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Free Range Film Festival tweaks the fun for 10th year

A trio of viewers previews the animated short "Sheepdog Wanted," directed on Twin Cities filmmaker John Akre, on one of the three movie screens in the Free Range Film Festival barn near Wrenshall. The festival runs Friday and Saturday and will include Q&A sessions with several filmmakers, including Akre. (Steve Kuchera / / 4
Annie Dugan and Mike Scholtz, two of the Free Range Film Festival's organizers, talk about the festival outside the barn used as a movie theater. (Steve Kuchera / / 4
A chalkboard inside the Free Range Film Festival's barn touts the festival as "Wrenshall's favorite film festival." (Steve Kuchera / / 4
Annie Dugan, one of the festival's organizers, talks about the festival near the barn's ground-level theater -- one of three movie screens in the barn. Behind her is a poster for the 83-minute movie "The Harvest" by Gabe DeLoach. The film examines the issue of granting the wishes of terminally ill children to hunt an animal. DeLoach will attend the festival for a Q&A session. (Steve Kuchera / / 4

This weekend, as they've done the last weekend in July for the past 10 years, Annie Dugan and her husband, Janaki Fisher-Merritt, will invite 500 of their closest friends to their home in Wrenshall. They'll squeeze into a barn on their property and watch a couple dozen movies, snacking on Cajun popcorn and delicacies from the Rambler food truck.

The movie night on steroids is known as the Free Range Film Festival.

"We sort of like it the way it is," Dugan said of the annual gathering.

Disclaimer: the Cajun popcorn isn't guaranteed. The popcorn man, who is the father of one of the festival planners, never reveals what flavors he'll concoct until he shows up; it's all part of the festival's charm.

Dugan and Fisher-Merritt bought the land on which the barn sits 11 years ago.

"Most barns you see are falling down," Dugan said, so when the well-kept red structure became theirs, they knew they had to find a way to use it. There wasn't enough land to support cattle or horses, so they took an unconventional route and began using it as their personal movie theater, inviting friends over for screenings. Eventually, their movie nights got a lot bigger.

"It sort of snowballed into a film festival," Dugan said.

This year, in honor of their 10th anniversary, they'll be doing things a little differently. While there are a slew of brand-new movies in the lineup, they'll also screen some old favorites from past festivals. Instead of the usual live bluegrass as intermission entertainment, Duluth band Portrait of a Drowned Man will play their instrumental post-rock Friday evening.

The band will not only play live: Their music is used in the short documentary "Inside the Whale," which will play just before their performance. "Inside the Whale" was codirected by Mike Scholtz, who helped create the festival with Dugan. He approached Portrait guitarist Paul Connolly about using their music in the film.

"At the base level, a lot of our music works well with films because we don't have a singer," Connolly said.

"Inside the Whale" follows artist Matt Kish on his quest to draw one image every day for every page of "Moby Dick." Connolly said Kish's drawings cover many styles, from childish to abstract.

"We're kind of the same way," Connolly said. "(Our music) works well for the film because it has so many faces to it."

Scholtz used Portrait's music for his 2011 documentary, "Wild Bill's Run," and the band is working on original music for his new film, "Wicker Kittens," which will be released in 2014. Scoring a film is a new frontier for the 10-year-old band.

"This is the first time we've actually had a ... deadline. This is probably the most productive we've been," said drummer Ken Nyberg, who has been with the band for just over a year.

The band watched an early version of the film many times to get inspiration. Then, they penned music to complement the feeling the film creates.

"It's super-empowering to be like, well, this is what this part makes me feel," guitarist Justin Kervina said.

The full band, including a third guitarist, Jesse Hoheisel, will be there Friday to watch "Inside the Whale" on the big screen and bring their music to a larger audience.

"We get to go to these things and enjoy them and then we get to play a show," Nyberg said. "We'd probably be there anyways."

The band won't be the only VIPs there. Many of the filmmakers will attend, too, and a few films will have question-and-answer sessions after showings. Scholtz said he's excited to hear the banter after "The Harvest," a documentary about the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation. The foundation grants terminally ill kids the chance to hunt, something the Make-A-Wish Foundation won't do. Scholtz has seen the film screened at other festivals around the country and it always ruffles some feathers, he said. Filmmaker Gabriel DeLoach is driving up from Virginia to face the criticism and praise of his film.

"It's a movie that makes some people mad," Scholtz said. "I'm hoping the Q&A will be contentious."

Scholtz estimates that the film jury -- including him, Dugan, Fisher-Merritt and Scholtz's girlfriend, Valerie Coit -- spent 100 hours wading through close to 300 film submissions. The 30 playing this weekend are the best of the best.

"We get popcorn and caffeine and go to town," Dugan said of the judging process. The judging criteria are strict, she added: "If we like something, we show it."

It's all for the love of film -- Dugan said they don't make any money on the festival.

"We sort of do it because we love it," Dugan said.

The film festival runs Friday and Saturday. A full schedule is available at

Go see it

What: Free Range Film Festival

Where: 909 County Road 4, Wrenshall

When: Films begin at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $10 collected at the barn

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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