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Mineapolis Fim Festival: cinema esoterica in upper Mid-West

Al Milgrom, founding father (along with Mpls. Businessman Tim Grady) of this most eclectic of hinterland festivals, has been waging a relentless battle for nearly two and a half decades to introduce off-beat celluloid Americana and quality foreign film Esotrica into this Land of Sky Blue Waters, Pillsbury flour silos and (ulp) Norveegin farmers. Says Dr. Milgom: "Sometimes it's a hard sell, but we feel it's our cultural duty to cinema-educate these plain(s) folk and show them that there's more to life than pulling in a good crop and surviving the winter with Walt Disney and the Nature Channel. Over the years we have (incredibly) developed a steady following, and it doesn't hurt that we are located in the midst of the
University of Minnesota campus, nor that this city, despite its squeaky clean All-American Silent Majority image, has become home to many exotic new immigrant communities ranging from Somali and Hmong (a Vietnamese hill tribe) to the second largest Tibetan Community in these here Yewnited States". A glance through the festival catalogue reveals that Milgrom and his squad of dedicated cohorts are not pulling any punches or "talking down" to their prospective audience in any way, shape, or form.
The night I got here, for example, I found myself confronted with one of the most exotic "double features" I have ever been treated to in my long years of esoteric film viewing -- a mind-bending, or bent (depending on your taste) Tibetan language feature, "Dreaming Lhasa", followed up immediately with the dazzling new Mongolian film "Cave of the Yellow Dog". Now, that's what I would call an unusual "one-two punch" -- it's not every day one sees Tibetan and Mongolian films back-to-back, especially in the American
Out-back!

"Dreaming Lhasa" is a fiction film about the sorrowful Tibetan diaspora in the wake of the ruthless Chinese repression which has been going on for decades while the world looks the other way -- (much as it did when Hitler was swalllowing up Austria and Czechoslovakia) ... The co-directors are Tibetan-American husband-and-wife team Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, while America's foremost convert to Buddhism, Richard Gere was one of the producers. The basic story line follows the adventures of a young, attractive American-born Tibetan filmmaker, Karma, who journeys back to a north Indian town populated largely by Tibetan refugees in order to document the Tibetan liberation movement. She falls in with a dissident monk who needs to deliver a magical charm box to another Tibetan, suspected of murder, who has long disappeared... and will turn out to be closely related to him and his mother. The story line is a bit forced, but it must be remembered that this film was made for a Tibetan, not a western audience.
At the Mpls. Riverview theater screening half the audience were Tibetans who laughed heartily at lines of dialogue and cultural content which was completely lost on other local viewers. The production values of the film are second-rate, the sound at times garbled, but still, as a first feature film in the Tibetan language to be made in this country it is one not to be dismissed out of hand.

"Cave of the Yellow Dog" is a breathtakingly beautiful feature from mongolia directed by femme helmer Byambasuren Davaa (born 1971 in Ulaan Batar) who has already scored heavily on the festival trail with "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (2003). Set far out on the Mongolian plains the story centers on Nansal, a girl of perhaps seven, who is the oldest child of a nomadic family tending sheep and living in the traditional movable yurt home.
Nansal, already an able rider of horses, one day finds a dog in a cave and brings it home, but her father, believing it will bring bad luck, orders her to get rid of the frisky little canine. The feisty young lass finds various ways of hiding the dog and hears the karmic legend of the Yellow Dog from an old woman. Here it's not so much the plot that matters as the way in which the simple beauty inherent in the nomadic family way of life is presented.
Dazzling outdoor scenery of the kind that makes you suspect that Shane would be right at home here, the extremely colorful dress that is the normal costumery of these people, the amazingly deft artwork that forms the environment of the home -- all combine to make city viewers (like myself) wonder what we're doing wasting our lives here in the urban jungle. This picture and the people in it (including squabbling babies) are all so beautiful that they must be seen to be believed. A most satisfying evening at the flickers and a 93 minute antidote to the violent, mentally-ill poison that passes for "movie entertainment" these days.

