Ali Selim's life changed one weekend when he picked up The Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday magazine. Inside he found a short story by Bemidji writer Will Weaver called "A Gravestone Made of Wheat."
"I got a little teary-eyed when I finished it," Selim admits. "And later on when I became friends with Will, he told me he cried when he finished writing it."
Weaver's tale about Scandinavian immigrant farmers trying to make it on the edge of the prairie reminded Selim of stories he'd heard from his Swedish-American grandparents. He was also looking for a story to make his first feature film.
"The overriding thing was, I really thought it would be simple," he says. "I had just started directing commercials and I thought, 'Old house, a couple people, a little sunlight and we got a movie.' And that was 1990 and we didn't start shooting till 2004."
"Sweet Land" is the story of Inge, a mail-order bride from Europe. Just after World War I ends, she rides the train to a small Minnesota town. She's going to meet her husband-to-be, Olaf.
They go straight from the station to the church to get married, but that's when the problems start. It turns out Inge is not what she seems. First of all she doesn't speak much English. Second of all she isn't Norwegian as Olaf had been led to believe. She scandalizes the assembled congregation when she starts speaking German to the pastor. He stops her short.
"English only in the church," he hisses. Turning to incredulous to Olaf, he demands to know what's going on.
"Your parents sent you a girl to be married and they didn't tell you she was German? How could you not know?"
"My parents wrote me there was a girl..." Olaf stammers but again the Pastor interrupts.
"We were at war with Germany!"
The wedding is called off and Olaf and Inge head off to try to find a way to fit in, while working Olaf's farm. Along the way they fall in love, with each other, and with the land.
"I thought it was an interesting love story more than anything, because of the language barrier they have," Selim says. "And I think it's a metaphor for most men and most women who speak an entirely different language and have to find something more than the intellectual power of words to communicate."
Ali Selim's love affair with the story is also about learning to communicate, and about some good luck.
I really thought it would be simple. I had just started directing commercials, and I thought, 'Old house, a couple people, a little sunlight and we got a movie.' And that was 1990 and we didn't start shooting till 2004.”Ali Selim, on reading the story that became "Sweet Land"
First of all an outfit called the Cygnus Emerging Filmmakers Institute chose Selim's script for development. It aims to encourage scripts from outside Hollywood. Cygnus arranged for professional actors to read Selim's early script in front of an audience of 400 people. Selim says he learned a lot.
"You can hear when the people laugh and you hope it's at the right time," he says. "And in the end if they are moved, you hope they are moved for the right reasons, not just because it is finished and they can get up."
Selim reviewed and polished the script under the guidance of a number of Hollywood scriptwriters. Then he got to shoot some scenes on video.
"Jon Voight stood by my side," Selim says, "And talked, really, about the difference between directing a television commercial, which is about, in my mind, tricking actors to do something that looks right for about four seconds, versus really partnering with actors and getting them to partner with you to tell a story in a really emotionally authentic way."
Of course having a film script is just the start. Selim also had to find funding and a cast. He was helped immeasurably when the actor Alan Cumming signed on both to be in the film, and as producer.
"And it was at that point that Ned Beatty's manager said 'You should do a film with Alan Cumming,' and John Heard's manager said 'Wouldn't it be great to do a film with Ned Beatty?' And Alex Kingston and Alan Cumming were old friends from London, not from the theater. I think they had just been drinking pals, but decided they wanted to do something more serious than that."
They hired a crew and headed out on location to Montevideo. After a decade and a half of preparation, they shot the entire film in 24 days.
"Of the whole 16 years, I guess maybe the day before we shot was the day I felt most confident, the day I felt like, 'Now I know it's going to happen and I know how we are going to do this.' And the minute we stopped shooting I thought, 'Oh no! What do I do now?'"
What he did was edit the film and get it into film festivals around the country, where it's won prize after prize both from jury panels and audiences. At a couple of capacity screenings in the Twin Cities, invited audiences raved about the film. Selim has a modest explanation.
"You know," he says, "the ecstatic response has been a mix of they like the film, and they are just relieved that I did it and I can just stop talking about it on the streets."
It'll be different, though, for Sunday's gala presentation. That's with a paying audience. The good sign for Selim is, the show is already sold out, and another screening has been added for Wednesday.
He's still looking for a distributor, but says he's confident it will happen soon. Hollywood seems to like what it's seen, too. Selim is currently working three new feature films.
He clearly hopes none of them take 16 years.