Fargo Film Festival 2016 Highlights

March 18

After a drive from Bemidji, Minn., through the rain and snow yesterday, I finally arrived in Fargo for the city’s 16th annual Film Festival.

Thursday marked the first time since 2012, during my last semester at Minnesota State University in Moorhead right across the Red River from Fargo, that I had gone to the festival and it was great to be back.

The historic Fargo Theatre, now in its 90th year of operation, has always been a favorite spot of mine to catch films from all sorts of genres, and yesterday was no exception.

Thursday was the festivals third day of showing and was focused on short films of all types from multiple different places. Some of my favorites from yesterday included:

Lesley the Pony has an A+ Day, directed by Christian Larrave from Providence, RI. This was an animated short and its zany art style went hand in hand with a comedic routine that got more crazy as it went on leading to a lot of laughs in the second half.

Bill Brunton: Guitar Maker, directed by Shane Reetz of Moorhead.
This movie, clocking in at about 45 minutes, featured a Fargo guitar builder named Bill Brunton. What really worked about this picture was how many different aspects were captured by the camera. The audience learned a lesson about guitar making, saw the beauty of the craft, learned the philosophy behind the art and understood the main character’s motivation. It was an impressive and charming piece of work.

The House is Innocent, directed by Nicholas Coles of Los Angeles.
A documentary short film, “The House is Innocent” was a look at an eccentric older couple with a great sense of humor who turned around the lore of a house with a bad reputation. The documentary shows that one, truth is stranger than fiction and two, the right people can turn around a bad situation.

Cops and Robbers, directed by Marco Ragozzino of West Hollywood.
One of the funniest shorts I watched yesterday, “Cops and Robbers” followed the story of an actor who is always cast as a police officer and is growing rather tired of it. The film follows his (hilarious) attempts at getting cast as a bad guy for a change.

The Goodbye, directed by Michael P. Nelson of Minneapolis.
This is one that I’d rather not spoil much of, so I’ll just say it’s a really charming short that takes an interesting, unique look at how a writer deals with writer’s block as well as his relationship with the characters he creates.

Meat, directed by Michael Forstein of St. Paul.
Forstein was one of the many directors who were on hand for Q&A segments yesterday and said the picture was shot in Duluth, Minn. The movie portrays a young man taking on a one day job as a door-to-door meat salesman and the picture really captures the hardships in doing that sort of job in the cold, stark section of that kind of city.

Team Work, directed by Michael Toubassi of North Hollywood.
Another one of my favorite humorous short pictures Thursday, “Team Work” was an exaggerated film about an office seminar on group projects that certainly had some truth to it. The film was well acted across the board with the comedic delivery being on point.

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Director Michael Toubassi speaking about the film Team Work.

What’s Eating Dad, directed by Michael Goldburg of New York City.
The last comedic short film on my little write-up here, “What’s Eating Dad” was a well crafted movie showing a normal person put in an insane situation and trying to make the most of it. The way the other characters play up the normalcy of an unusual situation around the protagonist was great.

Percussion, directed by Dominic Paczkowski, Moorhead.
A two-minute picture, “Percussion” was a fantastic musical film that was able to explore dedication to a craft in a short run time. Additionally, the film’s ending was a great example of a college atmosphere where rooms are always in use by students trying to master whatever craft they’re working on.

Schoolcraft, directed by Adam Nelson of Atlanta.
This was likely my favorite short from Thursday’s showings. “Schoolcraft” was a picture based on a true story of a New York City Police Department scandal and shows a haunting portrait of law enforcement corruption. Nelson did a great job at capturing a gritty NYPD precinct office and brought a ton of suspense in the short’s final minutes.

March 19

On my second day at the Fargo Film Festival there were certainly plenty more movies to watch, but there were two that really and obviously stood out.

The first was “Wildlike,” the Best Narrative Feature and the other was “Welcome to Leith, which won Best Documentary Feature and Best Director.

Welcome to Leith (Also played at the Sundance Film Festival)

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Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker receive the Best Documentary Feature and Best Director awards from festival staff before a question and answer segment.

Directed by Michael Beach Nicholas and Christopher K. Walker of New York City, “Welcome to Leith” followed the tale of notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb who attempted to take over a small town in North Dakota by way of building a population voting base.

What really works about “Welcome to Leith” is its extraordinarily balanced approach. The crew does plenty to explore the plight, fear and anger of the residents who live in Leith and their response to Cobb, who brings with him a frightening presence. However, the crew also put just as much emphasis on interviewing and documenting Cobb and his ilk.

It’s clear that the directors don’t pick to side with either faction and in a way it wouldn’t even be necessarily to do so, since both sides tell their own story in the interviews. Many of the town residents are worried about the negative attention from the world as well as from what Cobb might do. Meanwhile Cobb and company use the interviews to discuss their twisted logic and terrible vision.

The directors, who were on hand during a Q&A segment after the screening, even said the movie plays out like a western, having the same type of “characters:” the bad guy who comes to town, the good mayor wanting to stop him, etc.

Another thing the filmmakers didn’t do is insert themselves into the interviews or situations. The movie was strictly portraying through footage and interviews what was happening as it was happening, making the movie feel like a real life thriller.

