Difficult movies, unearthed

Minneapolis Underground Film Festival offers ‘real art films, done by artists … on their own’

WHITTIER — Ted Dewberry spent a year living on a movie set.

Considering the movie was “Group Home,” based on Dewberry’s sometimes touching, sometimes troubling experiences working for seven years in a group home for the developmentally disabled, it was less than pleasant.

“Grim and dismal” was how Dewberry put it, actually, describing the grubby furniture scavenged from the streets of Eagan in order to transform his home into the location of the title. But that’s the kind of commitment it takes to produce a film on a shoestring — no, make it dental floss — budget of around $800.

“I just started to put one foot in front of the other and said, ‘I’ve got to make this thing. If I don’t make it, I’ll regret it forever,’” he said.

Persistence and passion are two traits Dewberry shares with many of the other filmmakers taking part in the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in August.

There’s a third: the desire — some described it as a need — to tell a story that is too personal, too hard to categorize, too challenging, too something to ever sell in Hollywood. And if it doesn’t sell in Hollywood, chances are most of people won’t ever see it.

Minneapolis cinematographer Greg Yolan would argue films that aren’t considered commercial for one reason or another often are among the most deserving of

Some of the country’s better-known underground film festivals take place annually in New York, Boston and Chicago. After working with local filmmakers, Yolan, a native of Rio de Janeiro who made Minneapolis his adopted hometown after attending MCAD in the ’90s, decided we need one, too.

“These are art films, but not like the kind you’d see at the Lagoon, because those are done by Miramax, which is owned by Disney, which is the biggest studio in Hollywood,” he said. “No, these are real art films, done by artists, by filmmakers, on their own.”

It’s not for lack of talent that these filmmakers remain underground. Yolan won the Kodak Vision Award for his cinematography on “Long Gone,” a feature-length documentary screening on the second day of the festival that follows a group of train-hopping hobos around the American West.

Often, it’s because they tell stories that are dark or don’t fit into a particular genre or eschew traditional narrative that their films remain buried.

Nicole Drending of Mahtomedi said a large film festival found a place for her movie “Operated by Invisible Hands,” a love story with a happy ending. But she’s had a much harder time winning screenings for her new film “Rebel,” which tells the story of a developmentally disabled man’s first sexual encounter, aided by his meth-addicted brother. It’s a bit dark, Drending admitted.

“I’ve had really great experience with certain films I’ve made, but this particular film gets really mixed responses,” she said.

Certainly, the films in the festival are not middle-of-the-road fare. But Drending said that’s the appeal of an underground film festival: movies that, as she put it, “blow your socks off.”

Not that it’s all dark stuff, although several of the movies definitely fit that description.

L.A. filmmaker Eric Gerber will present “Snare,” a non-narrative short that follows an artist through the woods and that, beyond that, is difficult to describe. Gerber said many moviegoers want to be challenged, but can’t find that experience at the local theater.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there who are curious, who want to see these films, but there isn’t much access,” he said.

Gerber described the underground film festival as a showcase of pure vision, uncorrupted by the financial and artistic pressures of mainstream movie making. And for a filmmaker, that’s inspiring.

It’s inspiring for audiences, too, as long as they’re willing to do some cinematic spelunking. Every trip underground promises the opportunity to unearth a gem.

“You’re not going to see these movies at the cineplex or on FOX, you know?” Yolan said. “You are only going to see these films at this film festival.”

Go See It

The Minneapolis Underground Film Festival is Aug. 29–31 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S. Festival passes are available for $29 in advance or $39 during the festival. Admission to single shows is $8 for adults, $4 for students. A full program and links to movie trailers are available on the festival website, minneapolisundergroundfilmfestival.com.