The allure of an international film festival is in some ways the allure of travel. It is a chance to intimately experience exotic and foreign cultures, but without the cost or the malaria pills. And like traveling abroad, you never quite know what to expect at a film fest. Will that intriguing title you choose be like the charming bistro you discover by accident, or more like the fleabag hotel that looked much better on the internet?
Beginning tomorrow, the 28th Annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival will be your passport to 58 countries, via 145 films being shown over the next two weeks at St. Anthony Main Theatre. City Pages will be your travel agent, offering a few tips on what to see—and avoid—on your cinematic journey.
MSPIFF opens this year with a World War II epic from Norway, Max Manus, a gripping true-life story about a group of teenage saboteurs who wreaked havoc on Nazi occupiers for five years. The festival includes films from every civilized continent, and from such rarely seen filmmaking countries as Albania, Bulgaria, Senegal, and Madagascar. Eight of the movies have Minnesota connections (see following pages).
To book your passage to MSPIFF, visit www.mspfilmfest.org for a complete list of films, showtimes, and ticket prices and packages.
A Twin Cities filmmaker examines the biggest untold story of wartime Iraq
by David Hansen
It's a stone's throw to a decade of war for the United States, a time that has seen the American media paint an unendingly nightmarish portrait of an occupied Iraq—a place of rubble and waterless desert, where humanity is divided into a grotesque trinity of archetypes—the sinister insurgent, the bewildered innocent, and the noble, if inept, American GI.
The American media has offered viewers a feast of coverage to be sure—no IED has gone unfilmed, no raid on an insurgent stronghold unphotographed—but it has been a feast of wax fruit, counterfeit and malnourishing, while desperately important truths go unreported.
The Unreturned, a feature-length documentary directed by Minnesota-born filmmaker Nathan Fisher, pulls off a feat of remarkable cinematic agility. A bald and intimate look into the lives of Iraqi refugees displaced to countries like Syria and Jordan in the wake of the war, The Unreturned is an artful and unflinching penetration of the wartime prejudices that the American public has been made to wear like Kevlar flak jackets, a potent cinematic solvent to the grotesque caricature of the Iraqi that the Western media has sold the world.
"I thought of myself as informed about the war," says Fisher, "but I was floored by this massive refugee crisis I'd never heard of. I'd known the media had done a terrible job covering the war, but I couldn't believe how badly they'd dropped the ball on the largest consequence of it."
Originally from St. Louis Park, Fisher emerged from his undergraduate education at Pomona College with a degree in politics and a keen interest in the important stories that have a curious way of hiding in the periphery. Fisher enrolled himself in the film program at New York City's New School, and as he began to develop a thesis project, curious and dismaying intelligence began to reach him: Since the American invasion of Iraq, a full 20 percent of the nation had fled to find asylum in border countries—a number that, depending on the estimate, now sits at between 2 million and 4 and a half million people.
Who were these millions of displaced? What were their lives? And most important, could they ever return to their native land? The more Fisher looked, the more he found that the largest displacement of humanity in half a century was going unreported, lost in a bramble of domestic politics and fevered propaganda.
"I'd been frustrated with the opposition movement and how it focused on domestic politics," says Fisher. "Maybe it was inevitable from the beginning, but with the obsession with George W. Bush, and with getting a Democrat in office, the discussion became about America and not about Iraq. With domestic politics involved, it becomes like any other entrenched debate. And when that happens, you have to figure out another approach and hit people where they haven't built a defense."
Borrowing gear from the New School, booking a winter flight to Amman, Jordan, in late 2008, and cold-calling every Iraqi refugee he could find, Fisher embarked on a close-quarters portrait of the Iraqi displaced, and the resulting film is a masterstroke of tenderness, intimacy, and perspective that shows the collateral victims of a war gone awry in all their vulnerability, hope, and courage.
