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Fargo film festival debuts on the theatre’s 90th birthday

It has come to be that time where Fargo Theatre will attract flocks of moviegoers and an endless variety of directors and actors who have submitted their films to the Fargo Film Festival.Pounds of popcorn will be munched as the public come to enjoy the beautiful stories that will adorn the theatre’s screen. In each theatre room, laughter, sniffles, crunching and applause will come from the darkened rooms as the movies capture the audience.

On its 90th birthday, the Fargo Theatre hosts the Fargo Film Festival for its 16th year. The Festival will begin March 15, Tuesday night featuring the film “Lost Conquest,” and will end March 19, Saturday night featuring “My Feral Heart” at 7:45 p.m.

Festival Co-Chair Matt Mcgregor isn’t sure if it’s the theatre’s 90th birthday or the variety of films that is bringing such a large crowd, but the festival is expecting a larger than normal flock of filmmakers.

“We’re expecting to break festival records with attendance of visiting filmmakers this year,” Mcgregor said.

March 15 through 19, Fargo Theatre is hosting the Fargo Film Festival. Filled with seven film categories, luncheons and workshops, the festival promises an entertaining week. Photo by Maddie Malat.
March 15 through 19, Fargo Theatre is hosting the Fargo Film Festival. Filled with seven film categories, luncheons and workshops, the festival promises an entertaining week. Photo by Maddie Malat.

Tom Speer, a Festival Co-Chair, is looking forward to the opening night the most.

“It’s the big anticipation and the fact that it’s the theatre’s 90th birthday on that very day,” Speer said. “There will be a few more surprises on the opening day and ‘The Lost Conquest’ is the opening night film and it’s awesome. It will be a really fun night.”

Speer also anticipates another fun-filled night with the local North Dakota film, “Welcome to Leith” on Friday night. Last year, the festival had another film based in the area called “The Overnighters” and according to Speer, it drew quite a crowd. Speer is curious to see what type of people this year’s local and controversial film will bring.

“The discussion with the filmmakers will be incredible,” Speer said.

According to Emily Beck, Executive Director of the Fargo Film Festival, “Welcome to Leith,” the winner of Best Documentary Feature is about a town standing together to face a declared white supremacist who is trying to take over their town.

Along with this film, the Fargo Film Festival presents a unique program that stands out in the numerous films it presents and the atmosphere it provides for its attendees.

“Every Fargo Film Festival has a different personality, a different set of exciting traits as trends in the programming surface. Our jurors do not approach submitted films with these in mind, it is just interesting to see them emerge after all the selections have been made,” Beck said.

While Speer is looking forward to the opening and closing nights, McGregor anticipates great excitement on Friday.

“I just straight up love the two minute movie contest,” McGregor said. “It always draws a big crowd and the theatre has a different feeling for those two hours on Friday night.”

Along with the usual wide invitation to all local movie lovers, Fargo Theatre is welcoming directors and actors on an international level.

“The one thing that really jumps out this year is we have so many visiting filmmakers,” Speer said. “We are so overwhelmed by how many people want to share their films this year.”

The wide variety of visiting filmmakers this year shines a large spotlight on the theatre, according to Speer. The Fargo Theatre is always hosting different events, whether that be plays, concerts, or of course, films. With the festival around the corner, it brings the theatre a crowd of first-comers and of people who have been away for some time.

“I also love meeting filmmakers from around the world and the film-lovers of the surrounding region,” McGregor said.

Filmmakers have submitted their films and have been accepted into the festival various times over the past 16 years. McGregor said that filmmakers submit their films for a number of reasons. One main reason is they love the opportunity to come to Fargo because of “the novelty of our town in pop culture right now and because of the weather.” Surrounded by a community that loves film, the filmmakers flock toward the hospitable city.

