MSPIFF 2019 Spotlight: ‘Singin’ In The Grain – A Minnesota Czech Story’ + Interview with filmmaker Al Milgrom

It’s one of the most exciting times of the year! MSPIFF always have a wonderful lineup of documentaries and this is one I had the privilege of seeing early thanks to one of the film’s producers, Kelly Lamplear-Dash, who also helped me land this interview. When I first heard about this film, I was immediately intrigued as I love films about music AND this one happens to have a close personal connection to my adopted state, Minnesota!

Dan Geiger (left) and Al Milgrom

What makes this extra special is that one of the film’s directors, Al Milgrom, is a Minnesota film legend. The founder and artistic director of U Film Society in 1962, and co-founder of this very own Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in 1981, he’s had a second career as a filmmaker going back to grad student days at University of Minnesota.

His credits include doc features _Russian Journey_ (1959), Dinkytown Uprising (2015); shorts: The Bramble Experience (1971) , Rediscovering John Berryman (2014).

Co-director and editor Daniel Geiger is a veteran filmmaker based in Minneapolis. He’s has worked in the film business for over 37 years on feature films such as: Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain, Wildrose, Far North, Herman-U.S.A., Snow and The Jingle Dress.


It was exactly a week ago that I spoke on the phone with Mr. Milgrom. I had met him last year at a film event, and he was fascinated that I was from Indonesia. He likely knows more about Indonesian cinema than I do, and have even met famous Indonesian filmmakers/celebrities like Garin Nugroho and Christine Hakim. It’s clear that Mr. Milgrom loves learning about other cultures, which is how this film was born.

Close-up of Eddie Shimota Jr. playing the accordion

Before I started asking my questions, I told Mr. Milgrom that I had seen his film and that I enjoyed it. He asked if I was bored by all that music and I assured him I wasn’t. I love learning other cultures and the Czech heritage is so different from my own, which makes it all the more fascinating. I like the fact that it centers on a certain family, as the Shimotas became sort of the ‘face of the Czech community’ so to speak. Some of his family members and friends also chimed in throughout the film to give insights into what it means to be Czech-Americans.

As I was watching the movie and watching Eddie and his son played the accordion, I actually felt a bit nostalgic of my late mother who liked polka music and could play the accordion really well. My mom was always the life of the party back in Jakarta, Indonesia, every time she came out with her accordion, as it’s still quite a rare instrument there. Having lived in Minnesota for over 20 years, I’m always discovering new things about the State, so I’m glad I got to learn a bit about the Czech community and various cultural events such as the Veseli Ho-Down, Montgomery’s Kolacky Days, New Prague’s Dozinky Festival, etc. that’s been passed down through generations.

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Singin’ in the Grain is a film that should appeal to every immigrant, or anyone whose parents and grandparents migrated from another country (which are all of us, really). 45-years in the making, the film followed the life of Eddie Shimota in a series of footage spanning 40+ years and three generations. The boy in the poster is Eddie Shimota Jr. as a young teen, which is seen throughout the film from his youth all the way to the time he has his own wife and kids. It’s a film that celebrates a rich cultural heritage and the tight-knit Czech community in Southern Minnesota through folksongs and dances. Music is such a universal language, and something that anyone from any culture can relate to.

When I asked Mr. Milgrom why he chose to explore the story of the Czech community, as opposed to other immigrant communities such as German or Irish, his answer was simple…

The German community is more well-known to people here. The Swedes and Norwegian culture has become assimilated, as is the Germans, so the unique quality has disappeared. 

Mr. Milgrom also mentioned the fact that the Irish culture is pretty much only celebrated during St. Patrick’s Day, and the Norwegians and Swedes tend to belong to the upper bourgeoisie in Minnesota (middle or upper middle class) while the people in this documentary are mostly agricultural farmers in a section in Minnesota where, until the highways were developed, weren’t that well-known.

Mr Milgrom himself grew up in a Bohemian community in Pine City, Minnesota, so he already knew a certain amount about the folkways and their culture, even their language when he’s sometimes invited to their house when he was 10 years old. His early love for cinema was through Czech New Wave filmmakers like Milos Vorman, Ján Kadár (who won an Oscar for Shop On Main Street), etc. In fact, some of those filmmakers came to New Prague and were credited as consultants in this film.

