyond our borders to weigh in on the states of their cinemas--and the states of their nations, too--as reflected in films from their countries that are screening at the fest. That the following dispatches from Iran, Israel, Russia, India, and Argentina convey a palpable urgency may be partly a function of their having been filed during the first week of Shock and Awe. (Our Israeli contributor, obliged to write about the start of the war for other publications, fretted that his deadline was the same as Saddam's.) But cinema outside the First World is always of political import, not least in relation to the global market and the bottom line. On the bright side, digital video and the proven desire for diversity lend an upbeat tone to reports from Iran and India, while articles from elsewhere on the map suggest that the movies, like their nations of origin, remain mired in conflict.

Suffice it to say that no alternative venture is going to be easy these days. But in the case of the mspiff, the overall health of the operation can be measured by the number of filmmakers who'll be coming from far and wide to introduce their work at screenings throughout the festival--which runs two weeks at a half-dozen locations across the Twin Cities. (Three of those visiting filmmakers are profiled in the pages that follow; ticket and venue information can be found there as well.) That one of the guests of honor is Robert Duvall--who'll introduce his Assassination Tango at the Historic State Theatre on opening night--suggests that the mspiff's new administration might even be learning to play politics in conservative times. Put it this way: Ronald Reagan aside, the idea of getting a Hollywood actor to stump for your party platform has its virtues.

--Rob Nelson


Extreme Cinema

In hard times, love and war keep Russian film audiences reeling

By Kirill Galetski

When people ask what Russia is like, the most accurate thing to say is that it's another planet. Everything seems topsy-turvy here at first. But if one comes to live in Russia for a fairly long time, a unique, fuzzy sort of logic starts to emerge--a logic that comes with experience, which is hard-earned here. Russia is a land of extremes, a place where what's good is very good, and what's bad is awful.

Russian cinema isn't in very good health at the moment. Though the economy is ostensibly showing signs of growth helped by high oil prices around the world, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of people in Russia live hand-to-mouth and desperately await often-delayed paychecks. The trend of cinemas being turned into casinos has continued unabated. Theater is alive and well, as tickets tend to be cheaper than those for movies, but the cinema--at least the cinema at cinemas--is all but moribund. Rampant video piracy has taken a toll, and insufficiently regulated film and video release patterns have allowed legitimate video editions of films to appear on tape at the same time that the films are on cinema screens. Adding insult to injury, tapes sometimes cost less than the price of a ticket to a contemporarily equipped cinema--of which there are relatively few.

Owing to a lack of talent that's hardly unique to Russia, most Russian films these days tend to be every bit as trivial and escapist as some American fare. But unlike mainstream Hollywood movies that are pushed onto the world's screens, Russian movies aren't blessed with superficial attributes such as special effects and demographic engineering to make them appealing to audiences abroad. In Soviet times, this translated into a glut of highly localized, narrow-minded drivel that touted the Soviet values of keeping one's nose to the grindstone and ignoring the ethereal. Andrei Tarkovsky was a ray of light in this void, a world-class artist who made us recognize the universal in life. Most of today's endless crime films, sentimental melodramas, and contrived comedies elicit the cringe reflex--and, in turn, an appreciation of the handful of finely crafted recent films that truly speak to the world at large.

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