New documentary spotlights Dinkytown’s anti-war era activists

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Local film legend Al Milgrom, founder of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, is out with a new documentary, “The Dinkytown Uprising,” about efforts to block a chain burger joint called Red Barn in 1970. 

It premiered at St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 Main St. SE, on April 12 and will play again at the theater on April 20.  

The festival runs through April 25 and features more than 200 films from 60 countries around the world.

Milgrom’s 95-minute documentary focuses on a 40-day occupation in Dinkytown and takes a look at what happened to the students and neighborhood residents involved in the efforts to stop a Red Barn from opening in Dinkytown. 

Milgrom, 92, is an icon in the state’s cinema scene. He’s joked that he’s likely the oldest emerging filmmakers in the country. 

Here are highlights from a recent interview about his new documentary. 

Q: What inspired you to create this film?

A: I must have picked up a photography virus as a high school senior which led to a closet desire following a college course in photo to come out of the woodwork, which led easily at the same time to discovering a movie gene, that dated from the age of 3 to seeing a Chaplin comedy in Hinckley, Minn. where my father had a tailor shop, not long off the boat from Russia. 

The fertile years — starting with late ’50s in France with the “dawn” of the so-called “Nouvelle Vague” and the films of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard — fed some kind of latent desire to use film as a means of personal expression. “Citizen Kane” (1941) of Orson Welles and the rise of Italian neo-realism with “Bicycle Thieves” were in the mix somewhere, as they were for many would-be film types of my generation. So as these influences continued into the ’60s that saw the rise of indie documentaries on black and white TV and lightweight movie cameras via the “direct cinema” of the Leacock/Pennebaker/Maysles Brothers I also caught the bug. (A long answer.)

The short answer: stories early February 1970 in the Minnesota Daily that something was going on in Dinkytown, which caught my journalistic eye. (I had already been hanging out with filmmaking crowd at the U of Minn. (where I was an instructor and had started the U Film Society eight years earlier in l962.)

Q: What was Dinkytown like during that era, and how is it different from today?  

A: Dinkytown until one-way traffic, around late ’70s was much more a very friendly neighborhood, laid back (though still being part of the oldest neighborhood in Minneapolis), with a lot of ma and pa food stores, five bookstores (street level), but already with two fast-food hamburger joints, the eternal Al’s Breakfast, Mama D’s institution. It still had a ‘soul’ and a lot of local characters you’d see every day, along with the U of Minn. crowd of after-class daily shoppers, students and faculty, and a handful of writers and poets.  

Q: What were the students like who were involved in the protests?

A: Student ferment was near the boiling point owing to the Vietnam War and sit-ins at the U of Minn. as well as elsewhere in town. In general, owing to all the social change going on throughout the ’60s —Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, Chicago in ’68, the counter-culture in general, Civil Rights movement — student activism was a given.

Q: What makes a good film, in your opinion?  

A: To be a writer you should read a lot of books, I would guess, especially the “classics.” Same with filmmaking: you should see the “classics,” unless you want to make vampire movies, and then there is always “Dracula.”

Q: What do you hope people get out of watching “The Dinkytown Uprising”?

A feeling of lost time, a remembrance of things past that can’t be recaptured, how the personages in the film feel about themselves now and a tear of nostalgia for the neighborhood that has lost much of its old charm with the recent high-rise building boom.