Another film with a Tibetan twist was "God Wears My Underwear", a 45 minute digital art fantasy-doc from San Francisco Digital artist, Leslie Streit.
The main thrust of this extremely complex piece of work is an attempt to correlate the German Genocide of the Jews in the first part of the century with the Communist Chinese invasion, takeover, and ethnic cleansing policies, in Tibet in the second half of the century. The connection between the two sets of atrocities is effected through the psychic umbilical cord of a Tibetan monk, Eo, who comes to Berlin in the thirties to teach Buddhism.
He is appalled but at the same time paralyzed by what he witnesses there and is obsessed with guilt when he returns to Tibet because of his stand-by do-nothing stance during his German sojourn. When he himself falls victim to the Chinese invaders in his own country his soul is karmicly transmogrified, it seems, into the body of a most disturbed Jewish girl in San Francisco whose personal gender identification problem is so great that she urinates standing up -- between hallucinogenic visions of a previous life in Tibet. A difficult juxtaposition, to say the least, not worked out as fully as it might be in a longer exposition -- but what counts in this film more than the narrative line, is the dreamlike visual presentation and the unusual use of archival footage from the days of the rise of Naziism.
Director Streit says it took almost eight years to put the film together because "nearly every frame you see had to be digitally manipulated".
Because of its in-between length -- not quite long and not quite short -- and because of its defiance of classification -- something like a Digital-Art Occult Documentary, it's hard to say where this film will surface again, but one thing is sure -- wherever it is seen it's bound to raise a few eyebrows and maybe even warp a few minds.

A sampling of other titles on view: From Scandinavia, "As it is in Heaven", Sweden, 2004, introducing ultra-zoftic, shooting star, blond bombshell, Frida Hallgren; "An Enemy of the People", Norway 2005 -- A brilliant version of the famous Ibsen play re-set in the dazzling fjord country; "Mother of Mine", Finland 2005, about Finnish children who were evacuated to Sweden during WW II; "Manslaughter" (Drabet), 2005, a hard-hitting socio-political drama from Denmark which was a strong contender at San Sebastian last fall, with an electrifying performance by young actress, Beate Bille; "The Collector" by Feliks Falk, Poland, 2005. This study of a sleazy debt-collector in modern day Warsaw was voted the best Polish film of the year at Gdynia in September, and rising anti-hero star Andrzej Chyra picked up a well-earned best actor award as well; "Go for Zucker", Germany, 2004, is the first German-Jewish comedy since the end of the war -- Until now it was a taboo to show Jews on screen in post-Nazi Germany in anything but a Mea-Culpa manner. Swiss born Jewish director Levy directs this return to comedic normalcy (for Jews) and the flick was the biggest German box-office hit of the year in 2005.

Another film of Jewish interest is "La Petite Jerusalem -- directed by Karin Albou, a 2005 Israel/French co-production which takes a look at the endless Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes of two women living in a poor Jewish suburb of Paris populated largely by North-African immigrants. Yet another study of Israel-Arab dis-relations is "The Syrian Bride", a fascinating France/Germany/Israel co-production directed by Eran Riklis and filmed on location in the Golan heights. This story of an encumbered wedding in a tinderbox area on the Israeli Syrian border is a real winner which must be seen to be believed. "A World without Thieves" is a Hong Kong film about a Chinese Bonnie and Clyde type couple by director Xiaogang Feng, 2004. "The Sixth of May" is a Dutch film by Theo van Gogh centering on the shocking assassination of popular gay politician Pim Fortuyn. Director van Gogh was even more shockingly murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Dutch moslem who disapproved off his take on Islam in another film.

