Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival opens Thursday, April 17

Asha Nibirl as Nasrah in Family Motel. The Canadian film, starring Somali actors, tells the story of a Somali immigrant and her two teenage daughters struggling to make ends meet and send money to the husband and brothers still living in East Africa.

Photo by Carrie McPherson

Public Enemy's Chuck D. at Oak Street Cinema on Friday, April18

Every year, people in the Bridge coverage area have lots of good reasons to attend the Minneapolis-St. Paul Independent Film Festival (MSPIFF).

Most showings are nearby. They’re reasonably priced. The festival features the best or most interesting films from around the world, handpicked by local impresario Al Milgrom.

This year, there’s another reason to attend MSPIFF, which runs April 17–May 3 — it could be your last chance to catch a movie at the Oak Street Cinema, 309 SE Oak St.

Long the main venue for the annual film festival, the Oak Street will play a diminished role this year, festival organizers have announced. Instead, most of the 100 expected films from 40 or more countries will screen at Southeast Minneapolis’ other remaining movie theater, St. Anthony Main, 115 SE Main St., and the festival’s opening and closing nights will take place at the Kerasotes Block E Theater Downtown.

Festival organizers declined to comment on the fate of the Oak Street, which, it is rumored, could be sold and demolished to make way for a housing and retail complex. In March, Minnesota Film Arts (MFA) board member Dr. Stephen Zuckerman told the Star Tribune that his organization is “in serious negotiations” with a group of developers and investors who own property around the theater.

Organizers said the theater could still be the site of the festival’s “best of show” event, at which the top films are screened and voted on for awards.

The festival’s schedule is available online at www.mspfilmfest.org.

Opening night features The Visitor, made in the United States by director Tom McCarthy, who will be in attendance at the Kerasotes Block E Theater Downtown for the film’s screening on April 17, 7 p.m. The festival will close with another American film, Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about Antartica by Werner Herzog.

Between these bookends are 85 films from around the world, as well as shorts, children’s programs and other American offerings, including _Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome for which Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. will be present. An afterparty follows at Nick and Eddie’s near Loring Park.

One standout is Family Motel, a Canadian film starring Somali actors, with some dialogue in English. Other nations represented at the festival will include China, Russia and the Czech Republic, as well as countries of Africa. Local filmmakers will have slots at the fest, which will also include four midnight screenings.

Festival-goers will have a chance to see two of the films nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film this year: Katyn, from Poland, about the 1940 massacre of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers by Soviet secret police, in which director Adrezej Wajdad’s own father was killed; and Beaufort, from Israel, about Israeli soldiers, at a castle built by 12th-century Crusaders, preparing to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.

Hardy as an oak

MFA, the festival’s parent organization, promises its programming will continue after this month’s festival, but the future of the Oak Street Cinema itself seems less certain. The theater building at 309 SE Oak St. has been a centerpiece in recent years’ squabbles over MFA’s finances and future. Amid reports of real estate deals that would see the building demolished, Milgrom wrote in a statement to MFA’s email list that “nothing is written in stone in this current real estate market.” However, he wrote, “the Oak will eventually be sold. How else can we continue our mission given our current deficit?”

Milgrom was honored last month with a Sally Ordway Irvine Award from the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in recognition of his commitment to the film organization he founded in 1962, the University Film Society, and the film festival, MSPIFF, which he founded in 1983. Milgrom and three other statewide Sally Award winners received $2,500 each.

The Oak Street Cinema has also been a survivor. Built in 1916 as the Oak Theater, the theater got an Art Moderne-style re-do by Jacob J. (Jack) Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan to become the Campus Theater. (Liebenberg and Kaplan were architectural masters of Midwestern movie palaces whose handiwork is still accessible at the Varsity and Riverview theaters, among many others.)

Five decades later, the Campus was one of only a half dozen single-screen theaters remaining in the Twin Cities when it closed in 1990 — only to reopen in 1995 as the Oak Street Cinema. That organization merged in 2002 with the University Film Society to form Minnesota Film Arts.

last revised: April 17, 2008