“Welcome to Leith” was an all around fantastic documentary, filled with tension and a mystery as to what’s going to happen next. Additionally, the film sheds light on the fact that hatred and racism still exist at frightening levels in the deep recesses of the population.

Wildlike – Directed by Frank Hall Green

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Wildlike, directed by Frank Hall Gree

In “Wildlike,” Ella Purnell plays a teen named Mackenzie who is sent to live with her Uncle (Brian Geraghty) in Alaska until her mother can put together a suitable home in Seattle. Mackenzie is forced to runaway from her life at her new home, though, when her uncle molests her.

As Mackenzie goes from place to place trying to survive, she ends up meeting a hiker named Rene, played by Bruce Greenwood. Rene seems to be battling his own demon but he certainly has his life together and is also an expert hiker. Through some stubbornness she ends up taking a hike through the Alaskan wilderness with him and the film explores the beginning of a healing process.

The people behind “Wildlife” were able to capture so much emotion with the camera from both main characters as the movie went on. The tension, sadness and awkwardness is all on display as both leads’ personalities grow and a friendship develops between them. There’s also some heavy suspense during the movie’s climactic finale.

Additionally, the film shows off the beauty Alaska has in its outdoors and explores the intriguing healing process that pure nature can provide. In this way, it was reminiscent of the 2014 film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon.

As for the acting, it’s hard to deny that Greenwood stole many scenes in the picture. The veteran actor gave a heartfelt performance and was able to display both his unwillingness and initial annoyance with Mackenzie as well as his character’s eventual coming around to help her out.

Purnell, meanwhile, gave an inspired performance, fully showing the fear and uneasiness because of the card life has dealt her. The dialogue between the two leads was well written, too, never feeling rushed or unreal.

Today is the final day of the festival and I’m most looking forward to the winner of Best Documentary Short, “The Champion,” a film about an Iraqi boxer.

The final day of the event at the Fargo Theatre presented some of the best the fest has had to offer since my arrival on Thursday.

The Summer Help

A feature documentary that aired in the morning session of the festival Saturday, “The Summer Help,” directed by Melody Gilbert of Chicago, told the story of college students from Eastern European countries who took up work in the United States in the summer months to help pay for tuition and see more of the world.

The documentary is done in a very straight forward approach, letting the film’s subjects do most of the talking and tell their own story. The picture was an informative experience and can give an audience an insight into what Europeans enjoy and dislike about America.

Supermoto

This was likely the best community-based screening of the whole festival. Showing during the afternoon session, “Supermoto” was a feature directed by Joe Maggio of New York City, but was shot just outside of Fargo and featured many performers from the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, including some from my alma mater, Minnesota State University in Moorhead. When the lights went down for the movie, the theater hall was packed.

As for the movie itself, “Supermoto” followed a young woman named Ruby (played by Jeannine Kaspar) who has been left by her boyfriend in a motel room with nothing but a supermoto motorcycle.

Setting and shooting the movie in a small North Dakota town and showing off the wide open prairie land that make up the majority of the state was a good move, as it gave a larger sense of isolation for the film’s protagonist. The character, who was a quiet person unsure of her next move in life, was portrayed strongly by Kaspar, who delivered a reserved and subtle performance that still got the point across. My only complaint is that I do wish a few of the characters had gotten a bit more screen time and development.

The Casebook of Nips and Porkington

Directed by Melody Wang of Toronto, this animated short received an honorable mention from the festival staff and for good reason. The animation was unique and the crew used a great approach of having the story take place on the moving pages of a newspaper. It was fast paced and fun.

Olilo

Another film receiving recognition at the fest was this animated short which followed the story of an introverted girl. The film, directed by Ao Li of New York City, was one of the most creative animated films I’ve seen in some time and used brilliant methods to explore what its like to be an introverted person that wants to avoid people.

The Champion

Directed by Brett Garamella and Patrick McGowan of Worcester, Mass., “The Champion” was the festival’s choice for Best Documentary Short. The movie followed the story of Estaifan Shilaita, a charismatic and charming taxi cab driver and family man living in Chicago.

More than that, though, Shilaita is also the former champion of boxing in Iraq and had a promising career. By recreating boxing Shilaita’s boxing matches, the film was able to explore his career in the sport.

It then describes how he was eventually forced to leave Iraq and eventually immigrated to the United States with his wife. In the end, the movie successfully managed to explore the themes of love, including love of family, love of a sport and love of a new country.

George A. Romero

This year, the film festival’s highest honor, the Ted M. Larson Award, was given to George A. Romero. Since scheduling conflicts prevented Romero from visiting the festival, the people from Fargo decided to go up and film Romero receiving the award at his home. The festival filmed Romero graciously accepting the award and also featured a great tribute of the director’s films.

Larson, who the award is named after, was an influential person in the Fargo-Moorhead area. He was a professor at Minnesota State for 32 years and directed the institution’s International Film Festival and Summer Cinema Film Series. He also influenced the planning of the first Fargo Film Festival. He is a reason why the film program at Minnesota State is where it is today.

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The End.

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Author: Matthew Liedke

I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, and I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2009 graduate of Rainy River College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University in Moorhead. At MSU, I studied journalism and film. Outside of movies, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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