Every June, around the summer solstice, a Carlton County family hosts a weekend of independent film. In its 15th year, the Free Range Film Festival, on Friday, June 29, and Saturday, June 30, draws people of all ages from nearby counties, Duluth and the Twin Cities.
"It's such a celebration of interesting voices you don't get in a regular movie theater," said Annie Dugan, co-founder with her husband, Janaki Fisher-Merritt.
The films are projected on a 24-foot-wide screen inside the hayloft of a barn built in 1916.
"In a big old barn, you're given permission to watch something you might not voluntarily sign up for," Dugan said.
I've spent recent evenings screening many of the films for next weekend's festival on my computer. The organizers chose two dozen of the 147 submissions from filmmakers around the country and abroad. They range from one minute to a bit over an hour in length, often documentaries and animations, but sometimes experimental or fictional.
"The films have to delight us, though sometimes we show depressing things," Dugan said. "I love that there is a range of production values. Some may not be the slickest, but offer an original voice that adds to the conversation in some way."
One of our favorites is "Rodents of Unusual Size," about the explosion of nutria, a huge rodent originally imported from Argentina, along the Louisiana coastline. In an environment already ravaged from hurricanes and shoreline erosion, the nutria gobble up vegetation. The state of Louisiana pays bounties to residents hunting them, often their major source of income.
The film dishes up marvelous interviews with crusty old men and women nutria hunters as well as chefs who offer nutria as a delicacy in high end New Orleans restaurants. It's a cultural and environmental saga rolled into a single engaging tale.
Many of the films are quite short. I loved Stephanie Maxwell's six-minute experimental "Aquarium," pairing a Camille Saint-Saëns composition for piano and small orchestra with rapidly-roiling underwater landscapes rich in greens, browns and organic movement - what my husband calls "eye candy." I wondered how Maxwell brought all the elements together - what decisions she made to great such a confection.
I enjoyed HBC Productions' 20-minute very Minnesotan "Grandpa Ben," who began painting farm animals and landscapes in his 80s - an interview paired with Merle Travis music.
I loved the fictional "Just Coffee," set in a Duluth diner, pitting a waitress against her manager over whether the prominently posted vintage sign, "free refills," means what it says. Brilliantly conceived, acted and filmed.
And, Dana Conroy's 10-minute documentary, "Fire and Light," about a family permitting their several autistic children to become fire performers. It's a film full of movement and wisdom from the young.
And, Joshua Carlon's six-minute documentary, "Saul's 108th Story," about his job as a teenager installing a broken window at the top of the Empire State Building.
Dugan reflects on the festival's history.
"My husband is an organic vegetable farmer," she said. "We were living above the machine shop at the farm. But I wanted running water, so we found a house a mile down the road. No land attached, but beautiful out buildings. We cleaned out the old hay, stretched up some Tyvek, borrowed a projector and showed a film. At the outset of the internet, the ingredients were all there! A friend of ours had just finished a film. We said, 'Why not a festival?' We thought that 30 people would show up, but we got 300!"
From the outset, the couple worked to show quality, and often experimental, films.
"We see our festival as a platform for storytelling diversity, for filmmakers who are taking risks," Dugan said. "We screened Lena Dunham's films before they were well-known, and Laura Dunn's, too. We've made sure that at least 50 percent are by women directors."
Volunteer produced, the Free Range Film Festival attracts about 150 people each year. A suggested donation of $10 will get you in the door. When asked about feedback from their viewers, Dugan said: "We plan longer breaks Friday and Saturday evenings. That gives audience members a chance to filter out of the barn and talk to each other, and us. At the nearby Brickyard, a Wrenshall restaurant, it's fun to hear the chatter. People feel permission to talk about a film. They may not like it, but they feel free to talk about it."
Kids are welcome at the festival, but programming isn't necessarily designed for them. Saturday afternoon films have nothing potentially objectionable. The festival barn sits on the northwest corner of County Road 1 and County Road 4. You can learn more about this year's festival at freerangefilm.com.