Round-number birthdays are a time for celebration, recollection and a bit of well deserved nostalgia. For film lovers, the arrival of the 30th annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival is an event worth cheers and confetti. And over the past three decades, it has attracted a small army of fanatic fans.

Before moving here in 2006, Carol Johnson, a Los Angeles attorney who worked for Columbia Pictures, expected Minneapolis to be a cinema desert. "One of the things I started discussing in my job interview is that I love to see lots of independent films, I was concerned that I'd be leaving that," she said. "They mentioned the film festival, and I felt like I wouldn't be in the middle of nowhere." Now in Edina, Johnson attends the festival every year to see movies that will never see the light of Netflix, like the sensual Asian romance "The Chinese Botanist's Daughter."

"They show movies that I'm going to see even if I have to stay up late the night before a trial. If I'm tired the next day, that's what caffeine is for," she said.

With 40,000 viewers at MSPIFF in 2010, it's safe to say that a lot of people share Johnson's view. It has showcased about 5,000 films since 1982, becoming a premier event on Minnesota's cultural calendar and one of the nation's top regional film events.

MSPIFF's origins could hardly be humbler. In 1982 it was called the Rivertown Film Festival, showing 20 films on a single weekend in Stillwater. The Rivertown name was abandoned in 1996 because of the confusion it caused outside of the area. Al Milgrom, the U Film Society (UFS) founder and Rivertown's director, had to explain so often to film bookers where it was located that the phrase "which river, which town" became a running joke around the Film Society's office. Now under the guidance of executive director Susan Smoluchowski, the 2012 festival is presenting more than 200 features and shorts from across the globe.

Cinematic intensity

"Here in a three-week period you get a chance to see half of the year's good movies," said Alvin Easter, a UFS and film festival fan for more than 40 years. "Most of these things will never play commercially elsewhere, so this is it." Since he's retired and lives near festival central at St. Anthony Main, "I can live at the Film Society during that time." In addition to enjoying European drama and period pieces, he's a huge fan of the festival's horror-heavy Midnight Movies sidebar. "The best movie of 2010 was 'The Revenant,'" a low-budget zombie comedy. "I wrote the director afterward, and he's still trying to get distribution in this country. It's hard to sell something that's so unique."

Stumbling across underexposed gems is one of the special delights of festival screenings, Easter said. "So many movies, when you see them in the theater, you know what you're seeing already. At the festival, you sit down and you may know nothing about it beyond the title and a brief synopsis. You're taking a chance, having a new experience and maybe discovering something." After grazing the festival for three weeks, he said, he feels exhausted but satiated, like a gourmet following a feast.

"The magnitude of this is so much larger than the film offerings by the Library of Congress that I used to attend when I lived in D.C.," said Jim Brennan, who works in information technology at Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC). "It's extravagant. You can immerse yourself in it. It's almost like traveling, seeing films from radically different places, going from a film that takes place in Paris to one from Mongolia." With his girlfriend's blessing he heads off to four screenings a day, staying afterward for the filmmaker Q & A sessions. "Two films is good, but four films is better," he said.

Qaiser Bakhtiari, a computer engineer who moved from Pakistan to Minnesota in 2000, has been an ardent festival-goer for nearly a decade. When it became difficult for him to travel abroad in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, MSPIFF "became my escape and also my emotional therapy." The festival has remained an important part of his cultural diet even after travel restrictions were lifted, he said. "Le Quattro Volte," a poetic, dialogue-free portrait of life in a southern Italian village, has made a trip to that region "one of the things I want to do before I die," he said.

"Watching a movie like that, seeing the emotional life of others, you have to be quite sensitive. Those senses are not used when you're watching an in-your-face Hollywood movie. Most of my friends are foreigners who call America home, and they think it's pretty cool. It's a window on the world." Bakhtiari has become such an evangelist for the event that last year he nominated MSPIFF for a $25,000 community grant from his employer. The award went to a charity serving sick children, but he's planning to push for MSPIFF again this year. In the meantime, he's budgeting his vacation time to work as a volunteer. "I'm not getting paid for it, but the nonmaterial benefit I get from it is so great, it's worth it."

Bacon for Van Gogh

Coral Sadowy, a Minneapolis writer/photographer who has been attending the festival since 1989, says "a lot of younger people come specifically to meet those directors and actors. They charge up to them and talk to them, and it's very good for independent younger filmmakers in the Twin Cities. When I was younger and trying to write screenplays, I had a brunch for Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, and cooked him five pounds of bacon. We stayed in touch for years."

MCTC's Brennan agreed that the social aspect of the fest is key. "I see people at the festival that I might rarely see otherwise. That does add a lot to it. You sure don't get that with streaming video. I enjoy movies on demand, but think of what you're missing."

The atmosphere is "homier, folksier" than the Toronto Film Festival, North America's leading cinema showcase, Sadowy said. "It's different than the Guthrie and the Children's Theatre. When you're waiting in line, it's a multi-dimensional social hoo-ha where people get to know each other. Every subculture of the Twin Cities shows up there: young people who have all this energy, older academic people and real hard-core film people who don't talk but rush from screening to screening with their schedules and their pencils."

"Film has been called the great art form of the 20th century and I kind of agree with that," said Minnesota Music Hall of Famer Willie Murphy. "It's a great way to get out of whatever gerbil wheel you happen to be into." A stalwart supporter of UFS and MSPIFF from their beginnings, he's likely to be at four screenings a day, circling titles in his catalog, on safari for films that are "unique, adult, beautiful, not clichéd."

Essentials like rest and nourishment take a back seat. "One gets used to slipping a sandwich into your coat pocket and slipping it into the theater," he said. "It's nice if you can get out and go over to the river there, do some stretching. I like to smoke cigars, so I run out and have a couple puffs." It's best to think of the film marathon as a full-time occupation, he said. The main challenge for newcomers will be psychological: "You have to decide that you don't need to do the other things you think you need to do. Just be at the festival."

While Murphy has seen as many as 50 films in a single festival, last year a competitive friend topped him with 60. "I don't know how she did it," he marveled. "She obviously didn't do anything else."

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