Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Leave No Trace’ review + interview w/ writer/director Debra Granik

It’s been a few months since I had the privilege to interview Debra Granik. I’m posting this today to coincide with the Twin Cities release of her latest film, Leave No Trace, tomorrow (July 6).

Thank you Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Festival for the amazing opportunity to chat with the Oscar-nominated writer/director (forWinter’s Bone), at the MSPIFF office no less. It’s so inspiring to speak to a filmmaker who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood’s hustle and bustle. It’s no surprise that her film deals with the subject of living ‘off the grid,’ as she described the characters as ‘non-conformist.’

A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.

My review:

I saw this film about three months ago and it still stayed with me. As I was writing my review, it made me wish someone like Debra Granik would make more films. Leave No Trace is a film that could potentially be done in a sensationalistic way but she opted for a understated-but-effective narrative approach. Nearly a decade since her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, her latest narrative feature tells the story of a young girl Tom (Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father Wil (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

Yes it’s slow-burn but oh it’s so worth the journey. It’s also a very quiet film, reveling in its quiet grace of the wilderness around them. The main characters barely speak but yet their scenes speak volumes and emotionally evocative. It’s not a manipulative emotion, if you will, but raw emotional beats that linger long after you watch it. The performances are remarkable. Foster is a proven talented actor but it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie who blew me away. We’ve seen many father/daughter narratives but here it’s explored in an unusual way. I was quite taken aback by how things unfolds and the coming-of-age storyline is brought to life in a convincing and unpredictable way.

In my interview below, filmmaker Debra Granik (who wrote the script with Anne Rosellini) said she doesn’t want to judge her characters, that is Wil’s nonconformity. Instead she wants her film to ask questions about why he does what he does and the consequence of such behavior. It’s an evocative film that really allows you to immerse yourself in the characters, and analyze your own lives. It may not be a ‘fun’ film per se, but the emotional resonance is what I love about independent cinema. Truly a respite from the endless blockbuster offerings we’re overloaded with these days.


At the time of the interview of mid April, there was swirling news of the battle between the streaming giant Netflix and Cannes Film Festival organizers. You can read this Vox.com article that explains the controversy in details, which resulted in Cannes banning films with Netflix distribution to play in any section of this year’s festival. I can’t help asking Debra how she feels about that.

Ruth: Firstly, I’m glad that your film’s going to get [limited] distribution from BLEECHER STREET. I’m always glad when films get theatrical release. Considering the Netflix/Cannes battle going on now, what are your thoughts about the whole film distribution controversy?

Debra: Since I just came from the theatre [for picture/sound check before her film screening that night], I’d love for the communal film viewing experience not to get extinct. I’d like to ask for peaceful coexistence… why does one has to stamp out the other. Why does a certain corporate model have to disavow or negate this new attempt in the digital era? Some people say ‘oh we want to resist technology’ but part of it is ambition right? I mean we’ve accepted 90% of it [the new corporate model], why not keep 10% of something from the past?

But the other question from the filmmakers perspective is… why shoot a wide shot if you’re never going to see it on a wide screen. It doesn’t mean every movie can be on the big screen, and not every film needs to be. But I believe there’s power in wide distribution, especially in documentaries that have cultural changing material in it for example. I don’t think streaming should stomp on exhibition, I don’t think exhibitors should be bullied.

R: Now, transitioning to your film. You adapted the Leave No Trace script from Peter Rock’s My Abandonment novel. What drew you to that story?

D: There were many things, but the environment in which it was told was a huge draw for me. It’s very compelling to me. That area in Oregon has a very distinct geography and climate. It’s the largest temperate rainforests that stretches from the Pacific coast all the way to California, so it’s a really important piece of the planet’s geology. So there’s this magnificent part of the continent and there’s this story about forrest dwellers. In fact there are long tradition of forest dwelling among veterans, there’s a legacy of that from the previous wars.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film. I love that’s the main concern of the protagonist father in the film…how will we maintain our lives when we think our own thoughts? I love that he’s trying to relay that to his daughter. Plus I’ve always enjoyed stories about fully-fledged female protagonists, so stories involving young women in it always draw my attention.

R: That’s a great segue to my next question. You discovered Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (where she nabbed her first Best Actress Oscar nomination at the age of 20). Now you’ve discovered another great young female talent, Thomasin McKenzie. How did you find her and know she’s right for the part?

