Fargo Film Festival: What you should know about the virtual showcase

The pandemic that shut down the Fargo Film Festival in its 20th year won’t do the same for its 21st. The annual film festival is returning this year as a nearly two-week long virtual showcase. Read on for more on the content, the planning and the people behind this year’s Fargo Film Festival.

Veteran FFF volunteers share 2021 favorites

By Linden Stave

The reality of a virtual Fargo Film Festival comes with its own unique challenges, but going online also provides new opportunities to bring together the vibrant community that has been coming to the Fargo Theatre every spring since the first festival took place in 2000.

Kendra O’Brien hasn’t missed a Fargo Film Festival since year two, and she’s been volunteering with the organization for the last decade. This year, O’Brien serves as a festival co-chair, and says she’s “excited that we’re still able to showcase these phenomenal films in a way that maintains safety for our audience and filmmakers.”

The sentiment is echoed by Tom Speer, who serves as the jury chair for the narrative feature category of the festival. He notes, “I’m just thankful we can still have a festival. There are still incredible pieces of work to be shared with our audiences, and we’re happy to accommodate in a safe, virtual setting.”

Speer has been involved with the festival since 2009. Though this festival is much different than in years past, he says the decision-making process for jurors didn’t change. “Sure, we video-chatted rather than meeting in person,” he notes. “But there was still great discussion, followed by some very tough decisions. I like tough decisions. They are the sign of a strong film festival.”

Speer is excited about the winning film from the narrative feature category, “Paper Tiger,” a drama directed by Paul Kowalski. Speer says, “‘Paper Tiger’ is an unforgettable rollercoaster of a film. Among themes of gun violence, mental health and immigration, the film explores the need to communicate through the relationship between main character Edward and his mother Lily.”

In addition to performing the duties of festival co-chair, O’Brien also served on the short documentary jury this year, and highlighted “The Game” from the category: “The movie is a standout. It follows the work of a soccer referee. Regardless of whether you’re a sports fan, it’s a beautiful, personal story, and gives you the chance to relive pre-pandemic crowd energy.”

Documentary feature “Newtopia” is another favorite cited by O’Brien: “I want people to watch so I can discuss it with them! It follows a Norwegian man who goes to live in a traditional Mentawai tribal home on a remote island in Indonesia. Filmed over 15 years, it’s a memorable story about friendship, nature, and the intersection of traditional and modern lifestyles.”

While many will miss the friendly and electric in-person atmosphere of the Fargo Theatre, the accessibility and convenience of the new online format does provide some new possibilities that might not have been possible in previous years. O’Brien says one welcome change is the opportunity “to include even more Q and A sessions with filmmakers in the virtual festival, and more people can fit [these sessions] into their schedules.”

“I think the biggest opportunity with a virtual festival is showcasing how strong FFF truly is,” says Speer. “It will always be a showcase of tremendous cinema, a source of inspiration for aspiring artists, and a remarkable experience for our community. Not even a pandemic can change that.”

Animation and Experimental categories always offer something fresh

By Grant Klevgaard

Animated and experimental films are a mainstay of the Fargo Film Festival and allow audiences to experience just how creative and unique filmmakers can be. In the animation category, the filmmakers can transport audiences to a different dimension and bend the rules of reality, and in the experimental category, visions unlike any other are put on full display. 

Without passionate volunteers like animation jury chair Kari Arntson and experimental jury chair Christine Hoper, the opportunity to see the best in experimental and animated independent film would not be possible.

The duties of the chairs and their jurors are to watch all the submissions for their category and meet as a group to vote on which films should be included and which one they thought was the most exceptional. However, where past jury meetings were rich, in-person affairs, this year they were held online, just like the festival itself will be.

Arntson lauded the flexibility of her jurors, along with their ability to adapt to the circumstances. Arntson notes, “Our voting meeting, while virtual, had lots of participation and spirited discussions and in the end I feel we delivered a category of high-quality, varied films that I can’t wait to share with our audience.”

Hoper, who works as a digital project manager for Flint Group, is a longtime festival volunteer who has often served as jury chair of the experimental category. She has developed a strong understanding of and appreciation for experimental cinema, but helping new jurors can initially be a difficult task given the elastic nature of the category. 