From over 40 hours of interview material, Fisher profiles a half-dozen Iraqi refugees living in Amman and Damascus, interviewing them at length as they go about their daily occupations. In their struggles to find work and provide for their families, Fisher's characters speak with stunning candor about the American occupation, the constant threat of reprisal from Iraqi insurgents, and the experience of being forced into exile from their homes, businesses, and native soil. Theirs are stories that have been outlined and suggested but rarely illuminated so carefully, and with an unflinching lens Fisher executes a bold undoing of a culture-war reportage that has accomplished little more than wholesale dehumanization, from which the American viewer can easily keep a safe distance.
"In the beginning, it was just a look at this gigantic refugee crisis, one of the largest in 60 years," says Fisher. "But it got more refined once I came back and was looking at the footage and had it translated. It became a story about the middle class, and how the insurgency has targeted them as a deliberate tactic to keep Iraq from being rebuilt."
Hear "refugee" and one likely imagines the tent camps of Mogadishu, endless hellscapes of the starved, naked, and half dead. But here the unreturned are English teachers and cooks, engineers and translators, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians. They are Iraq's skilled middle class, the primary targets of the urban insurgency, the very people Iraq so desperately needs if it has a prayer of resurrection, and who now struggle in the refugee-choked cities of Amman and Damascus. This startling revelation is the film's most surprising boon. Unlike the caricatures, Fisher's characters are people of aspiration and despair, whose appetites and identities are fully dimensioned and, at last, achingly familiar.
"For any sort of realistic assessment of what's going on," says Fisher, "you need to know that Iraq was a middle-class country, and that these people had the same hopes and aspirations that Americans do. In order for Iraq to be rebuilt, these people need to return. They're the educated and the skilled. But they can't go back until Iraq is safe. It's the catch-22."
The Unreturned screens Sunday, April 25, at 3 p.m.
Homegrown films at the festival
Thursday, April 29, at 8:45 p.m.
What constitutes art and what constitutes obsession? Is there even a difference between the two? Local filmmaker Paul von Stoetzel tries to answer that question in his new documentary Scrap, an examination of two eccentric artists and the works that compel them. One artist: a Colorado man who's been building a castle (by himself) for the past 30 years. The other: an industrial wrecker who re-created himself as a spiritual doctor who builds sculptures to send his soul into space after he dies. The film project originally focused on several pieces of American architecture, but von Stoetzel turned his attention to the two sites after meeting their unusual creators. Scrap is the latest documentary from von Stoetzel, whose award-winning SNUFF: A Documentary About Killing on Camera has been seen across the country. Two of von Stoetzel's shorter films, the documentary My Friend Root Rot and the horror short Dinner Date, are now working their way through the festival circuit. It was likely a wise decision to focus solely on the two artists, as Scrap is a fascinating look at the lives of these men. It pulls no punches in showing how their work has dominated their lives—and the lives of their families. To Tom Every, his scrap-metal park has become the playground of his alter ego. His work reflects the ups and downs of his life and, in the film's most touching scenes, his relationship with his wife. But it is Jim Bishop's story that pulls you in and never lets go. Aside from the castle itself—which is a sight to behold—the hardships Bishop went through to continue his work are often shocking, ranging from lawsuits and court dates to the death of a son. And yet he continues day after day, moving from pleasant jokiness to infuriated rants at a moment's notice. While these two bizarre artists could easily fill separate films of their own, von Stoetzel keeps the story tight yet comprehensive. And in a world where so many people say their work is their life, it's truly captivating to see two people who actually mean it. —Andrew Newman
Monday, April 19, at 7 p.m.
