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TCFF 2022: Chock Full ‘O MN Shorts Block Highlights

One of the pleasures of any film festival is settling in to watch those short films about which you might know nothing in advance, opening yourself up to the little pleasures and surprises a few minutes of film can provide. For some filmmakers a short film accepted to a major festival can make for a significant career opportunity, and for some documentary subjects it’s a chance to see their story told to thousands. Twin Cities Film Festival’s Chock Full ‘O MN Shorts Block serves up a veritable smörgåsbord of Minnesota-connected documentaries, and here are a few of the highlights from the ten-film program.

Young Bucks

The block opens with one documentary apparently unrelated to Minnesota (at least as far as I could tell), but Young Bucks is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo and its all-Black riders.  The film connects nicely with Jordan Peele’s recent interest in resuscitating the history of the Black cowboy (by some estimates, one in four American cowboys were black, though one wouldn’t know from the largely white Westerns of classical Hollywood cinema).

Bill Pickett was a legendary Black cowboy often banned from competing in the predominantly white rodeos of his day. In his honor, Denver entrepreneur Lu Vason started the all-black rodeo which has traveled the U.S. since 1984.

Rance Randle’s film captures the passion and spirit of the Black men and women who devote countless hours to their sport. The photography is often extraordinary, even if its muted color grading is a stylistic choice not everyone will appreciate. As striking as the film is, I wish it were feature-length, as the montage-style editing and voice-over makes it a bit difficult to parse out each individual rider. But the film seems aimed more at presenting the Pickett Rodeo as a collective rather than as isolated individuals, and either way, it’s a fascinating, if abbreviated, study of a largely unknown slice of Black culture connecting with a rich and storied past.

I Pray

A Minneapolis skyline with the superimposed words "I Pray" from the Chock Full 'O MN Shorts Block

I Pray is short but powerful. In July 2021, just one day after a man drove 80 mph through a Black Lives Matter protest and killed Deona Knajdek, filmmaker Lars Brinkema captured a BLM activist’s powerful prayer. Set to music by Mizzy Mauri and imagery from the George Floyd protests, Brinkema’s short eloquently and passionately elegizes the victims of racist violence.

I Pray is also available on YouTube.

Wolves of Isle Royale: The Quest for Survival

Isle Royale, a remote 893-square-foot island on Lake Superior off the Minnesota shore, has been the focus of a long-term study dedicated to its wolf population, one that has dwindled, due to climate change, from over 50 to just two.

The ice bridges that used to provide them travel form only occasionally now, once a decade. It’s an example of how climate change has a direct impact on the wildlife native to wilderness habitats. Can wolves external to the island be introduced there, and if so, what kinds of genetic, ethical, and procedural decisions need be made? Or is it, for the wolves of Isle Royale, simply already too late?

It’s not just a matter of wolves declining in number; when top-level predators disappear from an ecosystem, other species can grow in number—and then compete for increasingly scarce resources.

This excellent short documentary traves the effort to relocate wolves from other locations to the island in an attempt to stave off the devastating effects of climate change, with expert testimony and factual graphics providing a clear and persuasive presentation.

The Wolves of Isle Royale is also available to watch on YouTube.

The Life of Lefty, Rolando Ramos

A Bronx skyline with the words imposed "The Life of Lefty: Rolando Ramos" from the Chock Full 'O MN Shorts Block

Director Josh Englert director’s 11-minute documentary tells the story of a charismatic young man from the Bronx, Rolando Ramos aka “Lefty,” an aspiring baseball player whose brush with racial profiling set him on a path that changed the course of his life.

Some of what Ramos finds is pretty standard fare—making friendships, going to parties, pursuing passions—that it’s easy to take for granted. But growing up in poverty and threatened by the crime that surrounds him, Ramos is able to convey his journey towards coaching with some heartfelt pathos.

Englert is a recent graduate of Century College’s Film and Video Production program in White Bear Lake and, given the impressive cinematography and editing in this short documentary, a filmmaker with considerable promise.

The Life of Lefty, Rolando Ramos is also available to watch on YouTube.

Tiny Titanic

Jason Seguin stands in front of his model of the Titanic sinking in his front yard

This short documentary features Kim and Jason Seguin, who live in the small town Proctor, MN, and purchased a home there that was owned by a Titanic survivor named Anna Larsen.

Which in itself may not sound earth-shaking, but the story of the Titanic’s sinking still resonates deeply in the public imagination, and the tale of its few survivors’ escape. The Seguins’ son, Jaxson, who has Asberger’s, developed a fascination with the story of the Titanic, and dove wholeheartedly into its history.

And what better way than to devote your front yard to a sculpture of the ship—as it sinks?

I loved this short documentary. The Seguins make for charming, affable subjects, Minnesotans a bit camera-shy but proud of their son and of their accomplishment. The model Jason built with Jaxson’s help is a Midwestern-quirky, Minnesota-kitschy tribute not just to a ship that went down or a survivor who once inhabited their house, but to a long-term family project that bonds a father and son.

Tiny Titanic, directed and edited by Mike Sholtz, is also available on YouTube.

Hope Breakfast Bar

The handsomely-photographed and eloquently-narrated Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul documents the work of one family to feed others’ during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hope transitioned from a commercial restaurant to a community provider when the shutdown imperiled the underprivileged in 2020.

Brian and Sarah Ingram bult their restaurant on a love of food and brought that notion of sharing to their community-service work to build a network of “purpose Restaurants” committed to serving people in need. It’s a heartwarming, affecting tale of finding a calling that serves a greater good in the best way possible—and a fitting conclusion to the Minnesota-focused shorts block.

A few of the Chock Full ‘O MN films I didn’t mention here—Voicemails 17-19, Dowry, Nomad Palindrome, and On All Fronts—are equally noteworthy as TCFF 2022 continues to stream through Oct. 29. Together with the above, these films make for a 90-minute block that serves up Minnesota in all its nice, weird, quirk, beauty, and hope.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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