Broad City: Independent Film in Minneapolis

How can you better appreciate this year’s indie darlings?

By: Olivia Hultgren

It’s midnight on Hennepin Avenue. Lighting up southeast Minneapolis with a blinking neon facade is the Uptown Theatre, famous for its cheeky marquee titles with the likes of “Destroyer: It’s gritty af” and “Timothaaaay Chalamaaay is Beautiful Boy” spelled out in black caps. For those unfamiliar with “Destroyer” and “Beautiful Boy,” both are critically acclaimed independent films from 2018. 

But tonight, the theater is exhibiting an indie gem from the 2000s, “Donnie Darko.” In Uptown’s sparsely populated theater, with its vintage red curtains and sprawling tiered seating, a young Jake Gyllenhaal’s face appears in the low light, marking the start to one of indie film’s most beloved cult classics.

The “Donnie Darko” showing is part of Uptown Theatre’s “Midnight Madness” event series, for which the Landmark-owned cinema screens classic independent films every Friday and Saturday night when the clock strikes 12. Formerly named The Lagoon when it opened in 1916, Uptown Theatre remains one of the Twin Cities’ most iconic venues for experiencing independent film on the big screen. 

Although independent film is rooted deep in the art’s cultural relevance, most indies never find their way to that big screen. As blockbusters and comic book adaptations reign supreme, small-budget films are sometimes lost in a scuffle of action heroes and mainstream rom coms. So, how can viewers expand their film horizons and better appreciate something so scarce? The obvious answer may be to frequent somewhere like Uptown Theater, but the first step toward fully realizing indie film’s impact is learning what makes it unique, and understanding the experiences of the women and men behind the camera. 

One of these things is not like the others

University of Minnesota professor and film studies coordinator Graeme Stout says that because of independent film’s lower budgets, they can push the boundaries more in terms of narrative experience. 

“Independent film is a way of looking at film that isn’t formulaic,” Stout says. “Independent cinema is able to take greater risks and sometimes experiment in ways that the next ‘Terminator’ film or ‘Transformers’ film just can’t or won’t do.”

Looking at “Donnie Darko” for example, no one would dare call its oddball, cross-dimensional plotline formulaic, not to mention the eerie superimpositions of that famous white bunny costume. 

“I find the stories that are told in independent film are much more personal,” filmmaker Andrew Peterson says. “You’re generally working with a combination writer/director, so that adds to the passion of the project.”

Peterson is the executive director of FilmNorth, an independent film support organization that reaches filmmakers throughout the Upper Midwest. Formerly known as Independent Film Project, it’s the third largest of its kind in the nation, behind those of New York and Los Angeles.

Personality and passion projects aside, Peterson also points out the wealth of diversity in independent film compared to studio film. Women, for example, only directed 4 percent of America’s top grossing films of 2018. But, at the Sundance Film Festival, the country’s largest indie film festival, women helmed 45 percent of films. 

One of this year’s most talked-about film at Sundance was “Late Night,” written by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling. Critics praised the film not only for its wit and humor but also for its nuanced perspective of women in comedy.

“There are a lot of voices that you can’t hear if you’re only watching Hollywood blockbuster-type movies,” says Jaclyn O’Grady, programming manager at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society. “[Independent film’s] ability to bring in new voices and perspectives is awesome.”

O’Grady manages short film programming for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). She says the best way to appreciate independent film is to seek it out.

Engaging with cinema

Film festivals showcase the best independent films across the country, and sometimes audiences can see films they’d never get the chance to see in theaters. 

“Festivals are kind of like what it was like to go to the movies in the 90s,” Peterson says. “If you didn’t like the thing that was on Thursday night on four [TV] networks, you’d go to a 600-seat theater and it would be full.”

While film festivals provide a social experience, they also start conversations between audiences and filmmakers that can help viewers better understand films. Festivals are full to the brim with director and actor Q&As.

“That’s what makes a film festival special to me,” Peterson says. “Festivals are about having a place to interact, to be able to ask questions. You get really, really interesting and riveting conversations that go beyond just the subject of movies.”

The Twin Cities hosts myriad film festivals, from smaller events like Sound Unseen, which highlights music videos, to the larger MSPIFF, happening April 4-20. These festivals celebrate quality independent film from across the world as well as the work of local artists, providing platforms for movies that wouldn’t otherwise be exhibited. 

Despite the scarcity of indie film in many movie theaters, there are cinemas and organizations dedicated to playing smaller budget films. Venues like Trylon Cinema and Parkway Theater show indie films alongside the occasional blockbuster, and FilmNorth holds a monthly Cinema Lounge event, consisting of four short films and filmmaker Q&As. In addition to hosting MSPIFF, MSP Film Society shows independent movies on one of the screens at St. Anthony Main Theatre. 

And yet, despite the opportunities to experience film on larger scales, sometimes there’s nothing like curling up at home with a thought-provoking indie. As access to independent film grows around Minneapolis, it also grows on the internet. In the past few years, streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have become forums for indie filmmakers.

Stout says that although watching films in a big theater is great, there’s something valuable and even profound about watching movies alone, and that the best way to appreciate film is to immerse yourself in it.

“One of the absolute joys of cinema is locking yourself away in a darkened room and engaging in this otherworldly experience,” he says. “There is something intensely meditative and transformative about it.”

And, yes, home video does still exist, folks.

Wake Mag