D: Well she auditioned. I did not know Tom. She’s a New Zealander and she lives in Wellington. She’s really interested in working in film, that’s her passion. She had some people who were helping her find work and they gave her the script. She responded very strongly to it, then she took the initiative and read the novel. So our initial discussion was very rich. It’s very different than just showing up to an audition where someone told you to show up at such and such time. She had wrapped her mind around the story. I knew right away she’d be very motivated to investigate the role and learn a lot of things, she’s a very un-jaded individual.

And when you’re working with young talents, you’re concerned how they’ll get support from their family. Well, her parents were remarkable. They were supportive and allowed her to travel with a friend of the family, a legal guardian, which made it so conducive to the filmmaking process. They had worked with her a lot, I mean discuss the book with her and everything.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film.

R: She also has a great chemistry with Ben Foster. Was he cast prior to Thomasin?

D: Yeah, there’s a lightness to her. I think people would really enjoy their relationship in the movie.

I think Ben and Thomasin were cast almost the same time. Of course in the traditional financing sense, the adult lead actor should be someone who’s ‘investible’ … someone who can be an anchor for the film, in terms of story and marketability.

R: What would you say is the main themes you want audience to come away with? I read some reviews that comment about the parenting style of Ben’s character, some say it’s a coming-of-age story.

D: I definitely didn’t intend this to be a commentary about parenting. It’s not something I’m interested in people coming away with. This is not about finding nonconforming Americans and judging them. To me, I want people to ask questions. For any work I create, I want to open a dialog. Why is he doing that? What is it about post-traumatic stress… what happens to soldiers many years after the war when they feel alienated. When the society they come from no longer offer them things they can navigate. Or the digital era comes into play and what would happen if you simply don’t want to be a part of it? I love to ask the question about kinship and loyalty. What happens if you have to diverge very distinctly from someone who loves you? How painful that would be. In fact, coming of age sometimes involves that, or you have to force yourself to emancipate because the relationship wasn’t working, it wasn’t healthy.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function. Why we do what we do. The Greeks did it, every culture has done it. Those same 26 stories are in every culture. We want to know why people treat each other well, and why we don’t treat others well. Why is that? What’s going on? Why we’re so sensitive, why we get hurt so easily? Why we experience bouts of courage? Those are all those why, we’re in permanent why state.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function.

R: I love thought-provoking stories that really made you analyze your own lives. Now, it’s been nearly a decade since Winter’s Bone (2010) and this is your first narrative feature since then. I know you did Stray Dog documentary and a documentary series (Independent Lens). What has been the biggest challenge for you in finding projects to do next? Or are you really picky?

D: I am picky. I have read stuff that don’t interest me and I’ve also been in meetings or get involved extensively in a certain project, but then the way they want to make it doesn’t sync up… or the nature of who might be involved feels a bit overloaded for my circuits, it would require working in a way that doesn’t interest me. Just like the character [of Ben Foster’s] maybe, I want to remain outside of the celebrity culture, the star system. Because I feel like there are stories that are told in the margin, I think we need biodiversity. I think it requires that some of us [filmmakers] remain at the margin and make our work there.

For narratives, it requires a certain amount of money, the union crews, there’s a price tag that you can calculate, right across the board on that. So narrative films does take a long time to garner that money, but for documentaries it’s a bit more immediate  to start, so I always like to have something in that world going so that I can keep working. So I can wake up at 5 in the morning and haul heavy equipment into the world and try to do my job. You don’t want to lose that part of your chops.

R: Let’s talk about the wilderness, the woods, which is almost a character in itself. I love how atmospheric it is, I could almost feel the misty air, the dampness. 

D: To work in a rainforest, it’s almost a miraculous photogeneity. You never get tired. The local crew loves their forests. They’d be like, ‘Debra you’ve got to capture this dripping moss.’ The B cameras were extraordinary, whenever they have down time they’d roll off some shots which was wonderful. The opening scenes have a lot of their photography. Our DP (Michael McDonough, who also worked on Winter’s Bone) liked to collaborate with his entire crew, he likes everyone to have their own creative moments when they can.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.


Thanks so much Debra for chatting with me.


LEAVE NO TRACE is currently on limited theatrical release.
It opens Friday July 6, at the Uptown Theatre.


