Guest Coverage & Reviews of Frozen River Film Festival 2017


The Twin Cities might be more well-known for their arts and culture scene than other parts of Minnesota, but there are plenty of small towns that have so much to offer as well-Winona, for example. Okay, I might be a little biased, as it is home to my beloved alma mater (Winona State University), but it still deserves recognition. The cozy college town, nestled in the gorgeous bluffs of Southeast Minnesota, has a flourishing community of art, music, theatre, and film which can be enjoyed year-round, including Midwest Music Fest, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and one of my favorites: Frozen River Film Festival. This five-day-long event showcases a variety of documentaries that educate and inspire audiences of all ages.

This year, FRFF showcased 81 different films, all of which went through an extensive selection process. According to Crystal, the festival’s executive director, the films are chosen by a committee of 12 individuals. “Each film is watched at least three times and ranked according to content, subject matter, narrative structure and audience engagement,” Crystal explains. “Once the top ranking films are analyzed, we look at the variety of subjects, important and relevant issues and decide which ones to program.”

My friend Alisha and I have volunteered at the festival for the past few years. In exchange for a few hours of tearing tickets and helping guests find seats, we get a free pass to any of the other movies for the rest of the week. It’s a fun excuse for us to visit our college home, get our coffee and cocktail fixes at our favorite local spots (looking at you, Blue Heron and Ed’s No Name Bar), and check out a variety of educational, entertaining, and inspirational documentaries.

Below are the ones we saw this year, and I highly recommend you watch them if you get a chance.

Sacred-Thomas Lennon

The first film we saw was a collaborative effort of 40 film teams all over the world. There was no narrative, which could have made the movie feel disorganized, but the editing and handful of interviews throughout actually made it a very effective choice. The film included a great range of cultures and beliefs, and it was interesting to see how, despite the differences in rituals and practices, they are used for the same purposes: as a source of strength in difficult times, as guidance in being a good person, as a way of connecting with the community. With a subject that is often so divisive, it’s so uplifting to see a project that highlights the similarities instead.

50 Feet from Syria – Skye Fitzgerald

This documentary left me shaken, but it was also one of the most important; it’s definitely relevant considering the debates over Syrian refugees. The documentary follows a doctor from the U.S. who travels to a hospital in Turkey, literally fifty feet from the Syrian border, to help injured refugees. It’s gut-wrenching, hearing about government snipers singling out defenseless children and pregnant mothers, about markets being bombed when people are just trying to get food for their families, about how healthcare workers in the country are banned from helping those who oppose the government. The hospital the documentary takes place in is the only one in Turkey approved to help Syrian refugees. It’s certainly an eye-opening film that I hope will gain more attention soon.

A Way Forward – Isaac and Jacob Seigel-Boettner

While this was the shortest film we saw (only about six minutes long), it was still impactful. Three women in rural Kenya explain how difficult it is for them to get to school, often having to risk their safety just to make it there. An organization called World Bicycle Relief provides bikes for the school to give girls, not only providing transportation, but a feeling of empowerment and courage for the students. In addition to benefiting the students, the organization also supports the local economy; the bikes are built in Kenya, and their next goal is to build an infrastructure to support them. It’s a great film for students here to watch in order for them to understand what they take for granted, because the women in the documentary are so willing to overcome serious hurdles in order to get an education: as one, Dianah, explains, “The challenges may be many, and the blessings bigger.”

Daughters of the Forest – Samantha Grant

Another strong documentary about female empowerment, Daughters of the Forest profiles the Centro Educativo Mbaracayú, a boarding high school for girls in a Paraguayan forest reserve, where they teach girls how to support their rural communities without destroying the forest, as well as give girls an opportunity to learn about and explore career options they might not have otherwise imagined for themselves. In a society with a teen pregnancy rate of 30%, where young girls are seldom asked what they want to be where they grow up, this school teaches girls they can be anything they set their minds to, even in roles that are not traditionally female. The documentary was filmed over a span of five years, showing the girls’ journeys as well as where they are now.

