The truth is out there at the 40th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
In a handful of outdoor screenings and hundreds of online ones, the festival shows dozens of films from 70 countries.
The May 13-23 event boasts thrillers, comedies and experimental efforts, but many of the best I've screened in advance are documentaries. The Holocaust-themed "Love It Was Not" and music docs "The Sparks Brothers" and "Karen Dalton: In My Own Time" find inventive ways to explore their very different subjects. Even the more traditional "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It," made for PBS' "American Masters" series, uses animation to stretch the traditional bounds of nonfiction filmmaking.
This year's festival is the first without its co-founder, Twin Cities film icon Al Milgrom, who died in December. The event pays tribute to him in the form of an annual Milgrom series, this year spotlighting movies made by his Oscar-nominated pal Agnieszka Holland, who'll also appear in a live Zoom call. She's one of several top filmmakers in the fest, which includes Germany's Christian Petzold, an MSPIFF regular whose fairy tale-derived latest is called "Undine," and France's François Ozon, whose "Summer of '85" is a nostalgic love story.
Closer to home, MSPIFF includes several made-in-Minnesota projects, starting with "The Claw." Based on a play that premiered at St. Paul's History Theatre in 2007, "The Claw" is Philip Harder's portrait of pro wrestler Baron von Raschke (aka Jim Raschke), largely seen through the eyes of his adoring kids.
Another Minnesota icon, explorer Will Steger, is featured in "After Antarctica." It's a look back at Steger's 1989 trip across the continent. Short film "Ignited States," meanwhile, examines the year of activism that has followed in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
That's just scratching the surface. Your best bet is to explore the festival's site and plunge in. Here are thoughts on the titles I've seen, beginning with my favorite:
"Love It Was Not" — Historical documentaries often lack footage of the time they're trying to recapture. Writer/director Maya Sarfaty's ingenious solution is to cut up still images as if they're paper dolls and manipulate them into different settings and actions. The technique gives the film an elegiac, handmade quality that amplifies the reminiscences of elderly Auschwitz survivors who recall a Slovakian Jewish woman's shocking relationship with her SS captor. He's also featured and while he says it was love, she describes something else.
"My Donkey, My Lover and I" — Fans of the French comedy series "Call My Agent!" will recognize irresistible Laure Calamy as the lovelorn assistant on that Netflix show. She's even more irresistible here as a quirky teacher whose smug, married lover cancels their vacation because he's taking a mountain hiking trip with his family. She follows, inexpertly spying on her unworthy lover while trying to wrangle the donkey she accidentally hired to accompany her on the hike. The ass' name is Vladimir. The donkey's name is Patrick.
"Karen Dalton: In My Own Time" — "Whether you like it or not, you have to enter her world, and it's a despairing world," says Nick Cave near the start of a biographical documentary that, indeed, describes quite a bit of sadness. Dalton was a wildly original folkie Bob Dylan called "my favorite singer," but her personal life was a nightmare. Featuring tons of well-identified music, the compassionate doc does exactly what you'd hope it would. I'd never heard of Dalton but, after seeing the film, I want to listen to every note she ever recorded.
"The Whaler Boy" — The Russian drama, a kind of brutal fairy tale, is endlessly surprising. Two teenage boys grow up on the Bering Strait. One longs to go to America, with Alaska a tantalizing 70 miles away. The other has a different so-near-yet-so-far dream. He has fallen in love on an internet porn site. The Venice Film Festival prize winner opens like a humdrum character study but morphs into a stirring story of immigration, compassion and home.
"Ane Is Missing" — Borrowing some of the observational style of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("Two Days, One Night"), the Spanish drama tracks the fraught relationship of security guard Lide, who works for a company building a train route, and daughter Ane, who protests against the train. The politics are compelling but what drives the movie is the role-switching between a principled teenager and her impulsive mom, who gave birth to her daughter before she knew how to be an adult.
"The Sparks Brothers" — Director Edgar Wright ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") geeks out in a love letter to the cult band, still going strong in its fifth, hit-free decade. It's an inventive doc — even the interviews are cleverly photographed — and brothers Ron and Russell Mael clearly still get a bang out of each other. There's lots of period footage alongside contemporary interviews that reveal the band's huge influence on many top pop acts.
"Dream Horse" — It's such a conventional movie that you can name half a dozen others where a community in Great Britain unites behind an inspiring cause ("Waking Ned Devine," "The Full Monty"). But darned if it doesn't work again. Toni Collette plays a hardworking, impoverished woman in picturesque Wales who decides to breed a racehorse, which she does with the help of her neighbors and results in many twists. All of it might not seem credible except it really happened.
"Hotel Coppelia" — "This movie is for the unsung women who resisted the foreign invasion," reads the dedication of this handsome drama. It's set in a Dominican Republic brothel, whose residents/employees are a bright, varied bunch. Their home is a surreal oasis from the civil war ripping apart their country until soldiers — first Dominicans, then Americans — bust in.
"Mickey on the Road" — The story is familiar — a road trip leads two young women to surprising revelations. But when you're as assured a visual stylist as Taiwanese writer/director Mian-Mian Lu, who cares? On a guess, she's a fan of Wong Kar-wai's "Chungking Express" and its candy-colored, neon-lit images. Lu's trippy visuals peak in a scene backdropped by a gilt-and-bejeweled dragon headboard, in front of which appears pink-haired Gin Gin. She stands behind a window that has streams of golden syrup drizzling down, prompting her to begin licking all of it up.
"The Claw" — Wrestling legend Baron von Raschke is the subject of a loving documentary, directed by Philip Harder and produced by the grappler's son Karl. Sweet recollections from the producer and sister Heidi (full disclosure — both are former co-workers) paint a dual portrait of the brash, "German"-accented Baron von Raschke in the ring and tender, supportive, Nebraska-native Jim Raschke at home.
"Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It" — The portrait of the EGOT-winner inspires by showing how often she has reinvented her career to come back from the brink of tragedies, including a suicide attempt after Marlon Brando dumped her. It's standard soul-baring but Moreno is unusually candid, especially when she revisits lows such as being raped by her agent and not firing him because "I thought so little of myself."
"Hollywood Fringe" — The latest from former Minnesotans Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber turns on an interesting idea. The art and life of Los Angeles actors Travis (Justin Kirk) and Samantha (Jennifer Prediger) are so intertwined that we can't always tell if we're watching their home life or a fringe festival play inspired by it. The plot occasionally is too "Inside Hollywood" but most of the jokes land.
"Devil's Pie: D'Angelo" — The story of the notoriously sexy singer, who virtually disappeared for 14 years, should be more interesting than it is in this slow-moving, unrevealing documentary. Long story short: The product of a churchgoing clan was not comfortable with his image and he did way too many drugs.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival
When: May 13-23.
Where: Como Lakeside Pavilion, St. Paul, and at mspfilm.org.
Tickets: $10-$15. Multi-film passes also available at mspfilm.org.