Field Of Screens

The Free Range barnburners: (Left to right) Valerie Coit, Mike Scholtz, Annie Dugan, Janek Fisher-Merritt
Nathan Grumdahl

Just outside Wrenshall, Minnesota, in a spot where acres of forest were long ago felled so livestock could graze and crops could grow, a small pack of self-avowed geeks freely roams a four-acre homestead. There's a farmhouse from central casting, simultaneously humble and grand, situated at a corner of two long, straight roads that disappear in all directions into rural distance. A sloping expanse of neatly clipped lawn spreads around the footprints of various outbuildings, including the geeks' clubhouse, a horse and cow barn built in 1916.

The barn's mow is permeated with the aura of old-time agriculture. It's also, as the site of the 2005 Free Range Film Festival, outfitted with high-end sound and projection equipment, rows of chairs and old couches, and a 24-by-14-foot movie screen made from an old billboard.

Wrenshall is but a blip on the map about 40 minutes south of Duluth. It's a bastion of pickup trucks and snowmobiles, not alternative film. That incongruity is a natural part of Free Range's fun, but while the festival's website,, is a bit tongue-in-cheek--it bills the weekend as "a celebration of independent film and clean country living"--its organizers insist they're engaging in no intentional hipster irony. They just happen to live in a small town, have a barn at their disposal, and really enjoy watching, discussing, and showing interesting movies.

And they won't just show two days of films about rural life. This year the festival received 70 submissions, from places as far-flung as Italy, Australia, and Grand Rapids. The 30 or so scheduled movies include A Life Without Pain, an intense documentary, also screened at this spring's Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, about people who literally don't feel physical pain; Switch to Receive, a short documentary about back-country skiers who get caught in a British Columbia avalanche and must find and dig out a buried comrade; and Ride of the Mergansers, 12 fascinating minutes in the lives of some day-old merganser chicks and their mom. There's also some funny stuff: the two-minute film festival (a couple of the best are The Sports Fan, a darkly surreal joke about the distance between public and private personae, and The Film That Almost Never Was, a monument to self-loathing slackerism); a 1970s-style animated short called Nelson: Rock & Roll Detectives, in which identical twins Matthew and Gunnar discover that strange lights on the edge of town are coming from George Clinton's mothership; and the didactic but clever Grocery Store Wars, in which Obi Wan Canoli warns Cuke Skywalker about the Dark Side of the Farm.

"We try to challenge the audience with our selections," says Mike Scholtz, one of four principal film buffs who put on the festival. "But the main question is always, Is it entertaining? I have a low tolerance for pretentiousness. Even the experimental stuff we choose needs to have some humor or look gorgeous."

Scholtz, an advertising copywriter by trade, says he and his partners strive for a balance of long and short, narrative and documentary, accessible and experimental. His co-curators are Janaki Fisher-Merritt, whose family runs an organic farm just down the road from the barn; Fisher-Merritt's girlfriend, Annie Dugan, a grad student in art history at Columbia University; and Valerie Coit, who works at the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse in Superior, Wisconsin, and who calls Scholtz her "pseudo-spousal unit." A fifth selection committee member, Robin Decaire, actually introduced the two couples and helped start the festival before moving to Minneapolis.

"When we all met, we instantly realized we like each other more than Robin," Coit jokes. "And she moved. We don't speak of her."

"What's interesting about the selection committee," Dugan says, "is that all five of us have different tastes."

"We all have different prejudices and favorites," says Scholtz. "I feel like we balance each other out."

They also share a common bond. During a celebratory discussion of the Jigsaw Derby, an annual puzzle contest in Duluth and the subject of a short documentary in the festival program, it's Coit who cheerfully admits, "We're all geeks in many ways."

"I'm not," says Fisher-Merritt, a wounded defensiveness in his voice.

Immediately, he's set upon:

"Robin said we had to meet you and learn about the many evils of pasteurized milk," Coit reminds him, a playfully sarcastic edge in her tone.

"I'm not nearly that doctrinaire about it," says Fisher-Merritt, a bit cowed.

"You're quite passionate, though," Coit responds.

And then there's Fisher-Merritt's behavior when he visits Dugan in Manhattan.

"He does two things when he's in New York," Dugan says: "Ride the subway and go to electronic stores."

"Janaki is an electronics geek," says Coit.

Scholtz says, "When he bought our new receiver [at J&R Music and Computer World in Manhattan], Myron the sales guy hugged him. I think Myron loved the romance of this organic farmer from Minnesota dusting the dirt off his pants, getting on a plane to New York City, and asking if he could buy a fancy receiver for his barn."

Fisher-Merritt fidgets, fighting against his geek tendencies, then surrenders: "It's a Denon," he blurts proudly, his six-foot-six body language understated, but his eyes aglow. After regaining a semblance of composure, he continues: "I would have preferred to get it locally, but none of the stores around here had one with the combination of features I was looking for. The Best Buy models don't run enough current. There's no way this one will overheat like the one last year did."

Last year's inaugural Free Range festival was the organic outgrowth of what started as casual mow movie nights after Fisher-Merritt and Dugan bought the homestead in December of 2002.

"Robin was making her first movie, and we started trying to imagine a premiere for our friends in the barn," Scholtz says. "Then we went to the Fargo Film Festival in March 2004, which cemented this idea that there are a lot of independent films that need venues."

When they screened The Exorcist in the barn for a few friends on Halloween night 2004, the Free Range idea was officially born.

"That started us thinking that it would be cool to show movies no one had heard of," Scholtz says. The Free Range folks report that last year's fest attracted just over 300 people--100 or so each night, and 80 for a Saturday-afternoon session. "Two high school kids from Wrenshall were here for every screening," says Scholtz. "It's just a really cool way to get lots of people here, and to showcase film in a fun atmosphere," Fisher-Merritt says. "People like to be in the barn. Using it for something like this is a really good thing."

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