Life, Animated – Roger Ross Williams

This film was one of the Oscar nominees this year, and for good reason. Life, Animated tells the story of Owen, a young man with autism who is about to take his first steps toward independent living. Since childhood, Owen has been able to make sense of the world through Disney animated movies, and the documentary intercuts moments in Owen’s life with related Disney clips as well as roughly sketched animations of Owen as a young boy, which adds a beautifully creative touch to this particular style of filmmaking. Life, Animated is an informative, uplifting movie that brought tears to my eyes more than once; I never thought Gilbert Gottfried (the voice of Iago in Aladdin) making a surprise appearance would be considered heartwarming, but once you find out the significance of the character to Owen and his development, the grating-voiced actor’s cameo really packs an emotional punch.

My biggest regret is that I was only in Winona for the weekend and was only able to see a handful of films. There were so many others that sounded amazing, and next year I might have to take a little more time off work so I can enjoy more of the festival.

FRFF isn’t just a tourist draw, but an advantage for Winona locals as well. “Individuals who may otherwise not be documentary or independent film fans will come out to this event to catch up on the latest films,” Crystal explains. “Many films don’t come to our local theater. For instance, Life, Animated, which plays on Sunday 2/19, is up for an Oscar in February. Our local theater will never play some of the less-known films that people can catch at the festival.”

Whether you’re a city dweller or a Winona native, Frozen River Film Festival is worth checking out.



TCFF 2014 Opening Night Festivities + ‘Men, Women & Children’ review


Today’s the day! The fifth annual Twin Cities Film Fest kicked off with the Minnesota premiere of Jason Reitman’s latest drama, Men, Women & Children. As he always does year after year, TCFF Executive Director Jatin Setia introduced the film and asked the packed audience to give him a five to commemorate our fifth year bringing the film fest to cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike in the Twin Cities and beyond!

Jatin also pointed out the social cause that our film fest bring to the community since year one, when the social theme of the year was education, hence Waiting for Superman was the opening night film back in 2010. We’ve since introduced a CHANGEMAKER series, with the tagline ‘Watch. Learn. Act.’ Check out this FREE event on Friday, Oct 24 at 6:30 event, presenting “Breaking Free from the Life” documentary, followed by Survivor Panel event at Showplace ICON Theatre Lobby.

OldFashioned2015Early in the evening, just before the first screening of the year, I had the privilege of chatting with Rik Swartzwelder, the writer/director/star of Old Fashioned, which will have two showings at TCFF! I’m glad we’re showing a film like this, a classic romance where two people attempt the impossible … an “old-fashioned” courtship in contemporary America. Now that is rare indeed in today’s culture. I really enjoyed our conversation, so stay tuned for the full interview transcript later this week!

Here are some pics from tonight’s festivities:

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And lookie here… the lovely Haley Lu Richardson, who’s got not one but TWO films screening at TCFF, is in town and having a blast! Looking forward to chattin’ with her tomorrow morning 😀

Can’t help joining on the fun, too w/ my pal Julie 😀


Now on to the first TCFF review of the year…


Men, Women and Children (2014)

Jason Reitman has a knack for portraying interesting [read: quirky] relationships in his films. This is his sixth feature film and once again he explores relationships and its predicaments. This time it’s set in the age of the internet, as Emma Thompson narrates throughout the film whilst we’re shown views of earth from space. The film is a blatant commentary of how we are inevitably affected by the enormous social change that comes through digital devices such as our phones, tablets, laptops, etc. that many of us can’t live without. Nobody is immune, as the title of the film says, the internet affects every man, woman and child [except perhaps the Amish people] and alters how we deal/view relationships with each other.

It’s a topic that’s as relevant and timely as ever, and the concept itself is appealing because most of us today can relate to this. Alas, I don’t think the execution quite hit the mark here. The performances are good but somehow the story took too long to built, and in the end it just wasn’t as engaging as I’d have liked it to be. Right away the theme of the film reminds me of Disconnect which also deals with how ‘disconnected’ we have become in an age where everything is readily available to us at the touch of a button. That film isn’t perfect either but I think it did a better job in telling the story and made us care for the characters.