Hoper says, “Anything that might prevent a film from being easily placed in another category might be an indicator.” Some films featured are experimental in the way they are shot, others are atypical in their subject matter, and others are in their narrative structure. 

Hoper points to the official selection by Avner Pinchover titled “Fluorescent.” Pinchover’s previous movie “Chairs” received honorable mention in the category at last year’s festival. Hoper says, “These films do not have any traditional characters, but instead feature the titular furniture: chairs and a fluorescent light.” 

The experimental film that Hoper is most excited for 2021 Fargo Film Festival audiences to see is the category winner, “Beyond Noh,” which also screened in this year’s prestigious Slamdance Film Festival. “Beyond Noh” is around three minutes in length, but Hoper says, “It is so fast and packed with stunning images that viewers may forget to breathe.”

Animation shares a kinship with experimental film in the sense that films could be about anything and the storytelling takes many forms. These seemingly limitless parameters can make comparing and judging the films difficult, but animation jury chair Arntson is up to the task. Arntson has been the chair of the animation jury three times and a juror eight more times since she first volunteered for the festival in 2006. 

She notes, “I have always been a fan of the way animation can be used in storytelling.” Arntson points to the strong tradition of animation at the Fargo Film Festival, citing past favorites like Don Hertzfeldt’s “I Am So Proud of You” and the “World of Tomorrow” series, along with “The Secret of Kells” by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey and Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues.” 

For the 2021 Fargo Film Festival, Arntson says, “All the films in our category this year are worth seeing, but there are a few that I am particularly excited about.”

“Grab My Hand: A Letter to My Dad” is one of those films. Arntson describes it as “such a touching film of friendship, loss and family.”

Both Arntson and Hoper said their favorite part of the festival was interacting with the filmmakers, whether that be in the form of audience Q and A, doing interviews, or just meeting them around Fargo during the week of the festival. 

Hoper says that visiting filmmakers seem to “let their guard down and have fun,” and expects that tradition to continue, even in an online format. That charm could be just what everyone needs heading into the second year of the pandemic. 

Movies have been a way for some to escape the challenges of isolation, and people like Kari Arntson, Christine Hoper, and everyone else making the 2021 Fargo Film Festival a reality are helping people retain some sense of normalcy in the most abnormal circumstances.

How to prepare for a virtual film festival

By Dominic Erickson

Emily Beck, who has been the Fargo Theatre’s Executive Director since 2011, says, “While nothing can replicate the experience of attending a cinema, the virtual Fargo Film Festival is a fabulous way for movie lovers to find entertaining, enlightening and original stories.”

Beck says producing a virtual festival versus an in-person festival is “different in almost every way imaginable.” In a normal festival year, she would be coordinating dozens of flights and hotels for special guests, venues and caterers for half-dozen evening parties, luncheons, panel discussions, workshops, session hosts and campus visits. This year, she is focused on sponsorship, marketing, filmmaker outreach and programming.

All of the other staff members must adjust their roles too. For example, instead of the Technical Director spending countless hours testing exhibition files on the big screen, he is preparing content for the streaming platform.

Sean Volk, the Fargo Theatre Development and Engagement Manager, is readying over twenty Q and A sessions with filmmakers.

“We have an incredible group of volunteers and Fargo Theatre staff members that make the festival possible,” says Volk. “When the festival occurs in person, it takes months of planning to execute the event at the Fargo Theatre and other venues throughout downtown. 

For our virtual festival, we create a streaming video website and communicate with filmmakers around the world.”

In August 2020, the 20th Fargo Film Festival commenced virtually after being postponed in March. No one on the Fargo Theatre team had ever produced an entirely virtual festival. While the event was a bit of an experiment, Beck was proud of the turnout.

“I think this time around, we will be able to anticipate our customers’ technical needs and questions a bit better,” says Beck. “For FFF21, we have changed some ticketing elements to accommodate geo-blocking restrictions, which is unique to virtual festivals. Our filmmakers are also now much more familiar with virtual festivals, so we’ve seen a smoother rollout on the exhibition end too.”

Although audiences will miss out on the physical atmosphere of attending the screenings, there is a plus side to the virtual event: an extended festival will allow for a few extra days to watch more movies.

