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Rochester film festival has bucked the odds for 24 years

April 14, 2019

There’s a market for foreign films — and maybe Rochester is it.

Still, even in Rochester, arguably one of the most international communities in Minnesota, the annual Rochester International Film Festival has a modest goal of drawing 3,000 filmgoers to its nine-day festival.

Despite that, the festival, which opened Friday and runs through April 20, manages to come back every spring, largely on the energy of volunteers.

“It’s kind of amazing to think this has been going for 24 years,” said Alan Hoffman, who has been involved with the festival since it began in 1996. “The fact that we’ve been around for 24 years means we’ve been successful.”

Indeed, survival in the business of presenting foreign films in Rochester does qualify as a success. Over the years, the local commercial cinemas have occasionally shown an international film, and then abandoned the practice for lack of interest.

The Rochester Public Library ’s iFilm series screens a new foreign film every month, and rarely draws more than two dozen people to a showing.

In other words, the dedicated volunteers and filmgoers who revel in the annual Rochester International Film Festival might sometimes feel like they’re adrift in a market full of commercial blockbusters that play on multiple screens.

“The three theaters all have the same films,” said Cathy Ashton, a longtime volunteer with the Rochester International Film Group, which organizes the film festival.

By contrast, the film festival offers, for nine days, an opportunity to see what is not normally available in Rochester. “Call it a binge,” Ashton said.

“It’s something you’re not going to get anywhere else in Rochester — to watch a foreign film on a big screen with a group of people,” said Brian Lind, another RIFG volunteer.

“That’s a big part of the festival,” said volunteer Jan Behrens. “People like to sit in a theater, you feel the audience reactions. Afterwards, people are chatting about it. People are interested in knowing ‘What did the others think of it?’”

The festival began almost by accident, Hoffman said. In 1996, Al Milgrom, who was then head of the University of Minnesota film society, offered to bring some international films to Rochester. A local group of film enthusiasts quickly organized a festival at the movie theaters that were on the top floor of the downtown Centerplace Galleria (where the University of Minnesota Rochester is now located).

“Our first film sold out,” Hoffman said. “We had to turn people away.”

After that, “We said, ‘We’ll do it again.’”

It was one of those first years that Ashton attended the festival. “I went to my first festival and I said, ‘Wow, I want to do this,’” she said.

After moving around for a few years, the festival eventually settled in at what was then the Wehrenberg — now Marcus — cinema on Maine Avenue Southeast. Some members of the film group hope that a more regular lineup of foreign films can eventually be shown at a renovated Chateau Theatre downtown, or at the Grey Duck micro-cinema now under development.

For now, though, the festival will likely stay where it is. This week, Marcus will see a steady stream of foreign-film fans, many of whom would be unlikely to show up for the latest sci-fi blockbuster, come through its doors.

They’ll be arriving to see some of the 29 films scheduled to be shown. Films this week come from Denmark, Japan, Germany, India, France, Belarus, Egypt, Hungary, Spain and other nations. In an interesting bit of symmetry, a Minnesota-made documentary by Al Milgrom, “Singing in the Grain,” is part of this year’s festival.

Hoffman, meanwhile, will be keeping an eye on the sky.

“If it’s the first nice weekend of the spring, which by my unofficial count it has been for 21 of the 23 years, that affects us,” he said. In other words, this week’s storm could help boost attendance.

Those years of bad luck with good weather, though, have not dampened the enthusiasm of the volunteers.

“The festival starts and we say, ‘Wow, we pulled it off again.’” said Ashton.