In addition to the array of films and international representation of filmmakers, the festival chairs will be providing opportunities to interact with the directors of the films. There will be a few Q&A opportunities, daily luncheons with different film discussion topics and according to Speer, a workshop on Saturday, March 19 at 1:30 p.m. in the Spirit Room off of Broadway in downtown Fargo. The workshop will be with filmmaker Mike Forstein, writer and director of the short film “Meat.”

“It will be targeted toward all student filmmakers and it will discuss how to approach the film festival circuit and how to approach premiers,” Speer said. “It’s for students who want to go out and have their work shown and don’t know how quite to do that.”

The workshops and luncheons present one of many reasons why the festival can be important to the community, and according to Beck, the festival also provides important funds to keep the Fargo Theatre alive.

“[The Fargo Film Festival] is the Fargo Theatre’s largest annual fundraiser. The Festival generates funds to support this non-profit organization while furthering our mission to celebrate innovative independent filmmaking and connect these film artists with local audiences,” Beck said. “I believe it is also an important event for the community in general — the Fargo Film Festival offers top-notch entertainment and enriches the cultural fabric of Fargo-Moorhead.”

Narrative Feature

According to Brittney Goodman, the jury chair for Narrative Features, this year’s film festival provides a variety of films that take on reality at a new level.

“This year was the year of personal narratives and personal stories and the skills are very naturalistic,” Goodman said. “The acting was like real life, almost like a documentary and we had some more avant-garde cinematography.”

The category winner for narrative feature is “Wildlike.” Directed by Frank Halgreen, the film has been screened at various festivals and has won over 46 awards. According to Goodman, it is a “beautiful film with gorgeous cinematography.” The story begins with an adolescent girl (Ella Purnell) who runs away from an abusive home and ends up in the Alaskan wilderness. There, the girl runs into a character played by Bruce Greenwood, who reluctantly takes her in. “Bruce Greenwood is very accomplished and not usually the lead,” Goodman said. However, Greenwood has had a recurring role in the TV show “Madmen,” in “Startrek: Into the Darkness,” in “Flight” with actor Denzel Washington and in “Thirteen days,” a movie from the 90s about president John F. Kennedy.

Another film worth seeing is honorable mention and the Saturday showcase show, “My Feral Heart.” The lead character in the film is played by Stephen Brandon, who plays a man named Luke with Down syndrome. The audience follows Luke on his journey living in a residential facility where Luke encounters people he needs to help. Brandon and the director along with other contributors to the film will be present at the festival to represent this amazing film.

In addition to the adventurous and heart-wrenching films, this category also presents an opportunity to laugh. The Wednesday night feature comedy is “our only true comedy in our category,” Goodman said. Shot in Regina, the film “The Sabbatical” is directed by film festival veteran, Brian Stockton. The film is about an art professor going through a midlife crisis while trying to figure out what to do on his upcoming sabbatical. Playing the lead role is James Whittingham, who is a “hoot.” Both Stockton and Whittingham are natives of Regina and both will be coming to the festival to represent their comedy.

Narrative Short

Ranging from horror and science fiction to dramas, comedies and cross comedies the narrative short category provides a wide variety of genres for all film lovers to enjoy. According to Tony Tilton, jury chair of narrative short films, this category has the biggest range of films. Along with the variety of genres, some films use unique techniques that set them apart. One film was made with a 1970s look, another dramatic film resembles a Martin film.

“One interesting film is done by protégé of Ridley Scott and the special effects are amazing with a feature film quality,” Tilton said. The film, “Zero” is about a father and son who are separated while the planet is losing gravity and everything begins to float upwards.

Tilton also recommends a film called “Meat.” It was locally produced and is about door- to-door meat salesmen and the “seedy underbelly of hustlers and conmen.” Tilton said the film has a lot of character, humor and a bit of drama.

Another laughable film is called “What’s Eating Dad?” The film takes a modern twist on meeting the in-laws while bringing a pinch of science fiction. The father-in-law ends up being a zombie and everyone in the family treats him like he has a curable disease.