First half of MSPIFF – Recap + Reviews: ‘Have a Nice Day’ + ‘Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story’ + ‘Risking Light’ doc

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! Despite the initial weather snafu in its first few days of MSPIFF37 (freakin’ blizzard in April!!), the largest film festival in the Twin Cities keeps going strong. I did miss a few events and films last weekend and some films were postponed to the Best of Fest period after the official film fest is done due to poor weather. But fortunately I did get screeners to some of them (nice perk of getting a press pass 😀 )

I also got a chance to interview some filmmakers (best part of being a film blogger!), thanks to MSPIFF Publicity/Outreach Coordinator Peter Schilling and Nemer Fieger. I’ll post the interviews once I’m done transcribing them.

It was so inspiring to chat with Debra Granik, an Oscar-nominated writer/director (for Winter’s Bone) who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood hustle and bustle. Her latest narrative feature Leave No Trace brings to life the story of a young girl, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father, Will (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

I have to hold off the review for it but let me just say it’s an astounding film that once again feature a phenomenal young talent (not unlike Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) in New Zealander Thomasin Mckenzie.

Here are some reviews from the first half of MSPIFF, starting w/ one from FlixChatter’s blog contributor Laura S.:

HAVE A NICE DAY

Have a Nice Day is an animated film about a young man named Xiao Zhang (Changlong Zhu) steals a bag containing a million yen in order to pay to fix his fiance’s botched plastic surgery. Unfortunately for him, the bag belongs to local mobster, Liu Shu (Siming Yang), who, of course, sends some of his people after Xiao Zhang to retrieve the bag. Liu Shu and his team aren’t the only ones Xiao Zhang has to watch out for, as he encounters several people on his journey just as desperate to get the bag from him.

For the most part, this is an enjoyable film. The score is fantastic. Making a gritty film noir-style movie as an animated feature makes for a visually interesting experience; the animation uses striking colors, and the backgrounds are beautifully detailed while the characters are very simply designed, creating a unique contrast. The one problem with the simple character design is that they have very little movement, especially facially, which makes it hard to connect what the characters are saying with what they’re feeling. This isn’t helped by the fact that, according to IMDB, the voice cast is made up by non-professional friends of writer/director Jian Liu, and the lack of voice acting experience is evident, although, to be fair, it brings a more genuine feel to the dialogue at times.

My one other gripe has to do with the movie’s tone. Overall, Have a Nice Day is a straightforward mobster thriller, but there is one “what the hell?” moment that is pretty jarring. There’s a musical number that comes out of nowhere halfway through the movie that is never addressed afterward. It’s clearly supposed to be a fantasy sequence/daydream for a couple of the characters trying to get the money, but it’s the only one like it in the film. If they were going for a more surreal feel, they could have included a few more unusual scenes like this (not even necessarily musical numbers, but fantasy sequences). But because it’s just the one, it feels confusing and out of place.

Despite my couple issues with this movie, I would still recommend it, if only for the aesthetic value. The animation is great, the music is gorgeous, and the plot keeps you on the edge of your seat.

You have one more chance to catch Have a Nice Day at MSPIFF on
Sunday, April 22 at 9:50 PM at St. Anthony Main Theatre 2
Get tickets »


ANNA KARENINA: VRONSKY’S STORY

I’m a sucker for tragic romance and it doesn’t get more harrowing than Leo Tolstoy’s classic. This time it’s told from Count Vronsky’s perspective, and made by the filmmakers from Tolstoy’s own homeland of Russia.

Set in Manchuria in the midst of Russian-Japanese War in 1904, the film opens in a makeshift hospital led by Sergei Karenin. One of the patients Karenin encountered turns out to be Count Vronsky, and this unexpected meet-up is what intrigues me most about this adaptation. At 138 min, this is sumptuous, lush drama that’s told in flashback. It traces back to how Anna and Vronsky first met, their tumultuous affair, up until 30 years later when Vronsky finds himself under the care of Anna’s son. Visually-stunning with meticulous details to its gorgeous set pieces and costumes, it’s fun to be transported to the opulent world of aristocratic Russia for a couple of hours.

However, the film often feels too indulgent, director Karen Shakhnazarov‘s filmed the scene of Anna in a carriage on the way to the train station with such slo-mo style, as he did with the horse race sequence where Vronsky is thrown from his horse. As a fan of romantic period dramas, I enjoyed many aspects of the film, but wish it offers more than just Vronsky’s remembrance. I also wish Vronsky displayed more emotion as he tells his story.

