Come April 9, the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) is back in all its global glory, with more than 200 titles spread over 60+ countries of origin and—thanks to a climate change documentary filmed in Antarctica—representation from each of the seven continents. When you think about it, this is a pretty amazing event to have dropped into our backyard. And yet, especially for casual movie-goers, MSPIFF can appear to be a daunting, almost impossible task; a world for inscrutable foreign art films and highbrow academics.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Film fests are simply collections of great movies nobody has really heard of yet. In that way the MSPIFF is like an excellent cable package full of programming you don’t even know you want to see yet. Pick a day, a country, or a genre, find a couple films that pique your interest, and go for it. The only real downside is you’ll actually have to put some pants on and leave the house.
Don’t believe us? We watched a film from each of the six inhabited continents in the fest (sorry, Antarctic Edge: 70° South)—and also took a survey of some of the other options from each continent—to help whet your appetite.
Combine the 2000 movie Traffic with House of Cards, throw in a couple scenes from a scrappy handheld-shot action thriller, set it in Kenya, and you’ll start to have an idea of Veve. Its frenetic pace and variety of threads make it almost a channel surfing experience unto itself. Amos Munene is a charismatic member of parliament who quotes Obama and dreams of becoming president of Kenya. He’s also a kingpin in the regional trade of khat, or “veve,” a plant that’s harvested and chewed for its mildly narcotic effects. Amos sees a rival boss as an enemy after the latter scoffs at his plan to expand into the US. Meanwhile there are rumblings among khat farmers about unionizing to get better prices for their crop, and Amos has distinctly different views on that as a drug supplier than he has as their local representative. One day a mysterious gunman appears intent on assassinating Amos at a rally. What really throws a wrench into things is when Munene’s wife Esther begins to learn the truth of what her husband is up to. Despite all that’s going on (there are even more plot points not mentioned here), it remains down to earth and relatively simple to follow. Not having seen many African movies, I found it to be a good entry point.
95 minutes | April 16 @ 2 p.m., April 24 @ 9:30 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- Another politically aware thriller is Difret, an Oscar-submitted Ethiopian movie about a 14-year-old girl escaping from kidnappers attempting to force her into an arranged marriage.
- The documentary Zemene, with director attending, also spotlights the strength of a young Ethiopian girl in its story of a 10-year-old whose rare curvature of the spine is treated by an American doctor.
- A youth with a life-threatening physical condition is likewise the subject of Tanzanian narrative film White Shadow; in the case of Alias, his albinism makes him a target for harvesters who trade in albino body parts.
- Shot in black and white, the psychological fantasy drama Decor has a plot description that recalls Birdman but about a female film production designer in Egypt.
- Things of the Aimless Wanderer is an English-language Rwandan metaphorical mystery about the local perceptions of the first white explorers to reach East Africa.
- Rounding out the complete slate of African movies is Poverty, Inc., which will screen at the fest with one of its producers in attendance. The film is an exposé doc on the business of poverty relief nonprofits and NGOs, and a coproduction between several nations including Kenya, Rwanda, and Ghana.
After his father dies and his mother is promoted at her bureaucratic job, 11-year-old Chinmay moves from the big city of Pune to a jungle village. Although the cultural context and the scenery captured by the beautiful camerawork make the setting unmistakable, The Fort is more what you might think of as indie rather than Indian. More Boyhood than Bollywood. And like Linklater’s film that screened at last year’s fest, it bears the influence of some quieter Western coming-of-age films. It wasn’t shot over the course of many years, but does feature a boy and his single mother adjusting to a new place, and the many small moments, some inconsequential and some monumental, that together help comprise a life. Although the group of boys that Chinmay falls in with has a bizarre and horrifying hobby, much of the movie’s not so far from home. There’s the student who’s worshiped by his class at school, bullying, a defining bike race, childhood feelings of isolation, and a lot of brutal honesty about how food tastes delivered as only a kid can. In terms of flipping through your cable channels and getting near the four-digit mark, it’s like settling on an old adaptation of Tom Sawyer, and being wrong when you think you know how the story goes.
110 minutes | April 20 @ 4:15 p.m., April 24 @ 2:50 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- For a perhaps more lighthearted take on young boyhood, there’s Hello! Junichi, out of Japan.