The narrative short category also has two top films: “Birthday” and “A Walk in Winter.” The first film is one of the category’s honorable mentions. It has won awards all over the country. “Birthday” is about a young wife and husband deeply in love before the husband has to go to war. When he returns, he is a triple amputee, changing the relationship between the couple and how they live their lives.

“A Walk in Winter” was submitted by actor, James Franco. In this film, Franco plays a man who travels back to his childhood home in the mountains of Alaska. There he finds deep trauma when he goes back to identify a body found in the mountains. On this journey, Franco’s character learns a long history of his mother’s murder, done by his father and he has to face the childhood he left behind.

Student Films

Starting March 15, Tuesday night, the festival will be featuring “My Feral Heart” and end with Saturday night’s feature “Lost Conquest.” Photo by Maddie Malat.
Starting March 15, Tuesday night, the festival will be featuring “My Feral Heart” and end with Saturday night’s feature “Lost Conquest.” Photo by Maddie Malat.

The Student Film category is by no means lesser than the other categories. According to Karen Olson, jury chair of student films, “Many of [the films] would stand up against many professional filmmakers.”

In this section, there are nine or 10 different countries represented by the submitted films with a little bit of every film category. There are four animated films, a couple of documentaries, some narratives in both drama and comedy and even a music video.

“This shows that students all over the world are active in filmmaking,” Olson said.

This year’s student film winner is a film called “Olilo.” Student, Ao Li, from China directed the film. She recently moved to New York for graduate studies in animation. “Olilo” is an animated film with no dialogue. Beautifully drawn, it is a story of a young, introverted woman who is enclosed in a box where she withgoes her daily life.

“The first time I saw it I had tears in my eyes,” Olson said.

Olson recommends two films to watch; both are honorable mentions. “Family Unit” is a drama about a middle-aged women serving time in prison and she only has three days to visit with her husband. The director of the film is Zach Marion who will be receiving the Rusty Casselton award for student filmmaking. Marion actually studied under Castleton so the award has a special meaning according to Olson.

Another honorable mention is called “Jewish Blind Date.” This film is about a matchmaking gone wrong and is a great comedy.

“The humor in it translates really well with the subtitles and has a great sophistication,” Olson said.

In anticipation of seeing these films featured at the festival, Olson cannot hide her excitement in the variety of quality student films that will be screened. She listed several other films worth seeing that tackle serious topics such as feminism and immigration policies within the bureaucracy. “Where We Stand” is about some Mormon women fighting for their rights within the Mormon church and “Welcome” is a drama on a medical doctor fighting to get back to the United States on her Visa after volunteering outside of the country.

Experimental Film

Although any film could be considered an experimental film based off of interpretations, some films in this category use unique techniques or styles that make the films stand out from the traditional categories of narrative and documentary films.

“Most of the movies that you are going to see at the Fargo Film Festival are from traditional genres — Narrative and Documentary,” said Jeff Kasper, jury chair of experimental films. “Movies in these categories generally appeal to a broader audience and fall more in line with what moviegoers typically consume at home on TV or at movie theatres. Experimental movies generally break away from those traditions and strive to create an experience that stands out from the norm and often is quite memorable.”

Since experimental films break away from the norm, audiences can find a new way to interpret and experience watching a movie. Kasper likes to watch experimental films as if he is appreciating a piece of art.

“I tend to think of and examine experimental movies as paintings or other works of art, which allows me to generate my own feelings about what I am experiencing,” Kasper said.

The winner of this category, “Double-Blind No. 1” doesn’t follow a script or storyboard like a typical movie. This film is a great example of unique techniques used to create an extraordinary experience for moviegoers. Five visual effects artists selected footage and independently worked with different styles and techniques to create their own visual effects shots.

“The shots were edited together with the intention of producing a creative, visually interesting piece with no planned narrative,” according to the filmmakers’ submission.

When Kasper first saw the film, he knew that “Double-Blind No. 1” was setting high standards for the rest of the category.

