40th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival launches as a hybrid

Sly and the Family Stone perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969
Sly and the Family Stone perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The story of the festival and why it has faded from the public consciousness is the explored in "Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." The film opens the 2021 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
Courtesy of Mass Distraction Media

The 2021 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival launches its second pandemic run Thursday, building on lessons learned from last year when the festival was entirely virtual.

The opening night movie's full title is a mouthful: "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," a documentary critics say could be a big commercial hit this summer.

It captures a music festival that filled a Harlem park for six weekends during the summer of 1969, the same summer that spawned the Woodstock Festival.

"It's a political act this movie. It's a revelation,” said Jesse Bishop, program director of the festival. "And it's filled with some of the most amazing artists, musicians of the era."

Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone shared the stage with Nina Simone, B.B. King and the 5th Dimension. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples improvised a mesmerizing duet and Hugh Masekela arrived from South Africa to play

The whole event was filmed, with a lot of attention paid to the exuberant crowd. But the plan for producing a movie fell through. The footage was put in a cupboard and forgotten for decades, as was the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Then Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, leader of the hip-hop band The Roots, rescued the raw material and finished the film. "Summer of Soul" took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival and now will open the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

The Fifth Dimension performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969.
The Fifth Dimension performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Members of the band look back at the six weekends of the festival and what they experienced performing in front of the huge crowd with many of the top musical names in the country in the new documentary "Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)."
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The pandemic forced the festival online last year, but this year, they went looking for COVID-19 safe outdoor screening spaces.

"So we found a couple: We found Como Lakeside Pavilion on St. Paul and Bohemian Flats Park in Minneapolis," said Bishop.

The festival will open with shows at Como and finish at Bohemian Flats, using it as a drive-in. However, all the films shown outdoors will also be available online within Minnesota, and Bishop says this year distributors will allow many offerings to also be streamed beyond the state's borders.

"About two-thirds of the feature films will be accessible," he said, "And of course all feature films all short films will be available to folks in Minnesota."

MSPIFF 2021 will screen more than 180 films. Details are available through the festival's website. There will be a strong selection of Minnesota films, including some to be shown at the in-person events.

A Minnesota antihero will also make an appearance at a screening Friday at Como Pavilion.

"'The Claw' is a documentary about Baron Von Raschke, of the the American Wrestling Association, which was founded in Minnesota back in the ‘60s," said Bishop.

The Baron was the villain grappling fans loved to hate. The, in reality, quite amiable Jim Raschke will attend the screening, and demonstrate the formidable wrestling hold that made him infamous.

Polar adventurer Will Steger will appear at a screening at Bohemian Flats of "After Antarctica" about his subzero trips and climate advocacy.

Al Milgrom
Al Milgrom founded the Minneapolis StPaul International Film Festival 40 years ago. He died in december and now the festival is naming an annual tribute in his honor
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

And one other name will echo through the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival this year — festival founder Al Milgrom.

"Milgrom was … basically the godfather of international cinema here in the Twin Cities," said Bishop.

Milgrom died in December at age 98. The festival has renamed it's international auteur program as The Milgrom Tribute. Its first honoree is Czech filmmaker Angieszka Holland, an old friend of Milgrom's. The festival will show two of her recent films, and she will appear through a video link for a conversation about her career.

And no doubt there will be a tale or two about Al Milgrom, too.

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