It’s apparent in politics (Brexit, the election of President Donald Trump), people (mass migration crises convulsing countries, even continents), media (e-commerce and iPhones, to name just two) and meteorology (extreme storms, snaps and waves), as well as nearly every event or force in the world today. Even in college basketball, where elite teams like the Duke Blue Devils yield to the Red Raiders of Texas Tech and other upstarts at the Final Four to be played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis this weekend.
Just across the river from the basketball hoopla, one of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival’s key themes is “disruption,” which is the subject of several films featuring “individuals who dare to put themselves in the way of the status quo in order to instigate change, challenge structures of power, reveal what is obscured, and make possible a more just and hopeful world.”
Sounds a lot like Molly Ivins, the provocative columnist who became a consequential media-political figure in the 1990s and early 2000s. She’s the subject of a documentary called “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” that will have a local premiere at the festival on Sunday.
Ivins championed underdog causes and people. Despite perceptions of her politics, “Molly said it’s not a left-to-right issue, it’s a top-to-bottom issue,” said Janice Engel, the documentary’s director, who will join James Egan, the film’s producer, and Marilyn Hoegemeyer, a co-worker of Ivins’ when she wrote for the Minneapolis Tribune in the late ’60s, on a post-screening panel I’ll moderate. (The Star Tribune is a presenting sponsor of the festival and a co-host of the panel.)
Like everywhere Ivins worked, she was a larger-than-life figure in Minneapolis.
“She was a firestorm in the newsroom, I can tell you that,” said Hoegemeyer, who recalled a tall, Texan, red-haired Ivins arriving to work during her first winter in a full-length red winter coat. “The first time she walked in the newsroom, Frank Premack [a Tribune editor] stood up and said, “Ivins, you look like the Foshay Tower at Sunset!’ ”
Ivins’ towering presence wasn’t just sartorial, but journalistic, Hoegemeyer added. She was the first female reporter to cover the police beat, and wrote a compelling series on the Vietnam era’s local “young radicals” and “young conservatives.”
“She found a way to tell the story from both perspectives,” Hoegemeyer said. “She was just dynamite.”
Her clashes with Premack presaged her battles with Abe Rosenthal, legendary editor at the New York Times. The Times “hired her for her unique voice and they fired her for her unique voice,” Engel said, reflecting the fact that everywhere Ivins went, she was an agent of change (and thus controversy).
“Molly Ivins was a disrupter,” said Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the MSP Film Society and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. “She didn’t want to just let people get away with whatever they may have been trying to get away with, and she found a way to bring that to the attention of her readers through her brilliant writing and through her humor.”
Not everyone was laughing. Especially Texas legislators, whose absurdities were exposed by an acerbic Ivins in columns for the Texas Observer, the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Her sharp pen, and tongue, were also often directed at another prominent Austin politician, then-Gov. George W. Bush, soon to become the nation’s 43rd president. In typical Ivins style, she dubbed him “Shrub,” and she rose in prominence as he did.
At her peak, Ivins was syndicated in about 350 newspapers and was a ubiquitous presence on C-Span and “Late Night with David Letterman” alike, among other venues.
Always ahead of her time, Ivins innovated the then-emerging all-purpose pundit role omnipresent in today’s political-media complex. “Molly’s brilliance and her being such a student of history and her natural-born gift of not only witty repartee but just really honing in” made her “a pundit before there were pundits,” said Engel. “She was Twitter-ready back in the ’70s.”
Ivins didn’t just disrupt journalism and politics, but her personal life, too.
“The joke was that she could drink any man under the table,” Engel said.
Only it was no joke, and the film doesn’t flinch from it. “We didn’t want to do a hagiography, and Molly is a real, living, breathing, three-dimensional person, a character, and so conflict is an important part of storytelling.”
Ivins eventually beat the bottle before losing her fight against breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 62. She told her brother Andy that her proudest moment in life “is that she got sober,” Engels said. “She could speak truth to power and decided to face her own truth.”
Such compelling storytelling is standard stuff at the MSPIFF, which will feature 273 films from 77 countries during its April 4-20 run.
In its own way, the festival itself has been a disrupter, growing from about 20,000 moviegoers eight years ago to nearly 50,000 more recently. (Albeit with a slight dip last year due to another disruption: an opening-weekend, early April blizzard. But the shows must go on — despite nearly every other event ending early or canceling — and about 4,000 of the expected 10,000 cinephiles, some on skis, still arrived.)
The increasing interest in the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival reflects “a community that has a really strong interest in what is happening around the world and a really strong interest in knowing and understanding others,” Smoluchowski said.
That’s a trend that thankfully shows no signs of disruption.