“I knew the rest of the submissions in our category were going to have a run for their money. You don’t want to miss this one!” Kasper said.

Documentary Short

In the documentary short category, a lot of films have an “offbeat tone” according to Chris Meissner, jury chair of documentary short films. Meissner listed off films such as “American Renaissance,” “The House is Innocent,” “Gooners,” and “Selling Out” as films that fit the offbeat feel.

“All [the films] treat their subjects with a little bit of irreverence and humor, while still being serious and thoughtful examinations of the subjects,” Meissner said.

In addition to its interesting tone and character examination, the film “American Renaissance” is co-directed by Ryan Scafuro. His film, “Bending Steel” helped him win the festival’s Best Documentary Feature and Best in Show a couple of years ago. Meissner said that despite the difference between Scafuro’s two films, fans of “Bending Steel” will find “American Renaissance” worth seeing.

Ironically, the winner of Best Documentary Short in this category is called “The Champion.” The film follows a male, Iraqi immigrant who had a background in boxing before coming to Chicago as a cab driver. One of the directors, Brett Garamella will be at the festival.

“His story as well as that of his family is conveyed and it even has a segment that is a documentary version of the ‘Cash Cab’ show,” Meissner said.

An honorable mention in documentary short is called “The House is Innocent.” This film is about a house in San Francisco that in the past was the site of a number of grisly murders by an elderly, female serial killer. Although the film accounts the backstory of the murderous events, it focuses on the current owners trying to “transcend the house’s past while at the same time, celebrating it in their own fashion.”


Although they may be short, the animation films have just as much variety in talented styles and techniques as the other categories while being “very involving movies,” said Greg Carlson, jury chair for animation.

Carlson said that honorable mention “The Casebook of Nips & Porkington” is less than three minutes long; however, the story’s characteristics are still able to bring a sense of Disney nostalgia for viewers.

“The quality of the character design and the inventive layout will remind you of classic Disney titles like ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘101 Dalmatians,” Carlson said.

The winner of the animation category “Of Shadows and Wings” debuted at the Locarno International Film Festival. The film is about a young bird feeling her body changing, and how she fights to survive in a community where the size of a bird’s wings seems to be the only thing that matters.

“[The film] is a thematically complex and meditative work,” Carlson said.

Carlson is especially excited about “Lesley the Pony Has an A+ Day.” This animation title may sound sweet and innocent, but according to Carlson, it doesn’t necessarily fit the rating PG.

“It’s a trippy freak-out that is most certainly not for children,” Carlson said. “Once you see it, you will not be able to stop singing the theme song.”

Documentary Feature

Similar to the array of topics in the narrative short category, the documentary feature category presents its own list of diverse stories to tell.

“The films range from post-traumatic stress disorder, to a bike trip across the country, to the experiences of foreign teenagers working summer jobs in the U.S.,” said Lisa Faiman, jury chair of documentary features.

The deliveries of the tell-tale stories are enhanced by the filmmakers’ perspectives and by editing, according to Faiman.

The perspectives get personal when “In Transit” and “Welcome to Leith” make the audience members feel as if they were with the filmmakers, said Faiman. The perspectives and editing also bring color and depth to the stories when “Bill Brunton: Guitar Maker” creates a “warm and colorful view of a guitar being created,” and “Lost Conquest” includes Viking reenactments.

Among the myriad of films playing in this category, Faiman highlighted a few that should make the filmgoers’ lists of movies to watch. The documentary “In Transit” brings the audience aboard the Empire Builder train and introduces them to the passengers and staff aboard. “Minimalism: A documentary about the Important things” is a “life-changing film,” according to Faiman.

Faiman also recommended visiting theatre two on Saturday afternoon where “Icelandic Film,” “Virgin Mountain” and “Big Voice,” a film about a choir in California will be screening.

“Virgin Mountain’ is one of my favorites of the festival,” Faiman said.

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