- If you can’t make The Fort but are dying to see a movie in the Indian language of Marathi, 1000 Rupee Note, about a poor old woman whose life is turned topsy-turvy after she gets a wad of cash from a politician looking to buy votes, should do the trick.
- The director of 1000 Rupee Note will be attending the festival to represent both it and Dukhtar, a Pakistani movie he produced about a mother protecting her daughter from an arranged marriage.
- There’s also a healthy offering of Chinese films; on the documentary front, there's I Am Here, which follows the contestants on a cutthroat singing competition reality show.
- Music fans might also be interested in the doc Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, about the unique music coming out of that country during the Vietnam War era.
Already gaining some notoriety for the distributors’ decision (seemingly) to capitalize on the success of Boyhood with their choice of an English-language title (the original French title translates to “band of girls”), Girlhood’s take on teenage rebellion commands your attention. With a cast of mostly young black women and other people of color, it offers a view of suburban France not typically seen, especially by foreigners. Compellingly shot and scored, and directed by an up-and-coming female director, it exists as a strong and important social statement. As a story, it’s not so unfamiliar. Marieme is told she has no hope of getting into the vocational school of her choice. Directionless and under the thumb of her older brother who rules the roost with fear and violence while her mother is away at work, she joins up as the fourth member of a kind of tough girl clique/gang. The formerly straight-laced, American football-playing Marieme is now shoplifting, intimidating other students out of money, and getting into fights. She changes her entire look, and, so it would seem, much of her personality. Karidja Touré’s great performance creates a character who’s centered despite undergoing tumultuous changes. It’s like Heathers or Mean Girls taken to another world, and hinging on the realities of the street instead of satire.
112 minutes | April 11 @ 9:50 p.m., April 16 @ 9:30 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- Girlhood is one of about 30 films in the fest that is at least partially French-produced. In another, Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart star as actors rehearsing a play in the Swiss Alps.
- Tokyo Fiancée, a romantic comedy/drama, is about a Belgian woman returning to her birth country of Japan.
- Also from Belgium is Cub, a horror movie featuring a group of Cub Scouts on a camping trip.
- Lola on the Pea is a German movie about a little girl who lives on a houseboat and who befriends a family of Kurdish undocumented workers.
- The Dinner is a dark family drama from Italy about adult brothers.
- A surprisingly large crop of films with ties to Croatia includes a Serbian movie about a shyster who leads a community effort to build a titular Monument to Michael Jackson.
- From up north there's Not Ready to Die, a Swedish documentary about one of that country’s biggest pop stars, an Iranian-born woman.
The main draw for me with this one, and presumably for many fest patrons, is that it’s entirely local, filmed with a Minnesotan cast and crew in St. Paul and around the Twin Cities. The Center is the story of an average, young, aimless Midwestern guy who gets drawn into the depths of a cult-like self-help organization, familiar to us from countless movies and TV shows. It takes a less intimate and insider-y approach than The Master, but you see the requisite brainwashing and alienation from friends and family, and it’s never boring to hear the creator of “Intention” spout about his philosophy. You might watch this for the same reasons you watch the six o’clock news: to catch up on local happenings and maybe spot someone you recognize (I counted two personally). If you’ve ever gotten bored with endless entertainment options and decided to stick with a public access station once your remote landed you there, this has that vibe at times, albeit with a much more polished look and much snappier editing. Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme was smitten enough with the film to supervise the final cut and attach his name as the film’s executive producer and presenter. No small accomplishment for a local little movie!
72 minutes | April 22 @ 7:20 p.m., April 24 @ 10 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- If Canada, Mexico, and the good ol’ US of A are more your speed, the fest has you covered. Almost 60 movies with production ties to the US will screen, including Cheatin’, a new hand-drawn animated feature from Bill Plympton, who will be in attendance, and Results, a fitness-themed romantic comedy starring Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce, and Cobie Smulders.
- Besides The Center, there are more than a dozen movies made all over the world by Minnesotans, not to mention a whole bevy of shorts.
- In narrative competition is The Unearthing, shot in Stillwater by a 17-year-old director, also attending.
- Among the documentaries is The Dinkytown Uprising, by one of the festival’s own founders, 92-year-old Al Milgrom, who probably wishes people would stop referring to his age every time they mention him.
- And, of course, the closing presentation is the directorial debut of Bill Pohlad, who will be present for his Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy.
- From Canada there’s the narrative Shana: The Wolf’s Music, filmed with the native Interior Salish peoples of British Columbia.