The lives of modern-day hermaphrodites, pandrogynous, and transgender people are explored in Open, the first feature film from writer-director Jake Yuzna. Shot in locations around the Twin Cities (including the Walker Art Center and Mall of America,) the film tells the story of Cynthia, a hermaphrodite who meets Gen and Jay, a couple using surgery to merge their facial features to represent their union as one entity. Inspired by their love, Cynthia embarks on a journey to discover exactly who she is. At the same time, transsexual Syd meets and falls in love with a young man—but Syd's hormone treatments soon put their budding love to the test. Featuring the film debuts of most of its cast, Open pulls together real hermaphroditic, pandrogynous, and transgender performers to give the film an insider's look. Yuzna, who's worked everywhere from pornography to Robert Altman films, received support from the National Endowment for the Arts to make his film—making him the youngest filmmaker to do so. Open was featured in 2010's Berlin Film Festival, where it was awarded the Teddy Jury Award. And while the movie is often compelling, the parts don't really add up to a whole. Oftentimes the acting seems flat, and while Yuzna shows great skill as a writer, he delves a little too far into melodrama. Syd's storyline in particular seems ripped from tabloid fodder, which distracts from the more resonant pieces of the film. Open is never more effective than when Gaea Gaddy is onscreen. As Cynthia, Gaddy gives a truly honest and touching performance. It's an assured screen debut, and she easily carries most of the weight on her shoulders. Yuzna's film is full of good intentions, but it can't avoid falling into the soap-opera-like relationship trap. —Andrew Newman
Power and Control: Domestic Violence in America
Sunday, April 18, at 4:45 p.m.
It goes without saying that a documentary about domestic violence is going to be uncomfortable viewing. Peter Cohn's Power and Control should be doubly so for local audiences, set as it is in our own backyard. Cohn digs into the history of the Duluth Model, a homegrown strategy that revolutionized domestic violence treatment in the 1980s by addressing the issue as more cultural than personal. Testimonials from survivors, abusers, counselors, and cops make a solid case for the program, as we watch women beginning to claim power for themselves and men struggling to understand their own violent actions. Cohn even gives some camera time to opponents of the Duluth Model, although their family-values platform doesn't come off particularly well in the context of the film. Visually speaking, Power and Control places substance before style, seldom reaching much beyond talking-head interviews and establishing shots. That does little to mute its local impact, however. Hearing interviewees speak with marked Minnesota accents as landmarks like the Duluth lift bridge loom in the background serves as a stark reminder that this kind of violence is all around us. —Ira Brooker
If You Dare
Sunday, April 18, at 3 p.m.
This well-meaning but extremely rough short documentary by filmmaker and former public defender Norah Shapiro covers the Chicago Avenue Project, a Minneapolis-based theater company and mentoring program for at-risk youth. The project aims to motivate kids in all disciplines, but especially the performing arts. Supporters, mentors, and administrators are interviewed, with theater operations coordinator Payton Woodson deservedly getting the most attention, his dedication tempered by concern for the daily hurdles and dangers faced by the teens and preteens he works with. The project is inspiring and impressive—enough so that it deserves a better examination than this sloppy, ambling film, which feels like a work-in-progress. Shapiro's commitment to showcasing how the volunteers run the organization and the kids write and produce live theater productions is undeniable, but she would do well to raise the funds to polish what she has compiled. Still, this is worth seeing as, at least, a sketchy look at a productive, hopeful part of inner-city life most people would never know about. It also has celebrity appearances by Josh Hartnett, Debbie Allen, and former First Lady Laura Bush (hmm). —John Ervin
Saturday, April 24, at 1:15 p.m.
Minnesota filmmaker Phil Lawrence tries to wean himself off anti-depressant medicine, to avoid the pills' effects of leaving him emotionally "numb," and documents the profound changes that affect him and his family.
Friday, April 16, at 7:15 and 7:30 p.m.
In 1996, 12 years after his wife died of breast cancer, leaving him to raise their three small children, Terry Hitchcock decided to raise awareness of the disease in an odd and spectacular way—by running from St. Paul to Atlanta, covering the equivalent of a marathon every day for 75 straight days. The film tells the story of Terry and his wife, and of his remarkable feat.
FLICKS TO PICK
A critical guide to MSPIFF
The Secret of Kells
Saturday, April 17, at 5:15 p.m.