In keeping with tradition, the quality of the movies remains high. Five of the festival’s selections were included in the Academy Awards shortlist. They include “Feeling Through,” “Bittu,” “Kapaemahu,” Colette,” and “Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa.”

Beck’s favorite films of the fest are short-format, and she recommends Narrative Shorts Block 1. Beck says, “The comedy ‘Coffee Shop Names’ features a few famous faces and a snappy screenplay. It follows three Indian-Americans who give fake names to baristas because they are tired of having their real names pronounced incorrectly. They each daydream about the absurdly perfect lives of these alternative personas — imagining very different paths for themselves. It is funny, poignant and relevant.”

She also singles out “Huntsville Station,” saying, “It took my breath away. It documents a group of former inmates on the day they are released from prison, some just ending decades-long sentences. They wait at a bus station, hoping that friends or family will come to take them away from one life and into another. It is one of those films that I will carry in my heart for years to come.”

Volk has a few picks he is excited to share as well: “One of my favorite narrative shorts is ‘Under the Lights’ directed by Miles Levin. In the film, an epileptic teen is desperate to attend his prom, but the night does not go as he plans.”

Volk also recommends “Missing in Brooks County,” which received honorable mention from the documentary feature Jury. The film is about two families searching for loved ones who have gone missing while immigrating to the United States.

The 2021 Fargo Film Festival will be held as a virtual event from March 18 to 28. Information about ticket options will be made available on the festival’s website and through the Fargo Theatre.

Meet Fargo Film Festival volunteer and Documentary Short Jury Chair Ann Hall Anderson

By Bigyan Chand

The 21st edition of the annual Fargo Film Festival will be a virtual event this March due to pandemic. The online edition will continue to showcase work from different parts of the country and the world. Seven categories are represented in the Fargo Film Festival, and one of the most popular of these is devoted to short documentaries. I shared a conversation with Ann Hall Anderson, documentary short jury chair of the 2021 Fargo Film Festival.

Bigyan Chand: Could you please introduce yourself? What are your favorite films and how have they shaped your love for films?
Ann Hall Anderson: My name is Ann Hall Anderson. I have worked in television production for nearly 30 years, primarily editing documentaries for Prairie Public Television. I saw my first Charlie Chaplin short, “The Rink,” when I was in high school. I was captivated by Chaplin’s ability to tell a story without speaking a word. This sparked my love of old movies. A couple of my favorites are “Rear Window” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

BC: How long have you volunteered for the Fargo Film Festival?
AHA: This is my sixth year with the festival. I served as a jury member for documentary features for five years and am the current jury chair for documentary shorts.

BC: What films in your category are you most looking forward to seeing?
AHA: Category winner “The Game,” directed by Roman Hodel, blew me away the first time I screened it. I have now watched it four times, noticing something new each time. It’s so well done. The cinematography is truly remarkable, and the story is so well executed. “Garden Shark,” which received honorable mention, is another favorite this year. What a heartwarming story, seeing these individuals who are living with dementia come to life while doing improv.

BC: What is your favorite part of the FFF?
AHA: There is nothing quite like experiencing a film at the Fargo Theatre. I will miss that this year. The conversations after screening a film — being able to discuss a film that you are passionate about with other festival goers is also really special.

BC: How would you describe your role as a juror for the FFF?
AHA: It’s an honor being a jury member and having the responsibility of helping select the films that go into the festival.

HPR: How did the pandemic affect the work you did with your jury members? Has the pandemic affected the quality of the films?
AHA: I missed having the face-to-face voting meeting. It’s one of my favorite parts of the festival. This time, it was a lot of emails and Zoom meetings. The quality of the films has been outstanding, both technically and in terms of the stories being told.

BC: How do you feel about the FFF being a virtual event this year?
AHA: So many festivals have gone virtual this year as a result of the pandemic. I’m grateful for the continued opportunity to share these amazing films and the tradition of the Fargo Film Festival. I hope that being a virtual festival this year will expand the FFF’s audience.

The Fargo Film Festival runs from Thursday, March 8 to Sunday, March 28. Learn more at www.fargofilmfestival.org.

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