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In 1984, Ali Selim was working on campaign ads for Walter Mondale. "I was doing pretty much whatever," says Selim, who had recently graduated from the University of St. Thomas and was deciding whether to pursue law school or the film industry. "One day, we were shooting Mondale talking with people, and they were walking toward a big pile of dog shit. I saw a disaster waiting to happen, so I shoveled it up. The producer thought that was just the most resourceful thing."
The good deed wouldn't ultimately rescue Mondale from stepping into a pile of electoral failure, but it paid off for the young production assistant. With help from that same producer, scooping poop led to corporate film work and eventually to commercial directing. Meanwhile, Selim was seeing up to five movies a week—everything from Hollywood blockbusters to old classics—and dreaming of making his own.
A few decades later, Selim has his own publicity campaign to launch, in support of his first dramatic feature, Sweet Land, which closes this year's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival at 7:00 p.m. on April 30. It turns out, in fact, that the St. Paul-based director has been working on the film in one fashion or another for most of those years. In 1990, inspiration landed on his doorstep. In the Star Tribune, he read the short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," by Minnesota author Will Weaver. Soon after, he bought the rights. "I was not only moved by the story and the issues in it," he says, "but I felt like it would be an easy film to make. I could do it with actors and a house and some sunlight. I thought I could make it in a year."
It took 16. At the time he began the project, Selim knew how to craft commercials, but he didn't know how to make a feature film. So, he enrolled in courses, bounced ideas off of friends, and began to develop a screenplay. "I went into the fundraising world, and came out," he says. "I went in again and came out again." As an experiment, he and his wife, Robin, used the profits from a Coke commercial to produce "Emperor of the Air," a short film about an old man looking back on his life. Selim is less than satisfied with the result now, but the movie covered themes that overlapped with Weaver's story, and it was a start.
His break came in 1999, when Sweet Land was one of two scripts chosen out of 5,000 submissions by the Cygnus Institute for Emerging Filmmakers. Over the course of a year, Selim traveled to L.A., where he worked on rewrites with Hollywood screenwriters, practiced shooting tape, and staged public readings with professional actors. "I came out so well prepared to make a movie, and I felt like I had something valuable," he says. "But I didn't have the money."
After three more years of sitting on it, he had had enough. "Fuck it," he told himself. "I'm done with antacid commercials." He found a handful of investors and he started gathering a cast. At the Cygnus Institute, Selim's passion for Sweet Land had impressed character-actor extraordinaire Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), who immediately signed on. Producer Gil Holland, another Cygnus connection, put Selim in touch with Ned Beatty, who happened to be living in northern Minnesota, and he loved the script. He found Elizabeth Reaser, who won the Rising Star Award when the film debuted last October at the Hamptons Film Festival, through an open casting call in New York.
Two months later, cast and crew went to southern Minnesota, where they spent 24 days shooting in the fall of 2004. Sweet Land is a small-town story that begins with the death of Inge (Reaser), a German woman who moved to Minnesota during World War I to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee), a farmer she had never met. Her grandson Lars (played over two generations by Guthrie vet Stephen Pelinski and Patrick Huesinger) must then decide whether to sell the farm to a developer. Flashbacks show spunky young Inge arriving at a train station alone, carrying an unwieldy Victrola. As she learns to speak English, Inge and Olaf slowly fall in love, even as their Norwegian-American neighbors reject her for being German.
Sweet Land's themes echo Selim's own history: His maternal grandparents came to the U.S. from Germany, his father from Egypt. The film seems to be resonating with audiences, too, as it has barnstormed 12 festivals in five weeks, winning the audience awards in the Hamptons, Florida, Vail, Wisconsin, and Sedona, where Selim was named Best Director. Currently, Selim is working to line up a distributor.
Selim was a younger man when he started the project, but his family has grown up alongside the picture. His wife Robin produces. His 19-year-old son Max provided notes during the cutting. His 15-year-old son Alex taught Cumming how to hit a baseball on set. And 10-year-old daughter Tavi puts stickers on festival postcards before doing homework.
"She did her first back flip at gymnastics," Selim says. "And all she wanted to talk about was distribution."
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