MSPIFF shows off Minnesota's creative filmmaking community

Lo, produced by Brainerd-area native Aaron Gaffey
Shannon Hourigan

Demon Love

Kidnapping. Heartbreak. Monsters from hell. What kind of romantic comedy is this?

The film Lo doesn't fit easily into any one film genre. Even the movie's producer, Brainerd-area native Aaron Gaffey, says so. "It's a demon love story, but it's not," he says. Maybe it would be better described as a horror movie with a love story? No, says writer-director Travis Betz. "It's not a horror movie, but it has demons. It's not a monster movie. It's not a science fiction movie. Ultimately it's a movie about humanity and love." Finally, Gaffey lands on a happy medium. "It's more of a fable, you know. It just so happens that in this love story there are demons. People don't necessarily know how to take it."

Watching the film, it's easy to see why people are either uncertain about branding it or quick to slap the "romantic comedy" label on it. The plot draws from conventional romantic movie storylines: Boy meets Girl, they fall in love, Girl finds herself in a precarious situation, Boy risks everything to find her and get her back. But what Betz does with this traditional plot arc is unusual.

The entire film takes place in Justin's (the Boy in the above scenario) apartment. And Justin's girlfriend, April, isn't the average damsel in distress; she was abducted and taken to hell by a demon. That prompts Justin, a soft-spoken, polo-shirt-clad man, to summon a demon of his own. Enter Lo, a potty-mouthed, chain-smoking megalomaniac who toys with Justin's emotions while lying through his teeth (or at least his disgusting, toothless mouth hole). To complicate matters further, the heartbroken Justin is confined to the pentagram he painted on his floor to get Lo to appear. Inside his little island he's relatively safe, but one step outside and he's demon dinner.

But it's not all fear and heartache. Betz deftly inserts dark levity throughout the film in the form of a talking gash on Justin's hand, a demon band singing a Buddy Holly-like rock ballad, and Lo's comedic contempt for Justin and his distinctly human effort to be reunited with April. The challenge in making a horror/love story funny, Betz says, was knowing just how far to go.

"Every time I write something dramatic, I have to fight the urge to twist it into a comedy," he says. But, he continues, "I truly love taking dark situations and finding the humor in them."

So far, Betz and Gaffey say, audiences have responded positively to Lo's patchwork of comedy, romance, and horror, even if mainstream Hollywood hasn't yet. Now, two years after the film was shot (it took all of six days to complete), what Gaffey and Betz crave is larger audiences and feedback. MSPIFF is the second festival for the film, and its creators plan to attend more before releasing it on DVD. Because, as Betz notes, after spending this much time with a film, it's easy to lose sight of the project. —Ben Palosaari

"It's been an ongoing part of my life, so I have no judgment on it anymore," he says. "I need others to tell me if it's good or not."

Lo screens at Oak Street Cinema on Saturday, April 25, at 6 p.m.

Horror and Hope

Minnesota filmmakers document Sierra Leone's recovery from a nightmarish civil war

Any reporter knows that the story you are looking for isn't always the story you find. John Woehrle discovered the same on a trip to Sierra Leone.

The writer, performer, and teacher, and Minnesota native (now relocated to California) traveled to West Africa with one of his students, who was about to meet her biological father for the first time. The father was the chief of a village, so Woehrle thought that capturing the first encounters on film might make for an interesting look at a "princess" returning to the place of her birth.

That's not what he found.

Instead, Woehrle found a country still recovering from the ravages of an 11-year civil war—a war in which a favorite tactic was mutilating victims, leaving thousands of amputees in its wake.

Fueled both by a desire to help and to tell the story of the Sierra Leoneans in their words, Woehrle enlisted his sister, Twin Cities-area filmmaker Louise Woehrle, to make a film with him. The result, Pride of Lions, has just begun to wend its way through the festival circuit, including a presentation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.

Pride of Lions looks at the recently ended conflict through the eyes of several survivors, some of whom suffered horrible mutilation at the hands of the rebels. The film includes stories of Dr. Barrie, a physician who attended medical school in the West but returned to his birthplace to start a clinic to provide prosthetics to amputees; a diamond miner raising his amputee nephew, who was injured by the same bullet that killed his mother; and Lazarus, a man who had both arms cut off by rebel soldiers but is willing to forgive his attackers.