Apparently Mr. Milgrom wasn’t initially planning on making a film about Eddie Shimota. Someone mentioned to him about the Hoedown Festival and Eddie’s band was the star of that festival that takes place every August in Veseli. At the time, Mr. Milgrom didn’t even know it was going to be a film, but he found Eddie to be a good subject for a series of interviews, plus he and his band were accessible to him. 

“The point is, I really liked the characters. I like Eddie and the Czech people there. They’re very different from the Academic community at the University. 

Eddie Shimota Sr.

The film shows public domain footage of immigrants coming to Ellis Island that ties in very well with the Czech heritage story. It also talks about various aspects of the Czech heritage in the Bohemian community that’s still being practiced today. There’s even footage of a Czech Honorary Consul (Ambassador) of the Midwest visiting a school in Montgomery, one of the largest Czech communities in Minnesota. But music is integral to the film, and that’s the ‘ties that bind’ if you will, as people of various socio-economic classes (some are farmers, surgeons, etc.) but they’d come together and play music together. 

The Shimotas reflect the culture of the ‘old Czech’ that arrived in the late 1800s and settled in New Prague as they form farming communities. Mr. Milgrom said that the old Czech has been somewhat diluted by the new arrival of new generation of Czech immigrants after Velvet Revolution in 1989, with their own folk-Slavic beat and vibe that’s very different from Eddie Shimota’s world.

In my interview, Mr. Milgrom discussed a bit about the clichéd term ‘America is a melting pot’ that’s rooted in the 60s and 70s.

“… in this day and age, especially after the ‘Make America Great Again’ propaganda slogan, various ethnicities want to reclaim their identity, they don’t want to be a melting pot. They want to preserve their own cultures… the Blacks want to preserve who they are, the Puerto Rican want to preserve who they are. Perhaps not the Irish so much as they’re so political, but the Greeks want to preserve who they are, they don’t want to blend in with everybody and want to preserve their language if they can. The process of assimilation tend to dilute their cultures. The Czech want to preserve their culture because they’d get swallowed up by everybody otherwise.”

Eddie Shimota Jr (in a dark shirt playing an accordion) continued his father’s tradition in the Veseli Hoedown, 2011

Singin’ In The Grain is a wonderful celebration of such a vibrant and dynamic Czech heritage. I’m happy to have seen a glimpse of their culture and music through this film, and perhaps even participate in St. Paul’s Sokol Hall later this year. The music alone makes it a fun to watch and it’s easy to be swept up by their joyful smiles and warm community spirit. It may have taken over 40 years to make this film but I’m glad Al Milgrom and Dan Geiger got it done. It’s definitely a film worth seeing by everyone, but especially Minnesotans!


MSPIFF 2019 SHOWINGS

St. Anthony Main Theatre 3 – Sat, Apr 6 2:00 PM (RUSH ONLY) 

Tickets still available for these two performances:
St. Anthony Main Theatre 2 – Wed, Apr 17 4:15 PM
Marcus Rochester CinemaThu, Apr 18 12:15 PM

2018 TCFF Reviews – ‘Wunderland’ + ‘Witch’ + ‘Nor Any Drop To Drink’ documentary

The 9th annual Twin Cities Film Fest may have come and gone, but hey, we still have some reviews to share with you!

MANY THANKS to our blog volunteers Holly, Laura, Vitali and Andy for their great work before and during the film fest! For ALL of the 2018 coverage that include reviews AND interviews, click here or just type TCFF 2018 in the search box.


Review by Holly Peterson

Wunderland

Director: Steven Luke

Before you see Wunderland, you should know that it is more of an action movie than it is an historical drama. The story leads up to the Battle of the Bulge, but the events at the Western Front are very decidedly a backdrop, not a plot. The audience is left following the meandering adventures of Lt. Cappa (Steven Luke), which mostly consists of him speaking in his most gravely voice and pulling his rosary out of his jacket – when he’s not shooting Germans, of course.

The choice to make Wunderland an action movie is confusing because it is clear that the filmmakers did research surround WWII. This was most apparent in the historical profiles of men who fought in WWII that scrolled at the end of the credits, but as far as I could tell, none of those men were characters in the movie which is, again, confusing.