Out of nowhere, The Secret of Kells, an enchantingly old-fashioned Irish upstart about a medieval boy monk who dreams of illuminating sacred books, has tucked itself into a lineup of recent animated gems that includes Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up. Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is a carrot-topped lad possessed of more imaginative brio than can be contained by the cloistered life he leads under the sternly overprotective eye of his disillusioned uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson). A peppier old mentor (Mick Lally) dispatches Brendan on a character-building journey through a forest full of shape-shifting menace, protected by
one of those Irish elf-girls who doubles as a helpful white wolf in the struggle against marauding Norsemen. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, this mostly hand-drawn film is full of reverence for the power of the word and also intoxicated with color, shapes, and patterns derived from medieval art, combining to form an exquisitely etched riot that evokes the gaudy abandon of Klimt. The sensibility leans more to Brothers Grimm than Team Disney: The only uplift we're offered is the sight of a boy tripping out on adventure. Brendan couldn't care less about the Mouse House's great god Self-Esteem—he's too busy becoming competent, which is the same thing as growing up. —Ella Taylor
Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m.
A French-Canadian drama set in a hospice care facility sounds like a recipe for bleakness. Fortunately, Sophie Deraspe's remarkable first feature consistently finds grandeur in the mundane. She shows an impressive artistic vision in the way her camera squeezes gorgeous visuals out of sterile hospital wards and the frigid streets of mid-winter Quebec. The central story of a lovely young student (an excellent Marie- a coping mechanism would be engaging on its own, but Deraspe enhances the experience with portraits of the dying, vignettes of Good Samaritanism, and even several low-key musical fantasy sequences. Nearly every character is visibly damaged in some way, but Vital Signs respects them—and us—enough to forgo exposition and leave most of the blanks unfilled. Backstory is of no more use to this movie than it is to the patients and doctors who spend their days essentially running out the clock. The sum of these parts is a minor miracle: a thoughtful, beautifully conceived film about the delicate balance of life and death that never even hints at cheap sentimentality, lazy morality, or phony uplift. —Ira Brooker
Sunday, April 18, at 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday, April 20, at 9 p.m.
All the acting lessons money can buy can't teach a perfect face, and Welcome has two at its core. Firat Ayverdi's limpid eyes and angular features suggest a Kurdish Michael Cera, while Vincent Lindon's craggy, haunted visage brings to mind a half-broken George C. Scott. Both men are perfectly cast in a film in which a subtle shift in expression is often more meaningful than any line of dialogue. Lindon is especially excellent as a freshly divorced swimming coach who becomes a reluctant mentor to Ayverdi's Iraqi refugee, a charismatic teen determined to cross the English Channel and reunite with his London-based girlfriend. While Welcome wears its heart on its sleeve—anti-immigration officials are depicted as smug automatons more interested in filling quotas than solving problems—politics mostly take a backseat to keen observations on humanity and devotion. What begins as a grim docudrama evolves into a genuinely moving story of two wounded men doing their damnedest to start over while dodging roadblocks both literal and figurative. —Ira Brooker
Wednesday, April 21, at 8 p.m.; Monday, April 26, at 9:40 p.m.
Alicja, a rural teenage girl who has moved with her family to Warsaw, enters an inner-city junior high school and immediately gets mixed up with a trio of four-star bad girls. Obsessed with getting the latest in technology and clothes, but too poor to buy them, this clique, led by provocatively dressed Nena, offer their services to men of means—or "sponsors" as they call them—whom they troll for at malls and nightclubs. Katarzyna Roslaniec's feature, inspired by real-life girls in Poland who sell their bodies for little more than cell phones and trendy outfits, is funny, fascinating, and not a little depressing. There are few high jinks or normal adolescent travails, as the girls age beyond their years through partying, street (or rather, mall) walking, and engaging in grim appointments with their middle-aged sponsors. As Alicja and Milena, respectively, Anna Karczmarczyk and Dagmara Krasowska are naturals, and Roslaniec directs with a sure, efficient hand. In addition, the pop, club, and rap selections for the soundtrack are unusually good. —John Ervin
Friday, April 23, at 7 p.m.; Thursday, April 29, at 9:30 p.m.