Except for a few, most of the characters don’t feel real to me, they’re more caricatures painted with such broad strokes of opposite extremes. One set of parent is waaay too strict about protecting their kids from the danger of the internet, and the other are waaaay too loose that they lose sight of even the most basic societal boundaries are in regards to what/how much one should share online and such. A lot of these characters are so predictable, you expect them to behave in a certain way and voila, they do exactly that. Most of the young actors playing the teens seem so awkward here, and their story lines are too heavy-handed but in the end they’re not fully-realized either.

Adam Sandler gives a restrained performance as one half of a couple in a troubled marriage, with Rosemarie DeWitt playing his bored housewife. Their marriage is as lethargic as the way these interwoven stories are portrayed. Try as I might, the stories just don’t quite captivate me. DeWitt’s scenes with Dennis Haysbert is perhaps one of the most cringe-inducing scenes I’ve seen all year. I know it’s supposed to be awkward given the circumstances, but it’s the way it’s directed that’s problematic, so I don’t blame the actors. It’s too bad as I like DeWitt as an actress and I think Sandler does have dramatic chops when he choose to use it. I’m more impressed by the secondary characters played by Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever and Dean NorrisJennifer Garner is as dour and stern as I’ve never seen her before, playing an overprotective & controlling mother that undoubtedly produces the opposite effect of what she’s trying to achieve.


The use of music is a bit odd too, sometimes the songs played are so loud that it felt jarring, and others there’s not a single sound as the camera zooms in on an actor’s face with no word is spoken. The visuals are as somber as the stories, the muted color palette just isn’t aesthetically pleasing here. But the look of the film is the least of the its problems. I just think Reitman, who’s a gifted filmmaker who’s made terrific work such as Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air, is trying too hard here in striving to be profound and philosophical. Now, the themes presented here certainly are thought-provoking and the idea that face-to-face human relationships just can’t be replaced by technology isn’t lost on me. I just wish the film were more engaging as I found myself looking at my watch a few times, even as the last third did improve a bit in terms of pacing. Perhaps a more straight-forward approach and injecting a bit more humor into this might’ve made the film more palatable and entertaining. It’s not a terrible film per se, but I expected a lot better from Reitman.


Well that’s it for Day 1 folks, stay tuned for more TCFF coverage in the coming days!

TCFF Day 5: Fair Game concluded the 5-day film festival

Bill Pohlad (far right) with Naomi Watts and the writers of Fair Game at Cannes

The Twin Cities Film Fest concluded its five-day event with a festive Fair Game screening, attended by Minneapolis-native film producer William (Bill) Pohlad (who’s also part owner of the Minnesota Twins). The Pohlad family foundation was one of the primary sponsors for the festival and played a huge part in funding this event, the Pohlad Family Foundation offered a dollar-for-dollar matching grant if consumers and film lovers can collaboratively donate $5000 leading up to the festival. Many moviegoers outside of Minnesota might not have heard of him, but most likely you’ve heard of the films he’s produced. Some of his biggest projects include Brokeback Mountain, A Prairie Home Companion, and the Sean Penn-directed Into the Wild. According to bizjournal, Pohlad launched a new production company Apparition last year, which was the company behind the Jane Campion period drama Bright Star and the upcoming Terrence Malick’s drama Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. That movie marks the third collaboration between Mr. Pohlad and Sean Penn (who also stars in Fair Game) and reportedly a fourth one is forthcoming, according to Filmofilia, Pohlad will direct Penn in book editor Max Perkins’ biopic.

I finished my shift late afternoon last night, which gave me enough time to grab some dinner and back in time to see Fair Game. About 10 minutes before the movie started, Mr. Pohlad arrived dressed in jeans, white shirt and black sports coat. He also introduced the movie, a political drama based on the autobiography of real-life undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) whose covert identity was exposed by a politically motivated press leak.

Well, this week was a record for me as far as movie-watching is concerned, I don’t think I have seen that many films within a 5-day period! In my post last week, I was hoping to catch these five movies during the film fest, and guess what, I got four out of five! Tuesday I got to see Nowhere Boy (read my review), followed by the documentary World’s Largest and Secretariat on Friday, and Fair Game on Saturday. As the festival attached two short films in front of some feature films, I also got to see Per Bianca and Flourtown shorts, the latter combined live action and animation, which was quite a visual feast.

