As curators of films that might not easily reach local audiences, regional festivals hold a precious place in the complex landscape of distribution and film appreciation.

With theatrical releases of art-house content being mostly focused on Los Angeles and New York, some films are only ever seen in smaller markets, due to the dedication and initiative of local film societies. These same organizations gather the resources to put on major festivals to exhibit as many films as possible, and allow local filmgoers the possibility to see them outside the multiplex culture.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival has morphed into an event that programs renowned stories by celebrated auteurs, along with numerous Minnesotan-made films. Highlighting homegrown talent in a special competition, the festival recognizes and encourages the flourishing industry rooted in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. To embrace its unique cultural identity even further, the festival, organized by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Society, assembles a section dedicated to films from Scandinavian nations, given their traditional connection with the state.

For its 35th edition (April 7 to 23, 2016), the opening night selection, A Man Called Ove, showed off those Nordic sensibilities. The Swedish film, based on Fredrik Backman’s book by the same name, centers on a bitter elderly man as he tries to make sense of his world following his wife’s death. Directed by Hannes Holm, the drama offers life-affirming lessons, endearing comedic moments, and a story that could be prime material for an American remake. Finland’s Golden Globe-nominated The Fencer and Iceland’s acclaimed dramedy Virgin Mountain were also among the films that comprised the Midnight Sun section.

Musa Sayeed's A Stray

Barkhad Abdirahman and canine star of Musa Syeed’s A Stray

In the Minnesota-made narrative competition, the absolute highlight was Musa Syeed’s A Stray, a film that originally premiered at SXSW in March and had its Minnesota premiere as part of the festival. This naturalistic and culturally layered tale about a Somali refugee in Minneapolis who develops a peculiar companionship with a stray dog—an animal that Muslims consider impure—uses the city’s landmarks, seen by the wandering friends. Sayeed focuses on authenticity and portrays the Somali community without imposing any outside perceptions. Instead, A Stray uses minimal English dialogue and tackles divisive issues within this minority that are not necessarily familiar to the audience. One of the stops in Adan’s (Barkhad Abdirahman) journey is the Somali Museum of Minnesota, a small but carefully managed institution whose purpose is to spread knowledge about Somalia to locals who interact with Somalis on an everyday basis. Syeed visited the museum for research purposes outside of its function as a shooting location, to better comprehend the Somali experience from people who had left their homeland to settle in the American Midwest.

Equally fascinating—and representative of the state’s identity—is the film The Seeker, a narrative interpretation of the latest album by the Minnesotan band Cloud Cult. Their experimental brand of spiritual, orchestral rock has turned them into a popular act that regularly tours the U.S. to satisfy their large fan base. Joining forces with director Jeff D. Johnson, the musicians created a visual language that defies convention and is closer to musical sensibilities than to traditional storytelling. While this project is a treat for those already invested in the metaphysical aspects of the band’s message, it can also stand alone as an engaging experience for viewers unfamiliar with Cloud Cult’s back catalog. (Coincidentally, one of Cloud Cult’s songs is featured in Dragonfly, another in-competition Minnesota-made film, co-directed by Maribeth Romslo and Care Greene Epstein.)

The bulk of the festival’s program, however, was composed of international films that have made waves in other competitive festivals around the globe. Among these, one of the most exciting was Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol. The two-time Academy Award-nominated director was in attendance to present his film, based on the incredible true story of a young man from Gaza who made his fellow countrymen proud by winning the Arab Idol singing competition. Crafted with Assad’s sharp vision, the film is a love letter both to the spirit of the Palestinian people and, more generally, to those with a dream bigger than themselves.

Photograph by Carlos Aguilar

Photograph by Carlos Aguilar

Latin American cinema was also well-represented, with highlights such as Alias Maria, a Colombian drama about a female soldier caught between relentless violence and her desire to become a mother; I Promise Anarchy, by Mexican LGBT auteur Julio Hernández Cordón; and Gabriel Mascaro’s entrancing Neon Bull.

The festival’s massive collection of challenging, out-of-the-ordinary films makes it a treasure for film buffs and for those looking to discover the next big indie moviemaker. Another plus? The chilly weather in Minnesota is a great reason to spend time indoors, sipping coffee and watching films in a theater, like the iconic St. Anthony Main. Leave the outdoors to the summer. April is for movies in Minnesota. MM

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival ran April 7-23, 2016. For more information, visit the festival’s website. Featured image courtesy of the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Festival.