Even Charlie Kaufman would admit that there's room in the world for a Charlie Kaufman lite. Enter Jac Schaeffer, the do-it-all auteur behind TiMER, a winning romantic comedy that shines through budgetary shortcomings and the trappings of its genre on the strength of nuanced performances and sharp, three-dimensional writing. TiMER's romantic reality is spiked by a novel twist—the romantically unattached get outfitted with a small implant that counts down the days and hours until the wearer makes eye contact with his or her star-crossed beloved. Smartly, TiMER addresses this scientific skyhook with a soft touch, and, as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's Lacuna, Inc., never invites the viewer to scoff or sneeze at its impossibility. What unfolds is a film that gently plumbs the ideas it presents: What is a soul mate? Does it exist? What if you don't like your soul mate? The film follows the prefab blueprint of the modern rom-com—there's a bawdy, overbearing mother; the armor-plated, gold-hearted, slutty sister; the sleepy, disarming male lead—but TiMER is at all times aware of itself and its absurdity. No, you won't emerge from TiMER in an evening-long debate about the nature of your own consciousness. But you might think a moment longer about the glance you exchange with that handsome stranger across the crowded bar. There's ham galore in TiMER, make no mistake, and though it belongs more to Along Came Polly than to Annie Hall, TiMER is a film that successfully strikes out for more than a cheap laugh with a kiss at the end. —David Hansen
Alamar (To the Sea)
Wednesday, April 21, at 5:15 p.m.; Sunday, April 25, at 4 p.m.
Jorge Machado and Roberta Palombini hail from very different worlds, but they fell in love, gave birth to a boy, Natan, and then separated. Machado, a wiry man of Mayan heritage, wants to show his five-year-old son the fisherman's unique way of life on Mexico's Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere, before Palombini takes Natan back to her native Italy. Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio follows their experience in this 2009 documentary that includes fictional narrative. The magic of the film lies within its spectacular natural setting—the clear blue waters of the Banco Chinchorro, a protected ecosystem, are home to an astonishing array of colorful wildlife. The camera follows Machado and his father, Nestór Marin, as they dive among the coral to spearfish or set their lines to snag barracuda. It takes a while for Natan to adapt, and as we witness his days of wonder, we too come to appreciate the combination of extreme beauty and occasional danger that define his father's existence. Natan is particularly charming as he develops his snorkeling skills, befriends a sea bird, sends a message in a bottle, and wisely learns to leave the crocodiles alone. This is a captivating film about a child who learns to love life on the water while also embracing his family's heritage. —Caroline Palmer
35 Shots of Rum
Friday, April 16, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 17, at 3:15 p.m.
Recent American films about families, like Rachel Getting Married, all too often pierce eardrums with shrieks of dysfunction. Amid the din, French filmmaker Claire Denis's sublime 35 Shots of Rum stands out all the more for its soothing quiet, conveying the easy, frequently nonverbal intimacy between a widowed father, Lionel (Alex Descas), and his university-student daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop). An homage to Yasujiro Ozu's similarly themed Late Spring (1949), 35 Shots is Denis's warmest, most radiant work, honoring a family of two's extreme closeness while suggesting its potential for suffocation. 35 Shots is firmly rooted in place, with several scenes unfolding in an apartment building in a rundown section of Paris's 18th Arrondissement, home to Lionel and Joséphine; Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), an ex of Lionel's who still aches for him; and Noé (Grégoire Colin), nursing a crush on Joséphine. Dyads align, shift, break, and regroup among the foursome, jealousy simmering in the film's already famous scene at a café, during which Noé cuts in on a sweetly dancing Lionel and Joséphine as the Commodores' "Night Shift" plays. Nonsexual filial devotion is immediately supplanted by heat and desire. Father and daughter's comfortable life together will need to end—an inevitability that even Lionel recognizes as necessary, no matter how painful. It's a point that no one needs to shout to make. —Melissa Anderson
Saturday, April 17, at 9 p.m.; Tuesday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m.