Perhaps the most unusual film of all was the world premiere of "The Reawakening", the very first full-length feature film to be completely produced, directed, and acted by Native Americans. The director is Diane Fraher (Osage from Oklahoma) and the stars are all Native-American actors.
Filmed on the Onondaga Reservation (Iroquois) in upper New York State, the story centers on whether or not to build a casino on reservation territory.
Sure this would bring a significant amount of cash to the Indian treasury, but much much more wampum to the coffers of the down-state pale-face developers. Moreover, the proposed entertainment complex would require the trashing of the traditional tribal Long-House. The big money boys, fronted by an extremely sleazy half-breed hustler, try to use Doc, an educated Indian from the reservation, now working for a major NYC law firm, as their cat's paw to pressure the traditional Indian elders into this pernicious cultural sell-out. Michael Grey-eyes is the handsome charismatic actor who portrays "Doc" in the film, and was, for me, a real discovery. Forget about Jay Silverheels and all them other "Kemosabbe" steppin-fetchit comic-book Redskins of yesteryear. This guy is a full-blood Indian who can really screen act. All other Indian roles in the film are taken by native-American actors, many members of the Screen Actors guild. Aside from Grey-eyes the other actors may seem a bit stiff from a Paleface point of view, but from my own reservation experiences (three years on the Cheyenne reservation in Montana) I found their way of presenting themselves very authentic -- as opposed to "Hollywood Indians" of the past such as Sal Mineo, Jeff Chandler, Burt Reynolds, and a host of other misbegotten Indian Caricatures.
Furthermore, the story is very contemporary and addresses itself to real Indian problems going on today right under our noses, but largely unseen by the general public. A very important point is made in the film of the "sovereignty" of the many Indian nations embedded in our midst. In short, I thought it was one wow of a film and I certainly think it deserves widespread commercial distribution.

Other nations represented were India, Iran, Hungary, Greece -- you-name-it -- and a large number of American indies and documentaries. One of the most successful seat fillers was a set of Minnesota documentaries, tailor made for the home town crowd. The nicest of the five festival cinemas is the
Riverview, an 800 seat refurbished Art Deco palace and the Bell Auditorium, on campus, housed in the Natural History museum is another architectural throwback to the Golden Years of movie going.

During his two-dozen year tenure in Minneapolis, Minnesota native son Al Milgrom has really put this somewhat out-of-the-way upper Midwest city on the international cinematic map. A long term regular at such festivals as Berlin and Karlovy Vary, and closer to home, Toronto and Montreal, Milgrom is constantly on the go looking for unusual films to snatch away from more heavily funded festivals. He is famous in his relentless quest for new material, for seeing more films in a single day than any other living festival organizer or film critic. He is said to hold the Guinness Book of records of 43 films ogled in a single day at Berlin. Of course, he was on a bicycle and only saw portions of each film. Says A where I can tell in three or four minutes if a film has what it takes to interest my audience back home".

Moreover with his infectious love of exotic films (no time for Mainstream crap), engaging personality, highly visible presence, and ability to spout authentic riffs in many languages (Russian, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, Catalan, Yiddish, etc.) he has succeeded over the years in establishing personal friendships and luring some of the biggest names in film to this half of the Twin-Cities (Saint Paul is the other half). The list is long, but includes the likes of: Jean-Luc Godard, Nikita Mikhalkov, Milos Forman, Krzysztof Zanussi, Roberto Rosselini, Dusan Makavejev, Wim Wenders and Terry Gilliam, to name only a few of the more obvious celebrities. This year, incidentally, the trophy guest is Arturo Ripstein, the dean of Mexican directors, with a filmography extending back some forty years and an artist who cut his cinematic teeth working as an assistant to non other than Luis Bunuel.
A selection of Ripstein films are to be shown and the director is on hand to field quesations in English or Spanish.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul film festival does not host a jury nor award prizes for Best this-and-that. This is an audience festival in every way and its goal is to bring films of high quality and exceptional diversity to this part of the world -- films which would otherwise never get here or be seen in this neck of the woods -- and, of course, thereby to raise the consciousness of the local film populace. The only arbiters are the people who come out to see the films and vote for their own favorites. The most requested films will be repeated as a "Best of the Fest" series running a full week after the festival officially closes. The hot number so far, it seems, is the brilliant "Cave of the Yellow Dog" from Mongolia along with Carlos Saura's flamenco masterpiece, "Iberia". And as far as the social scene is concerned, I have been at some of the best festival connected private parties I have ever been privileged to attend, mostly put on by gracious well-heeled sponsors of the fest, in locales themselves worthy of use as a movie set, such as the Pilsbury Mansion.

Alex, Minneapolis

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