Anyone tired of hearing about the Oak Street Cinema's demise? Like some sort of deja vu, the Oak Street is once again in the spotlight as the time for the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival approaches. It seems pretty obvious that the Oak Street could limp along for a while doing weekly runs like Inland Empire and Army of Shadows. No offense to anyone, but you could give a monkey a film magazine and a Landmark schedule and it could program weekly runs in this town. If there has been a spike in attendance, it is probably because your average Twin Citian has just now come around to the fact that the Oak is still open. ("Didn't the Oak Street close last year?" "I thought they were trying to do some sort of 'Save the Oak Street' fundraising that didn't work, or something.") But wait, what about the film festival? Minnesota Film Arts may be the organization that runs the Bell and the Oak, but it is also the organization that runs the film festival. Let's be totally honest, you can't limp through an International Film Festival unless you want to dig your grave.
I have never been a fan of the MSPIFF or it's previous incarnation The Rivertown Film Festival. The programming choices always seemed as bland as Midwestern salsa, focusing on watered-down middle of the road films that just happened to be in a foreign language. The best festival I've seen in my past 16 years in the Twin Cities was without a doubt Jamie Hook's 2005 cash cow. Granted, 2005 may have been more about quantity that quality, but within that quantity was some some films that actually has resonance on the world stage - A Tout de Suite, Clean, The Edukators, The World, 5 x 2, Kings and Queen, Kontroll, The Soup One Morning, Schizo, The Taste of Tea, and 15 just to name a few. (To be fair 2004 had some killer titles too: 9 Souls, The Corporation, Distant, Dogville, The Five Obstructions, Goodbye Dragon Inn, I'm Not Scared, The Return, The Story of the Weeping Camel, and Zatoichi.) The inspired schedules pointed to better and, yes, younger programmers than have since left or been canned from Minnesota Film Arts.
Which brings us to the 2006 MSPIFF. Reeling from the Jamie Hook explosion, board member Tim Grady bailed MN Film Arts out of imminent danger with his own funds, and took it upon himself to pull up his boot straps and rally the troops for the 2006 MSPIFF. Glossy program aside (you can still pick one up in the basement of the Oak Street), the festival was late out of the gate and lacked the monumental push that a festival needs. Crowds seemed to be good and there were some good films to be had, but I think it was far from a barn-burner.
So where does that leave us now? We have Al Milgrom standing up during a screening of Satantango proclaiming that there would be a the 24 1/2 MSPIFF in April and then a gala 25th MSPIFF in the fall. We have rumors that the Oak is for sale. We have rumors that Minnesota Film Arts missed renewing their nonprofit status. We have an organization that is still operating in the red. And we seem to have a festival slated for April 19-29 with no schedule and very little staff and one (unpaid) programmer. I appreciate Al Milgrom trying to assure people that things are okay in a recent Strib article that quoted him in saying, "People need to know that there is no problem with the festival and that it is going to be as good as ever." But how can this be anywhere near the truth?
More than ever the Twin Cities needs an International film festival. The Twin Cities has hit a dry spell in retrospectives, repertory screenings, and interesting programming in the Landmarkization film community. With the Lagoon closing (or is it?) for constuction of the mega-condo-complex, choices will be even fewer. The Walker seems to be carrying the torch for programming, but there is only so much that one screen with an average of 15 days of programming a month can do. My question for the Film Fest has always been, why do 150 mediocre films that most have never heard of when you could do 50 awesome films that already have a fair amount of cinefest-style hype behind them? Maybe the money factor and scheduling issues does come into play, but I could easily make a wishlist of 100 films, based mostly on educated hearsay, that would be festival-worthy, buzz-worthy, media-worthy, screen-worthy, and Twin Cities-worthy.
It has been reported in the City Pages and the Star Tribune that Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako will open the festival, which is exciting. But Euan Kerr reported on his Movie Natters blog that some of the "favorites" for the upcoming festival are The Sugar Curtain (France/Spain), Kamone Diner (Japan), Yacoubian Building (Egypt) and the The Story of Pao (Vietnam)....huh? If those are the highlights, I am really worried, plus The Story of Pao is playing this weekend. But then again, what kind of film festival do we expect from a bankrupt and unorganized MN Film Arts? The next question is, of coarse, if Minnesota Film Arts doesn't/can't do the Film Festival, who will? Time will tell for 2007, but what about 2008? Anybody have a couple hundred thousand dollars burning a hole in their pocket?