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The fragment of scenes of Anna/Vronsky’s romance isn’t always captivating, especially as Anna becomes such a nag the more her distrust continue to smother Vronsky and doom their affair. But that first meet-up on the train and the dance at the ball is the stuff epic romance is made of. They barely spoke but their physical chemistry sucks the air out of the room. Elizaveta Boyarskaya (Anna) and Maksim Matveyev (Vronsky) are absolutely stunning as the doomed lovers, though Anna comes across as a mentally-unhinged woman here. I was also quite taken by Kirill Grebenshchikov‘s soulful performance as Sergei, which made me wish there’s more to his interaction with Vronsky. Their story, which sets it apart from other Anna Karenina‘s adaptation, seems like a missed opportunity overall, down to its rather anticlimactic ending.

In the end, this Russian literary adaptation proved to be too melodramatic, but not as emotional as it could’ve been. Apparently there’s also a Russian TV series version of this adaptation, and perhaps this lavish story is best told in a miniseries format. Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend this to fans of Tolstoy’s classic and those who enjoy elegant period dramas.

RISKING LIGHT

As MSPIFF says on their documentary promos, few genres have the raw emotional power of documentaries. Facts are often stranger than fiction, and in many ways, real life stories can be more powerful than narratives, especially when they deal with sensitive subject matter as those presented in Risking Light.

MN filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s beautifully-shot documentary is a meditation on forgiveness, layered with a theme that is rarely seen on the screen—forgiving the unforgivable. The film featured three stories from Cambodia, Australia and here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Out of the three stories, the story of Mary Johnson and O’Shea Israel absolutely took my breath away. A story that made headlines as they both ended up being on The View and featured on People magazine, it’s one that definitely made you reflect on what you would do if it happened to you. As with the other two stories dealing with those who were part of Australia’s Aboriginal “Lost Generation” and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide Khmer Rouge, how does one forgive such evil being done not just to them but their entire family?

Forgiveness, compassion, kindness… all universal themes that everyone from every background can relate to and learn about. I love that the documentary also transport us into three different worlds that couldn’t be more different from each other, but yet carry a similar thread. On top of being substantially profound, this is also a visually-stunning film shot on location in three different continents. Definitely a feast for the eyes and nourishment for the soul. Bravo Dawn Mikkelson and team!

Risking Light has two more screening times at MSPIFF at St. Anthony Main Theatre:

Sunday, Apr 22 9:30 AM
Sat, Apr 28 7:05 PM
Get your tickets »


 

TCFF 2014 Documentary Reviews: Stray Dog, Flying Paper, Where The Trail Ends & One Good Year

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What I love about Twin Cities lineup year after year is the eclectic variety. Documentary is one of those genres I really need to see more of, so I’m glad there are quite a few of them this year. The past few years, I saw award-worthy docs like A Place at the Table, Bully, Gladiator The Uncertain Future of American Football, The Armstrong Lie, etc. at TCFF. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these would end up in the major award roster next year.


So here are the Documentary reviews …

Stray Dog

A documentary about an intellectual motorcyclist and guilt-ridden Vietnam war- veteran, Ronnie Hall, Stray Dog is a character portrait that ultimately doesn’t delve deeply enough to resonate.

Hall is a fitting subject, and director Debra Granik is adept at stringing together scenes that force us to consider society’s treatment of war veterans. She also reflects on the ways war permanently changes soldiers, often for the worse.

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But it is Stray Dog’s more subtle psychological themes that hold potential for the most emotional (and philosophical) resonance. Can we ever redeem our worst mistakes? What must we do to forgive ourselves? How much altruism overcomes past ethnocentricity and arrogance? Is it possible to adapt to new living conditions, particularly those that do not meet our expectations? And so forth. Troublingly, Granik never completely explores such ideas; take, for example, the question of redemption and altruism. In one powerful moment, easily the strongest in the film, she allows Hall to explain why he labels himself unforgivable, closing in on his face as he details his worst sins. His grief and regret are palpable, as is our own inability to connect the man we’ve been watching with the one he’s now describing. Yet, it is the only such scene in Stray Dog, and so the experience of seeing it quickly fades. Which means the film doesn’t connect to our personal psychological experience.

