Pushing the limits and celebratin​g those who do it

Minnesota winters can be brutally cold, full of ice and snow, and drearily bleak come this time of year. And while this year’s winter has been unexpectedly mild and inconsistent, with temperatures fluctuating from well-below freezing to the high 40s—likely due to the instability of climate change—we still look for ways to escape cabin fever. The Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF), on the banks of the Mississippi River in Winona, Minnesota, was just the break I needed. But it was also an inspiring weekend full of hopeful films, cinematic social critique, information tables, and workshops on the environment and activism.

The festival, which began in Winona in 2006, shows films from Mountainfilm—a film festival held in Telluride, Colorado in May that takes its films on tour throughout the rest of the year. Mountainfilm “is dedicated to educating and inspiring audiences about issues that matter, cultures worth exploring, environments worth preserving and conversations worth sustaining.” Likewise, the FRFF—whose films are a combination of the Mountainfilm Tour and locally or regionally-submitted films—has a similar mission:

The Frozen River Film Festival identifies and offers programs that engage, educate and activate viewers to become involved in the world. These programs provide a unique perspective on environmental issues, sustainable communities and extreme sports.

For Winona, the festival is also a time to learn and celebrate the unique landscapes and fertile soils of the Mississippi driftless area that was carved out during the last glacial age. FRFF Director, Crystal Hegge, highlighted the new film about regional legend Aldo Leopold, Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, that capture’s the conservationist character of the festival: “(Viewers) will be able to ask questions about what’s going on here in Winona, and how they’re utilizing [Leopold’s] message and creating a great landscape for the Winona community.” In a small community like Winona, the festival really brings the community together for important conversations that are sparked by the common experiences of viewing a film and hearing rarely-told stories.

One of those rarely told stories, and winner of the FRFF People’s Choice Award, is Dakota 38. The film is a moving re-telling of the mass execution of 38 Dakota men who were hanged on December 26, 1862 by the order of President Lincoln in Mankato, Minnesota. The film is a stark reminder of the ugly and often unjust history of how the Dakota were forcibly and violently removed from their ancestral lands, including Winona, and how little of that history most Minnesotans actually know. Nonetheless, the film retraces a healing journey for Jim Miller—whose vivid dream of the execution sparked the journey—and others who decided to ride 330 miles on horseback to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution.

David Holbrooke, Festival Director for Mountainfilm, spoke with me over the phone about the role film and festivals can have in positive social change. “The documentarian is one of the last of the truth tellers,” Holbrooke said, “and we celebrate those filmmakers and storytellers who bring issues to light in untarnished ways.” Mountainfilm’s origins, telling the stories of climbers and mountaineers, were about doing things that haven’t been done. At its core, Holbrooke sees Mountainfilm as being about pushing the limits about what is possible and going places where others have not gone.

The intersection of sports, culture, and the environment appeals to a large swath of people—some of whom are already engaged in issues of social change, but many who are not. Each block of film sessions contains anywhere between two to six films that vary in length from as short as a couple of minutes to as long as a feature-length film that is guaranteed to pique one’s imagination and raise the consciousness to a new level.

The films are an eclectic mix that really do inspire, educate, awe, and touch the viewer in many different ways; some do so very deeply, such as The Economics of Happiness which reveals the serious social, economic, political, and environment challenges humanity faces. But when the film, which tells about the ills of globalization, ends on a hopeful note about the positive and successful potential of “localization,” the viewer is inspired to hook up with one of the many practical alternatives or organizations documented in the film. The Economics of Happiness was also paired up with two other films: Mr. Happy Man and Yelp. There was a unique pedagogical process at work in that Saturday evening film session. In Mr. Happy Man, we meet Bermudan Johnny Barnes who spends his days standing on a busy intersection spreading his love to all who pass by. It is a simple, genuinely love-filled gesture that spills out even across the silver screen. Following that uplifting exposé, Yelp‘s rant against technology causes the viewer to ponder the distraction and disruption that technology may be causing in our lives. The film ends with a climatic crescendo, urging us to “UNPLUG!” After having been calmed by Johnny Barnes and willfully considering our relationship to technology, The Economics of Happiness gives a coherent and digestible debunking of capitalism’s growth at all costs and how it is effecting the planet, communities, and individuals while modestly presenting viable alternatives. The filmmakers are even hosting a conference featuring the film’s interviewees in March.

“The world can be a better place than it is now and our filmmakers and guests [speakers] help us get there” said Holbrooke, who first saw the now Academy Award-nominated film Gasland at the Sundance festival and then played it at the Mountainfilm in 2010. “I had never heard of fracking until Gasland,” admitted Holbrooke. “And it’s happening miles from us in Telluride. It’s happening miles from my home in Brooklyn.” Past guests at Mountainfilm have included Tim DeChristopher and Port Arthur, Texas community organizer and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley, who is featured in this year’s tour film My Toxic Reality.

“We look for people who are out changing the world. We need hope and solutions and we want to tell the stories of those who are fighting for what they believe in. We are in extraordinary times and we need extraordinary people taking extraordinary measures. Mountainfilm celebrates those people.” At the FRFF, one of those people is Jim Tittle. Clips from his forth-coming documentary on silica-sand mining (a key ingredient needed for fracking), The Price of Sand, debuted for the Mississippi River community that is facing the growing threat of such mining that creates open pit mines along the river and in nearby farm country. The film screening was accompanied by a panel discussion and also included opportunities for folks to get involved with organizing against the mining companies to pass town and country ordinances in favor of protecting the river bluffs.

In a testament to the role arts and film have in organizing and training activists, Peaceful Uprising, the organization co-founded by the now-imprisoned climate activist DeChristopher, had a powerful presence over the weekend by leading a workshop on civil disobedience—attended by about twenty people—and presenting the film-in-the-making Bidder 70. Hegge met Peaceful Uprising in Telluride at Mountainfilm’s 2011 festival and invited them to the FRFF.

When Ken Butigan writes about “mainstreaming nonviolence,” I think workshops on civil disobedience and nonviolence at film festivals (and well attended, for a small town like Winona) may just be what he had in mind. It is exciting to see the tools and awareness needed for nonviolent social change becoming more commonplace and celebrated.

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