"Springtime" infers a phenological phenomenon, but also a flourishing — which is a good way to consider an annual spring cultural event, the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
The coronavirus crisis made last year's version virtual. This year, the May 13-23 event is more of a hybrid festival: Five films screened in outdoor gatherings, with all of the nearly 200 films from more than 70 countries and cultures available virtually, reflecting the rest of society's green shoots of normalcy poking through the COVID-scarred landscape.
So it's fitting that the film chosen to open the festival is about a gathering of people. Throngs, actually, in crowd scenes not seen in these socially distanced times. The backdrop is a socially fraught 1969, when over the course of six summer weeks the Harlem Cultural Festival was a showcase of Black artists and audiences.
Haven't heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival? That's part of the documentary's point: Despite the extraordinary performances of musicians like Stevie Wonder and other soul, blues, pop, and gospel greats, the landmark cultural (and this being the late '60s, political) event was overshadowed by the other seminal festival 100 miles upstate, Woodstock, which featured mostly white artists and audiences. Indeed, cultural commentary often refers to the "Woodstock generation," generally overlooking the concurrent Harlem musical event which was eclipsed.
That is until Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, a well-recognized and respected musician in his own right, rediscovered the languishing footage. Making his directorial debut in the extraordinary documentary "Summer of Soul," Thompson puts the concert into context of the era's cultural, social and political ferment.
"I was so moved by this film," said Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the MSP Film Society, who moved fast to procure it after a virtual Sundance Film Festival screening. Smoluchowski cited the impact of the film itself, but was "also moved by this piece of history that went unknown and forgotten for years. And it only went unknown and forgotten, I think we would all agree, because all the artists were Black, and the audiences were all Black."
That fact wasn't lost on Thompson either. Riffing on a refrain from a song from Gil Scott-Heron, a musician of that era, Thompson subtitled his film "(… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)."
As for this era, America is in "a moment in time in which we find ourselves as a country where we are examining the neglect that we've found in certain historical moments," Smoluchowski said.
And how certain historical moments take on newfound meaning. That's the case with the film festival's closing film, "After Antarctica," a documentary focusing on Will Steger, the Minnesotan most known for leading an international expedition across the frozen, foreboding continent via dog sled in 1989-90.
"The real goal was to cross Antarctica, but that was merely to draw attention to the fact that the Antarctic Treaty was up for review," Steger said in an interview.
Steger's team, comprised of compatriots from France, the United Kingdom, China, Japan and the Soviet Union, "was a remarkable example of international cooperation, something that we definitely, definitely need between nations" now, Steger said, referencing his current focus on climate change.
An international film festival helps spread that message, said the film's director, Tasha Van Zandt. "We're really excited about getting it out there on a global scale, because we think this is a story that people can resonate with, feel inspired by right now."
Storytelling, Steger said, is important in any endeavor, especially one as consequential as climate change.
"That's the way I think we communicate, is through stories," Steger said. "The hopeful message is there is really people coming together, being socially engaged around climate."
Van Zandt added that "the power of storytelling is we can really open our eyes and expand our worldviews." And with the climate crisis, she said, "I think it's so important to have these stories where we can really have a personal connection to what the loss of these places really mean. Will says in the film that a place like Antarctica, it seems so foreign and remote and otherworldly, but a melting drop of that ice ripples throughout the rest of the world. It's all interconnected."
That's the ethos of one of the festival's themes, "Common Ground." The phrase is meant to reflect the themes of certain films, but could also suggest the shared space of communal viewing, which will likely accelerate after Gov. Tim Walz dropped the state's mask mandate on Friday.
"This year has been such a challenging time where we all have felt so isolated," Van Zandt said. "So to be able to bring this film into the community, share it with others, and seeing other people come together is so exciting. … We're really starting to transition back into the world."
Hopefully, Steger said, "we'll be at the beginning of the end of our isolation." He later elaborated that while he was talking about COVID constrictions, he could also have been referring to the cause of mitigating climate change.
"I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have the United States come out as a leader again," Steger said. It's not too late, he added, but "we're going to have to adapt and be resilient."
Adaptation and resiliency were required for individuals and institutions alike during the pandemic, including the film festival. And while last year's all virtual fest wasn't ideal, moviegoers and sponsors (including the Star Tribune) were stalwart.
Patrons "have said that they're grateful that we have been able to bring the world to their doorstep, into their living room," Smoluchowski said. "They've all missed, as we all have, the power of gathering in front of the screen, to watch a film in the company of others and to enjoy that experience with others who you may know and who you may not know. So the gathering aspect of its also a fundamental piece of the excitement that we feel."
The excitement over a springtime event bookended by documentaries about a summer music festival and the endless winter of Antarctica shows that it wasn't autumn for the 40-year-old film festival.
"We are still alive and kicking," Smoluchowski said. "We plan to be here for the next 40 years."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.