Eric Wilson has one goal: to reach as many people as possible through the art of film.
Wilson has been the director of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) since 2010. Since then, the festival has nearly doubled in annual attendance. Last year’s total clocked in around 42,000 moviegoers, making it one of the largest film fests in the country.
“We are expanding as fast as we can, and wanting to reach as many people and provide as many opportunities as we can for people who either haven’t been to the fest to come, or for those who have been to the fest to come back,” Wilson says.
One way they’re hoping to do this, he says, is through the diversification of the festival’s programming.” Not just an eclectic collection of foreign and home-grown movies, the MSIFF also includes special events, filmmaker meet-and-greets, parties, and other such behind-the-scenes programming. By broadening the festival’s programming, Wilson and his staff hope to both attract new crowds while appealing to their traditional audiences.
That actively aggressive expansion hasn’t caused the MSPIFF to lose site of its goal of bringing to light little-known films, however. While Wilson admits that it’s important for the festival to continue premiering such major releases as Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy,” as they did last year, that doesn’t mean MSIFF, which is the region’s largest and longest-running film festival, aspires to be the next Sundance.
“I think the heart and soul of the fest is our bringing in films which would otherwise not be shown here,” Wilson says. “International films, truly independent films, award-winners of the festival circuits, [films] making waves in their home countries, exceptionally well-crafted movies. We’re an audience festival. That means filmmakers are playing MSPIFF to test their films out on audiences. That’s kind of cool because these films don’t have distributors yet, which means maybe two years down the road you might see this film you saw at the fest pop up on Netflix that somehow broke some record with views or hits, or whatever, and you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, well, I saw that like two years ago.’”
In keeping with that spirit, MSPIFF is screening over 300 films this year, its 35th anniversary festival, which runs April 7 and through April 23, and hosting 150 filmmakers. Having the creators on hand to introduce their films and participate in Q&As, panel discussions, networking events, and parties contributes to what Eric called “expanding the experience of film beyond the screen.” That experience will also be explored through a series of experimental film installations focused on film material (35mm, 16mm, and digital) as well as “Voices of Light,” a combination musical performance and film screening.
During “Voices of Light,” Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc” will be projected on a massive screen, one night at the St. Paul Cathedral and one at the Basilica of Saint Mary, and screened in tandem with accompaniment from the Oratorio Society of Minnesota and the Oratorio Society Orchestra and Soloists. The score is written by Richard Einhorn, who “composed this music for the film after seeing it for the first time and being blown away by it,” Wilson says.
Another outside-the-box program that expands the idea of film beyond a screen and a dark theater is MSPIFF’s annual spotlight feature inspired each year by major global current events. This year, the series is called “inFLUX.”
“It’s a program about people and peoples moving around the world, whether it’s immigration or emigration or forced relocation,” Wilson says. “It’s an awesome program of documentaries and narratives. Not all of them super dark; some of them are fun and light. Based on what was going on around the world, we decided to put this program together. I think that’s important.”
A similar spectrum of light and dark is present in just about every program in the festival, including “Childish,” a program dedicated to exceptional children’s films, and “Dark Out,” a series of new works from the world of horror.
— MSP Film Society (@MSPFilmSociety) April 1, 2016
Despite the festival’s global scope, several films by Minnesota filmmakers also appear in the line up, including “Minnesota 13,” an account of the Prohibition-era moonshine company of the same name that continued to distill illegally in an effort to support their thirsty community.
The quality, range, and care evident in MSPIFF’s programming choices have made the festival an asset to our region, as well as to the global film community as a whole. “Our programmers traveled the world to all sorts of different film festivals just to talk with these filmmakers and tell them why it’s important to bring their work to Minnesota, and then they go and they curate a really great line up,” Wilson proudly says of his “tightly knit” staff of 50. “[Foreign] films aren’t just sad, dark Eastern-European narratives about WWII. These are fun and informative, and sort of timely and important, and things that our programmers think Minnesota wants to see, versus things Minnesota should see.”
All said, the staff has created a festival as vibrant and diverse as the Twin Cities—and United States—itself, offering an array of events, films, and programs that not only celebrate the worlds appearing on the silver screen, but the world surrounding it as well.
The 35th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival now has its full schedule online, accompanied by a build-your-own calendar tool and a variety of badge and ticket options suited for any and all levels of interest. More information can be found at mspfilm.org.