Make no mistake, though. Stray Dog is not a poor documentary. It is engaging throughout, and it does have intriguing ideas. It just doesn’t linger as powerfully as it might have with more fealty to psychology.

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Flying Paper

Flying Paper is one of the most heart-wrenching as well as uplifting docs I’ve seen in ages. It tells the story of resilient Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown. Though it shows the war-torn condition in Gaza, the film doesn’t take the political approach. Instead it shows life as it is for these youngsters, who like any other kid in other parts of the world, just want to play.

Two of the main kids being interviewed are siblings Musa and Widad, outspoken and full of energy as they walk us through their daily lives and planning to be a part of the United Nations’ Kite Festival. Musa is the unofficial team lead of sort, showing a maturity that seems well beyond his 14 years. They show us how they make their kites with flour and paste, testing it and making sure it flies the way they wanted it to be. The kite symbolizes freedom, the one thing people in occupied territories could only dream of, so in a way, they sort of live vicariously through the kites that soar into the sky.

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Directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill and co-produced with a team of young filmmakers in Gaza. One of them is Abeer, a graduate from Voices Beyond Walls Youth Media Program who wants to be a journalist. She acts as the reporter in the film, interviewing kids in their homes as well as at the Kite Festival. It’s heart-wrenching to hear little girls younger than 10 years old telling stories about how F-16 flying low over their homes and how loud the helicopters are when they fly overhead. Later on Musa also show us pieces from a bomb or rocket/tank that were fired nearby. It’s more telling how they nonchalantly talk about it, as they’ve gotten so used to as that’s all they know all their lives.

As we go through one of the schools, a teacher said that kite-making builds team spirit and help channel their energy. I’d imagine that as they live in such a brutal condition, kite-making would make them forget – albeit briefly – the trauma of war.

The third act of the doc shows the astounding Kite Fest at Waha Beach. There are throngs of kids with their colorful kites and big smiles on their faces. They’ve so waited for this moment for so long and I couldn’t help being so excited along with them. Over 7500 kids were at the festival, 7202 to be exact, which easily broke the world record.

Despite the dark themes of war, there is such a joyful spirit in this film and by the end you truly care for these kids and what this record mean to them. It’s quite astounding how this film got made despite the ongoing blockade in the area, so if you get a chance to see it, I urge you to do so.

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Where The Trail Ends

If there is a documentary that is meant to be seen in the hugest possible screens, it’d be this one. It’s fantastic for adrenaline junkie or anyone who appreciates epic cinematography that captures one of the most breathtaking nature scenes that would truly take your breath away.

There are five main free-ride mountain bikers: Darren Berrecloth, James Doerfling, Andreu Lacondeguy, Kurt Sorge and Cam Zink, who are featured here as they search for un-ridden terrain all over the globe. The first terrain shown was in Utah and boy I thought it was already scary and dangerous enough, but no, it’s deemed too easy for them. And off they go to various locations such as Nepal, China, Argentina and Canada. Each place seems more exotic than the next, and the cinematography by Brad McGregor is never less phenomenal from start to finish. The high-speed camera was often placed on the bikers’ helmet so you could see from their point of view and totally got the adrenaline rush pumping. I was as in awe of these daredevils and their death-defying stunts as I was with the amazing camera work.

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Now, this is no doubt one of the most-beautiful documentaries ever filmed, but at the same time, there’s only so much one’s eyeballs could take in. I never thought I’d say this but there are actually moments where I was yawning and looking at my watch. No, I’m not saying the film is boring, it’s just that this doc is more eye candy than anything else as there’s barely no emotional connection with any of its subjects. At times it felt as if I was watching an hour-long commercial for Red Bull, Specialized, Contour, etc. To be fair though, I was truly amazed that these bikes hold up being used in such extreme ways. These bikers seem like they’ve made out of rubbers too. I mean they get hurt, some broke their collar bones, foot, back, etc. but it’s still a feat it’s not worse!

There is one rather touching moment however. One of the bikers, I think it was Darren Berrecloth, almost lost it when he couldn’t bring himself to pull a certain dangerous stunt because he broke his back doing the exact same thing back in his home town. There he was, with the magnificent terrain sprawled right in front of him, beckoning for him to do it. Yet knowing how horrifying the back-breaking experience was that he simply couldn’t bear it again. His utter disappointment was palpable but in the end, everyone knew he made the right decision.