- The director of Happy Times, a Mexican romantic comedy about a guy who just can’t shake his girlfriend, is attending.
- Lumping Cuba in with North America, I really wanted to get a screener for Venice, about three Havana women doing some soul-searching during a night out.
Love Marriage in Kabul
This Australian documentary was actually filmed almost entirely in Afghanistan, with an Australian crew accompanying an Afghan-Australian woman on an eight-day stay in Kabul. Her name is Mahboba Rawi, and she is a force of nature. She’s the founder of Mahboba’s Promise, an organization that maintains dozens of projects in Afghanistan, such as orphanages and centers for women and children. She runs it from Sydney, with frequent trips back like this one. This visit is to make the terrible choice of which programs to cut for lacking funds, but what makes it special is that she also decides to make a marriage possible for one of the first children she took in. Abdul, who has the looks and charm of an Afghan Miles Teller, was one of Mahboba’s star pupils. Now a young man, he’s finished his schooling and teaches at the orphanage where he grew up. He and a girl named Fatemeh are in love, but her stubborn father has difficult demands to be met before he’ll allow them to marry. At times inspirational, sad, funny, and life-affirming, this movie gives us a look at the best of humanity. In grabbing a film festival choice out of the air, as in channel surfing, it’s often the most unexpected and unfamiliar choices that end up being the most fascinating.
84 minutes | April 16 @ 6:50 p.m., April 19 @ 5:15 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- Another selling point for Love Marriage in Kabul may be that one if its producers will be attending the fest. Plus, the pickins were relatively slim for this seaward region.
- Since I didn’t particularly want to see Australia’s That Sugar Film, a Super Size Me-type exposé doc about the prevalence of sugar in supposedly healthy foods, and since we weren’t able to secure screeners for Slow West, a Michael Fassbender-starring British- and Kiwi-funded Western shot in New Zealand, or The Dark Horse, a New Zealand biopic about a Maori chess player and youth leader, I ended up watching a movie shot in Afghanistan.
- Posted to the Film Society’s website after I’d already submitted my choices was 52 Tuesdays from Australia. Experimental in the vein of (again) Richard Linklater, it’s a feature about a teenage girl and her mother, who is undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and was shot on one day a week over the course of a year.
Quick, think of everything you know about Peru. Machu Picchu, llamas, alpacas? This documentary argues that if you don’t know Peruvian cuisine, you don’t Peru. “[Peruvians] are always either eating or talking about food,” explains a gastronomic researcher. They cook, he gushes, “not to fill satisfaction, but to fill their soul.” And if this is a nation whose cooking is synonymous with its identity, you can bet that Gaston Acurio, a chef who has become the embodiment of Peruvian cuisine, is a pretty big deal there. In Finding Gaston, Gaston can be found, well, pretty much everywhere. Traveling his country, visiting his restaurants and schools, and bestowing culinary blessings on everything he touches like some kind of cross between Gordon Ramsay and the pope. His politician father wanted to send him into the family business, but through following his passion as a chef, Gaston has been able to do much more. As the movie tells it, he not only restored national pride to Peru through great food, he’s reinvigorating the global image of Latin America. Caring, personable, and humble, he’s nothing like the character of the same name in Beauty and the Beast. See this if you’ve ever been watching Bar Rescue or the like and found yourself thinking, “Sure, but could he do this for a whole country?”
75 minutes | April 14 @ 5:20 p.m., April 22 @ 3:15 p.m. | St. Anthony Main
What else is out there?
- The filmmakers behind another interesting-looking documentary, Brazil’s If I Give My Soul, will be present to talk about their movie, which deals with Pentecostal Christian communities of inmates in brutal Rio de Janeiro prisons.
- Colombian box office hit Ciudad Delirio is a salsa dancing-fueled romantic comedy/drama.
- My first choice for a South American screener was History of Fear (Argentina/Uruguay/Germany/France), a social anxiety-ridden thriller about disparate but connected characters and seemingly commonplace events that escalate their dread.
- Minnesotan actor Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men will be at the fest, accompanying the film he stars in—Red Knot, an Argentine and American narrative feature about an Antarctic voyage—and its director.
- A black comedy from Uruguay, Mr. Kaplan concerns an elderly Jewish man who fled Europe 70 years ago and who now suspects a local beach bar owner of being an escaped Nazi.