The film also follows John Woehrle from his first visit to Sierra Leone in 2004, as he tries to create organizations to work with Barrie and other locals interested in improving agriculture and other aspects of daily living.

His increased involvement added another wrinkle to the film. "I told him that he had to be a character as he got more involved," Louise says. "But we kept him out of the spotlight as much as we could."

In all, the filmmakers made three trips to Africa. The first was with John and a handheld digital video camera. (As the story goes, a friend showed him how to use it and then taped over the buttons he didn't need.) The later two visits were with a professional crew led by Twin Cities photographer Bill Carlson. Carlson made a key decision that Louise Woehrle first questioned. "He wanted to use these heavy, bulky cameras for the last trip," she says. "I thought it would be better to use the lightweight ones, so we could get up close to the people. What he used them for was the scenery—he really needed those lenses to capture that."

The film plays on the contradictions between beauty and war, foreign aid and rule, and abject poverty amid the famed diamond mines, but its focus is on the stories of the people, which provide some powerful moments in the last few minutes, as all of the stories become wrapped in the idea of forgiveness. That absolution even extends to the boy soldiers who caused so much terror and pain during the civil war.

"That sense of forgiveness took me by surprise," Woehrle says. "It has tremendous power. I can't imagine going through what these people have gone through and still having the ability to forgive."

To date, Pride of Lions has only had a few screenings, including several important ones in Sierra Leone. "We've gotten amazing reports back from Africa," she says. "They showed it before a workshop where all of these players [in Sierra Leone] were, and it really lit a fire." —Ed Huyck

Pride of Lions screens at St. Anthony Main on Sunday, April 26, at 3 p.m.

Me Make-um Movie

White Man's World explores Indian culture through a white jerk's eyes

"Is sending a smoke signal like texting?" Jason Page, director and leading man of the feature comedy White Man's World, asks Jim Northrup, an author of several books on Native American culture. Northrup, a member of the Ojibwe band, patiently responds, "I don't know. You'll have to ask somebody who does that."

As is painfully evident, Page, a Caucasian whose "vision quest" to produce an Indian version of Hustle and Flow is the centerpiece of this delightfully offensive film, doesn't have a clue about American Indians. His questions to Northrup (a fascinating character gifted with his own deadpan wit) are a dead giveaway that this self-described "Duluth celebrity" is an obnoxious, ego-stroking jerk.

By keeping his real name and portraying himself as an insufferable boor, the actual Page presents the audience with a challenge. "I thought that by playing myself it would help to personalize all the terrible stuff I do and say for the audience. If I were a character it would be easier to get off the hook." He adds: "Many people I know have a hard time looking me in the eye after seeing the film."

His whiny solipsism and the loose, improvised feel of the movie (most of which actually hews closely to a script) bring to mind Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Alan Alda's self-congratulatory TV producer in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Like that character, Page expounds to the camera about the accolades and Oscars begging for his acceptance. He also expresses frustration that audiences were too stupid to flock to his previous masterpiece, Newton's Disease. The closing credits are accompanied by Page's assessments of name directors that may not endear him to Hollywood.

Most of the time, though, Page insults the Indian community. Following an audition montage featuring one poor reading after another by unprofessional Native actors, he concludes, "As a race of people they have no thespianic skill whatsoever!" When he visits the Fond du Lac Reservation near Duluth, the residents' state-of-the-art facilities—a computer lab, library, and Olympic-size pool—drive him to accuse the Indians of being "sellouts." Page—the genuine one—says, "It's white people that have the stick up their butt about issues like race. We are the ones who shy away from discussions on the topic. The Native Americans all thought the script was hilarious."

White Man's World is indeed hilarious, and even a little thought-provoking. Though it's burdened by the padding that indie (not Indian) films are often saddled with to stretch them to feature length, it's a successful entry in what seems to be a new genre: the "quasi-documentary" (Borat is the flagship example). Asshole or not, Page keeps the audience engaged as he navigates his project through the many strands of filmmaking red tape. Or as Jim Northrup prefers to call it, "white tape." —John Ervin


White Man's World screens at St. Anthony Main on Friday, April 24, at 9:15 p.m.

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