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Movies go underground in Minneapolis

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The Minneapolis Underground Film Festival will open with the world premier of a punk film from Berlin called "Saila."
Image courtesy Julia Ostertag

Cinematographer Greg Yolen has raveled the world making big commercial movies. But he says his work on an independent film he shot in Minneapolis called "Je ne sais quoi" is simply his best. 

He had high hopes when the director started sending it out to festivals, but his friend's film got rejected again and again and again.

Greg Yolen
Cinematographer Greg Yolen got so frustrated when mainstream festivals passed over quality work by his friends that he decided to start a festival to show those films.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"And finally I said, 'Guess what? You are in a film festival!'" said Yolen. "And he was like, 'I am?' I'm like, 'Yup! Minneapolis Underground Film Festival.' He's like, 'I've never heard of that.' And I'm like,'Well it's been around for a while.' He's like, 'For how long?' And I'm like," we'll I don't know, about 5 minutes actually,'" laughed Yolen. 

  Yolen says he is frustrated that quality film work he sees going on around him in the Twin Cities rarely makes it into the public eye. When he realized Minneapolis didn't have an underground film festival, he set up a Web site to gauge interest in such a festival. 

"I think in the first month that the Web site was up and that was back in March, I got 5,000 hits," he said.    And movies began rolling in.  There were dramas, documentaries, feature length stories and short films lasting just minutes. Yolen gives this simple definition of an underground movie.

"It ain't Disney."

"It is a film that you would not see through regular channels," explained Yolen. 

The films came from as close as Minneapolis and St. Paul, and as far away as Europe and Australia. One film, a dystopian story about punks living in the ruins of East Berlin, really caught his attention.

The film is called "Saila" by director Julia Ostertag. She shot the film it guerrilla style, without permits in abandoned buildings and factories. 

It's an eerie, brooding story about two women living in a brutish society of the future. Speaking from Berlin, Ostertag says she believes too many  films explain female violence as a result of a previous attack.

"And I wanted to have a heroine that is no victim at all, never has been, but she is violent, and there is no explanation," said Ostertag. 

Ostertag says she sent her film to the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival in part because it was the first one that opened for entries just after she finished it. Also a couple of her actors come from Minneapolis. They'd been drawn to Berlin by the city's punk scene. 

Julia Ostertag
German director Julia Ostertag shooting 'Saila' in East Berlin
Image courtesy Julia Ostertag

Ostertag was excited when "Saila" was accepted, and then ecstatic when Yolen chose it as the opening night feature.

"It's like. 'Wow!'" she says. "It's like a big embrace."

The screening will be the world premier for "Saila." Ostertag is paying her own way to Minneapolis to introduce the film.

Many of the films in the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival are dark and quite challenging. As festival director Greg Yolen put it, "It ain't Disney." 

Minneapolis filmmaker Nicole Brending will show her short film "Rebel," which tells the story of a developmentally disabled man left in the care of his methamphetamine-addicted stepbrother. Things take a nasty turn when the pair end up in a drug-dealers den.

"What, man?" shouts the paranoid stepbrother as the dealer stares at him.

"I was just imagining what you would look like when you are dead," the dealer smirks.    Brending is currently competing in the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Then she heads home for the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival. 

"For a film maker like me who does things that are, well gosh, they are hard to take sometimes, this is a really great venue to see films like that, and see the artistry that goes with the dark side," Brending said. 

Brending says underground festivals generate good conversations about difficult issues. 

Festival director Greg Yolen says several venues wanted to host the Underground Film Festival. He selected the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as it's a place of artistic exploration.

Yolen freely admits when he chose the dates for the festival he didn't know it was the weekend before the Republican National Convention in St Paul. He doesn't expect much of a crossover between attendees, but he's offering discounts to any credentialed RNC delegates who drop by.