In Fredrik Gertten's controversial documentary about a class-action lawsuit by Nicaraguan plantation workers against Dole Co., attorney Juan Dominquez describes his work as a "David vs. Goliath" situation, "and no one likes being David." It's pretty rare to find a story in which the lawyers are the heroes, but here the team is working for a group of plantation workers who claim to have been made sterile by the pesticide Nemagon, which was banned from the United States in 1979 but continued to be used by Dole until the supply was gone. The film mixes courtroom scenes, fly-on-the-wall talks between the attorneys, and heart-wrenching footage from Nicaragua, where the toll the pesticide may have caused (cancer is linked to Nemagon) runs through entire communities. Though Gertten clearly takes the side of the workers here, his documentary keeps an even keel throughout, with the emotions rarely overheating (that much of the movie is made of real court testimony certainly helps), which makes the triumphs and defeats all the more engaging. Almost as interesting is the story outside of the documentary. Prior to its debut in 2009, Dole sought to stop the showings, seeking an injunction and filing a lawsuit (which was later withdrawn). Obviously, Gertten's strong work struck a nerve. —Ed Huyck
No More Smoke Signals
Saturday, April 17, at 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 18, at 12:30 p.m.
Radio stations can do more than spin tunes or provide play-by-play for sports events. In some cases, the broadcast booth is the beating heart of a community—and that is certainly the case with KILI, "the voice of the Lakota nation," on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation. Founded in 1979, KILI broadcasts music, public service announcements, high school basketball games, specialty programs, interviews, on-air talent shows, and much more. But Fanny Bräuning's film (named best documentary at the 2009 Brooklyn International Film Festival) shows us that to better understand KILI's significance we also need to know more about the history of the Lakota people, the activism of the American Indian Movement, the impact of missionary-driven religion on traditional beliefs, legal struggles with treaty rights, and the many challenges Pine Ridge faces today, including extreme unemployment and the consequences of generational poverty. Through the KILI story—and the personal experiences of those who work at and depend on the station—we see both reasons for hope and the difficult reality created by a past that continues to haunt the present. Bräuning's documentary may still only scratch the surface of this complex and continuing narrative, but it nonetheless offers a powerful, respectful, and vital glimpse into a proud culture that perseveres despite so many adversities. —Caroline Palmer
Saturday, April 24, at 5:15 p.m.; Wednesday, April 28, at 4 p.m.
Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard is a psychologically rich and slyly comic retelling of Charles Perrault's nastiest nursery story, a gruesome account of a wealthy serial wife-killer. Breillat, who prizes sexual curiosity above all, re-imagines the perverse bedtime story as one of sibling rivalry. Bluebeard opens in a 17th-century convent school, from which, due to their father's sudden death, two teenaged sisters are expelled. En route home, the newly indigent girls pass Bluebeard's castle. The younger, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton), expresses interest while elder sister Anne (Daphne Baiwir) primly notes that "the poor have to work their hides off for the rich." This is a movie in which the characters always say what they're thinking. Back home, the furniture has been repos sessed and the family is living on grass soup when a messenger arrives with an invitation to Lord Bluebeard's party. "You'd have to be poor to love him," Anne sniffs; the inevitable marriage ceremony ends with gold coins poured over Marie-Catherine's head. With such lurid material, Breillat is remarkably restrained. The discrepancy in size between the monster (Dominique Thomas) and his barely pubescent child-bride teases the imagination, as does the scene when, having established that she will sleep in a closet until she turns 20, Marie-Catherine spies on Bluebeard's enormous comatose body. It's gross, to be sure, although the movie's most explicit image is a lengthy shot of a decapitated fowl's bloody, twitching carcass. Is it the end of Mother Goose or a premonition of the movie's designated dead duck? —J. Hoberman