Director Jeremy Grant certainly knows how to make an exciting ride that’s chock-full of incredible spectacles. Where The Trail Ends is worth a look because the visuals is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect something profound or anything with an emotional depth.

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One Good Year

“One Good Year” tells the story of four family farms tucked in the densely wooded forest of Northern California. Interspersed between shots of emerald green hills and bucolic community festivals, these entrepreneurs show endless dedication to their crop and willingness to be one with the land. Oh, did I mention they are marijuana growers? Humboldt County, the home of filmmaker Mikal Jakubal, is, as David Samuels from the New Yorker put it, “The heartland of high grade marijuana farming in California.”

In this new 80-minute documentary, we meet four farmers permitted to grow the green leaves under Proposition 215 (California’s medical marijuana law) – Jory, Kim, Syreeta and Blossom. The film explores the dedication of this quartet to organically growing “the best weed anyone has smoked” juxtaposed against others in the area who exploit the environment to make a quick buck on the illegal (but more lucrative) marijuana trade.

It’s a topical subject, as Minnesota (home of the Twin Cities Film Fest) passed a medical marijuana bill earlier this year, joining nearly half of the states in the country with similar provisions. Undoubtedly it will offend some people – in one scene Blossom’s preschool daughter wanders through the crop while Blossom proclaims, “My mother taught me how to grow marijuana.” But Jakubal does a good job of showing us a personal commitment to the marijuana trade apart from the hype of drug cartels and stoned hippies.

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The four featured in the film are clearly not getting rich off their crop – Syreeta lives in a worn, treehouse like structure with a rusty old pickup in need of repair. When asked why she does it year after year, Blossom replies, “I think there will always be a market for good organic cannabis. I think they’re fun to grow.” The music in this show is particularly complimentary, including the work of local artists such as the Camo Cowboys, whose tune “Family Felony” provides a fun twang.

At times the film gets a little too technical, such as when Jory is describing her seed crop – “This one is Mexican Columbian crossed with Indica from Thailand…” (Oh, of course it is!) Far more helpful are the explanatory text graphics throughout the film explaining certain growing terms like “sexing,” the art of removing male plants to prevent unwanted pollination (only the female plants produce a smokable bud). Overall, it’s a thought provoking addition to the current debate over legalization in this country.

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Bonus Doc – Health Focus: One Community’s Effort

This doc wasn’t part of the TCFF lineup but it played in the film fest lounge as a free community event

Raise your hand if you want to live in an unhealthy community. Yeah, me neither. “Health Focus: One Community’s Effort,” shown at the Showplace Icon Theatre in St. Louis Park as part of the Twin Cities Film Fest, is a new documentary from Twin Cities Public Television. It covers the creation of “Health in the Park,” a grassroots initiative started last year and funded by The Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota with an aim to increase the overall health and wellbeing of St. Louis Park residents.

A first ring suburb directly west of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park is home to approximately 46,000. “It reminds me of a small town village in an urban setting,” Christa Getchell, President of the Park Nicollet Foundation, says in the video. Out of 50 applicants statewide, St. Louis Park was one of only nine cities chosen, in part because of their level of community engagement. “Our community is known for working together,” says Rob Metz, St. Louis Park School Superintendent. “You don’t see that everywhere.”

Full disclosure: I am a St. Louis Park resident and volunteer for Health in the Park’s Better Eating Action Group. As such, I tend to focus on nutrition but there have also been focus groups and presentations aimed at other aspects of healthy living such as increasing access to sidewalks and bike trails. “Because it’s so multifaceted, you can jump in where you feel most comfortable,” says Susan Ericksen, a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park Volunteer.

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Far from being a low level amateur project, “Health Focus” was made by Twin Cities Public Television so the production value in this 25-minute story is high. In many scenes, you see community members in various settings partaking in outdoor and indoor activities the city has to offer juxtaposed against various interviews staged in a way so you see the “City of St. Louis Park” logo in the background.

As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. But with the support and engagement of dedicated community members, St. Louis Park is poised to turn “Health in the Park” into more than just a series of conversations. If you miss it at the Twin Cities Film Fest, you can check out TPT’s website for a schedule of upcoming showings or visit the Health in the Park website to learn more about this initiative.

Not sure if I should rate this one? Admittedly I am biased as a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park volunteer.

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Have you seen any of these documentaries? What did you think?