Director/Star Steven Luke

Wunderland is a beautiful movie. Editing is choppy at times, but Peter Wigand has an eye for capturing scenery and does a great bringing the audience into a winter “wunderland”. The score is also great, although sometimes misused. (For instance, there were a couple scenes where the soundtrack playing behind the Germans was so victorious that I started to think that I had missed something and they might actually be Americans.)

Tom Berenger as Maj. McCulley

The strongest part of Wunderland is the fight sequences. Steven Luke has one great bit of hand-to-hand combat about halfway through the movie and the firefights are fun to watch. It feels a little weird to enjoy watching people shoot each other when you know that the story is about actual events, but, like I said earlier, this is an action movie.  It is fun to watch everyone run around in a snowy forest shooting service rifles, anti-tank rifles, and setting up trip wires.

You should see this movie if you want to see some of your favorite Minnesotan actors in action, if you are looking for an action movie with just enough historical reference to give it a little weight, and if you like goats.  I’m not even going to explain that one.  See it for the goat.  Thank me later.


WITCH

Review by Laura Schaubschlager

Director: Vanessa Magowan Horrocks

Witch follows a babysitter, X, who plays an ongoing game with their ward, Aima, where they pretend to be in a constant fight with an evil witch. Soon, however, the lines of reality blur, and it begins to seem as if their game isn’t as imaginary as X originally believed.

While Witch is listed under the “horror” section on the TCFF schedule, I wouldn’t categorize it as such. While there are some horror aspects to it (especially the character design of the witch), it’s much more of a psychedelic sci-fi fantasy- which is awesome, but I wish I had known that going in, rather than assuming it would be a horror film, since I kind of had to mentally shift gears and adjust my expectations while watching. That said, this is an absolutely beautiful movie. It’s full of dream-like animation, lush set design, and detailed costuming. Even the sound is gorgeous, from the background noises to the score. There are some moments where the music and sound effects overwhelm the dialogue (which is unfortunate, because the script is lovely and really makes me want to read the novella the movie is based on), but overall, this is a stunning film, visually and in terms of sound.

The acting in Witch is excellent as well. The cast is small but solid. The standouts are, without question, the actors playing X and Aima. X is funny and genuine, and Aima is ridiculously talented for such a young actor. The two have excellent chemistry.

While Witch isn’t available for purchase yet, the filmmakers are working with a distributor, so if you weren’t able to catch it at TCFF, hopefully you’ll be able to buy or stream it soon. In the meantime, the soundtrack is available on Bandcamp and is absolutely worth listening to. I sincerely hope this movie is shown at more festivals in the future, because it definitely deserves the screen-time.


Nor Any Drop to Drink

Review by Andrew Ellis

Director: Cedric Taylor

Nor Any Drop to Drink takes a deep look into the problems that caused the water crisis in the first place as well as showing us how much has changed – or hasn’t. The documentary forgoes the tradition of having a narrator guide us through the story, and lets those involved in the fight tell it instead. While there were many captivating moments in the feature length documentary that kept you hanging onto every word, there were also those that made you wonder how long this was going to go on for.

The shining moments belong to the residents for Flint who have been effected by the crisis, and are still paying the price long after the reporters and activists are gone. The film opens on an older African American woman who we see throughout the documentary using bottled water for everything, and explaining the effect the lead-infected water has on the human body overall. Two other women talk about the effect it has on their kids and how it changed one of them to a point where her son is now homeschooled.

Then are the other interviews. These are with government officials and other experts who attempt to explain the circumstances that lead to crisis, and what kept it from being solved. While they were important they were explaining details that most viewers might find hard to follow. They have plenty of expertise, but when they get into the hard details of certain aspects it becomes hard to follow especially with no accompanying visual graphics to highlight key information for the viewer. And in the age of short attention spans it’s an easy way to allow one’s mind to wander away from the screen.

The heart is there. There is no doubt the filmmaker cares about this topic. Unfortunately, passion does not always lead to a well-crafted story.

Review by Andrew Ellis


Stay tuned for additional TCFF reviews/interviews… as well as two Halloween Specials coming tomorrow and Wednesday!