Glad to say that all the movies I saw were all enjoyable, my favorite of all of them was probably Nowhere Boy, with Secretariat a close second. I should have my review of this one and Secretariat sometime early next week, I was hoping to get ’em done tonight but I’m kind of taking a bit of blogging break after such a hectic week.

My first time volunteering at a film festival was a blast, I probably was a bit ambitious trying to fit everything in: blogging, on-site volunteering and watching the films, so maybe I’ll just do two out of three next year 🙂 World’s Largest‘s director Amy Elliot held a Q&A after the screening and she said that the highlight of making the movie was meeting the people she met along the way, some of which became personal friends. Well, I would have the answer if someone asked me what the best part of this whole volunteering experience was. Of course watching the movies were great, but the highlight of being a part of TCFF for me was getting to know the staff and fellow volunteers, a lot of them from the local film community. Ulysses, Lee Jordan, Kathleen, Holly, Michael, Melissa and MJ, it was a pleasure knowing you and hope we’ll meet again at some point. Becky, a.k.a. Prairiegirl, thanks for signing up to volunteer with me, it wouldn’t have been as fun without you!

Congratulations to Jatin Setia and co. for the success of the TCFF debut, it was truly a feat to transform your vision into reality. Of course it helps to have such a great staff alongside you: Bill Cooper, Robyn Johnson, Erin Halvorson, Naomi Dahlgren, John Mellesmoen, and the rest of the staff – great job everyone, I’m sure you all deserve the much-needed sleep by now! 😀 As a passionate movie fan, I thank you all for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful event. Here’s hoping for continued success for TCFF in the years to come!

Counting down to TCFF: Watch the films, meet the filmmakers

The Autumn Equinox has arrived for us in the USA and the rest of the northern hemisphere! Fall is my favorite season and this year there’s something else to be excited about Autumn here in Minnesota! In four days, Tuesday, September 28 will mark the debut of the annual TWIN CITIES FILM FEST, premiering with documentary Waiting for Superman, followed by Q&A with its director, Davis Guggenheim. Have you secured your ticket yet?

When I was at TIFF back in 2005, I got a chance to watch a couple of movies with the director in attendance: a Norse warrior adventure tale Beowulf & Grendel (Sturla Gunnarsson) and a quirky musical comedy Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro). In fact, at the world premiere of Beowulf & Grendel, the entire cast were also in attendance (just a few rows behind me!), including my personal fave Gerard Butler. Good thing I didn’t realize it until after as I’d have a real trouble concentrating on the movie! 😀 It’s a really cool feeling to be able to watch a film knowing the people involved in making the film are watching it with you. Even better if you can actually ask questions about it afterward!

Well, Guggenheim isn’t the only filmmaker who will be attending the five-day festival. Check out the list below of who else will be in attendance for the premiere of their films:

  • Night Catches US
    Tanya Hamilton (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Sin Retorno
    Guillermo Ivan (Director and Actor) Confirmed
  • Worlds Largest
    Amy Elliot (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
  • A Good Day to Die
    David Mueller and Lynn Salt (Directors) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Phasma Ex Machina
    Matt Osterman (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Nature of Existence
    Roger Nygard (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Man Made
    Vaughn Juarez (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Channel News
    Jacob Kindberg (Director) Confirmed with Q & A
    Sarah Kindberg (Actor) Confirmed with Q & A
  • Fanny, Annie and Danny
    Chris Brown (Director) Intended with Q & A

Minnesota Shorts Directors Attending:

  • AS BREATH ON GLASS – Maria Bias (Screening with Channel News)
  • DINNER DATE – Paul Von Stoetzel (Screening with Fanny, Annie & Danny)
  • ESSENSE – Katie Mac (Screening with Night Catches Us)
  • FLOURTOWN – William Slichter  (Screening with Secretariat)
  • PER BIANCA – James Snapko (Screening with Nowhere Boy)
  • PHOTOS AND DRAWINGS – Jon Maichel Thomas (Screening with Conviction)
  • SOMEONE, SOMETHING – Matt Joyer  (Screening with World’s Largest)
  • THE ACTIVIST – Phillip Montgomery (Screening with Toxic Soup)

Check out the official website for descriptions of each of the film and get your tickets!