The Polka King

Polka King 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Making its way to Netflix a year after debuting at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, “The Polka King” is the fictionalized version of Ponzi schemer Jan Lewan’s jaw-dropping journey from bandstand to prison cell. Played with his usual antic panache by Jack Black as an optimistic entrepreneur with mostly benevolent intentions, Lewan is an American dreamer by way of Poland in way over his head. Filmmaker Maya Forbes, whose semi-autobiographical first feature “Infinitely Polar Bear” earned some well-deserved looks in 2014, continues her collaboration with spouse Wallace Wolodarsky, who served as co-writer of “The Polka King.”

Basing their dramatization on John Mikulak and Joshua von Brown’s stranger-than-fiction 2009 documentary “The Man Who Would Be Polka King” (also currently available on Netflix instant watch), Forbes and Wolodarsky bend toward the absurdly comic details of Lewan’s self-made empire, projecting with care the minutiae of the man’s relentlessly cultivated “brand.” From the jaunty tunes — lit up by the magic fingers of Jason Schwartzman’s clarinetist Mickey Pizzazz — to the Polish knick-knacks sold at Levan’s gift shop, one expects a certain level of humor at the expense of the small town and the small time.

Happily, however, Forbes manages to guide her performers to big, bold interpretations that skip mean-spirited ridicule for a more sympathetic look. Black is always center stage, but terrific assists from Schwartzman, Jenny Slate as Lewan’s beauty pageant spouse, and Jacki Weaver as Lewan’s skeptical mother-in-law substantially increase the appeal of the film. Along with a parade of elderly polka enthusiasts suckered by Lewan’s charisma into parting with huge retirement funds, nest eggs, and other savings, the assortment of wacky oddballs extends to a nice turn by J.B. Smoove as an overworked investigator sniffing around Lewan’s fragile “promissory note” house of cards.

Forbes maintains a tone of positivity that at times leads one to wonder how “The Polka King” might have played if some of Lewan’s tragedies, including the bloody razor attack he suffered while in prison, had been handled more candidly. For example, the tour bus crash that seriously injured Lewan’s son remains in the movie as a plot marker, but the von Brown and Mikulak doc includes a tearful interview with the musician behind the wheel, revealing that two members of the band died in the wreck — and as improbable as it sounds, that Lewan claimed his financial records were destroyed in the same road accident.

The premise of a Grammy-nominated bandleader convicted of fraud works favorably for the filmmakers and for Black, who has excelled at playing imposters, phonies, yarn-spinners and/or truth-stretchers both imaginary (Dewey Finn in “School of Rock,” Malcolm in “Margot at the Wedding”) and based on real people (Bernie Tiede in “Bernie,” R. L. Stine in “Goosebumps”). At first, Lewan’s fractured English — “You are such best audience!” — seems like a put-on, but footage of the real Lewan confirms the interpretation. Extrovert Lewan’s irrepressible “where’s the party?” attitude is right in Black’s wheelhouse, lending credibility to the otherwise farfetched — Lewan introducing his tourists to Lech Walesa doesn’t make the cut, but an audience with the pope most certainly does.    




Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now playing on Netflix instant watch, “Voyeur” is the curious story of strange bedfellows Gay Talese — the once influential and celebrated journalist — and Gerald Foos — a creepy peeper who spied on the guests at his hotel, chronicling their behavior, erotic and otherwise, in a quasi-scientific record book. Filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury don’t entirely corral the lurid proceedings into a fully satisfying examination of any given one of their smorgasbord of themes, but the movie’s self-awareness stitches up several of the fraying edges.

Some of the film’s framework is provided by the print history of the weird Foos/Talese acquaintance. Entertaining talk show clips of Talese discussing “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his 1981 book on sexual practice and behavior in post-World War 2 America, connect the dots to Foos, who contacted the journalist in anticipation of the book’s publication to “confess” to his prurient and illegal proclivities looking at people without their knowledge or consent. Talese smelled a project, and following years of preparation, published “The Voyeur’s Motel” in the April 11, 2016 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Later, a full-length book expansion with the same title spectacularly backfired, as negative reviews and questions of basic fact-checking triggered Talese to disavow his own work (a position he later recanted) and conclude that things he wrote as fact could not necessarily be trusted. Kane and Koury, who enjoy complete access to Talese and Foos throughout their movie, even when the subjects appear to be on the outs with each other, depict the unlikely pairing of the impeccably dressed cosmopolitan and the wheezing baseball card collector as a marriage of opposites bound by a mutual affinity for the spotlight and a parallel penchant for out-of-bounds sexual thrills.

The directors film reconstructions of unwitting travelers observed through the custom-cut ceiling vents in the Manor House Hotel where Foos lurked in Aurora, Colorado. In one surreal vignette, Talese’s necktie dangles down through the gap, and all participants affirm that the writer did indeed join Foos in the act. The ethical questions on this point are not explored as thoroughly as hoped, and the later sections of the film turn to the fallout that strains the partnership, even though Kane and Koury maintain at least the illusion that for a time, Foos and Talese symbiotically fed on what the other could provide.

Had the directors doubled-down on mining the narcissism and outsized ego driving the subjects toward some kind of guaranteed mutual destruction, “Voyeur” might have moved beyond the intriguing but superficial jousting over just how much of Foos’ tale is true. At 85, Talese has now seen his once mighty reputation dismantled by the carelessness of his reporting on the Foos story, his sexist comments on women writers, and his utter lack of comprehension and sensitivity in statements regarding Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior and history of sexual assault. “Voyeur” will not do anything to rehabilitate his image as a literary celebrity capable of bringing the reader into the orbits of Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and others.    



Movie review by Greg Carlson

The indomitable Laura Poitras adds to her fascinating filmography with “Risk,” a years-in-the-making (and unmaking) portrait of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, beginning prior to his retreat into the embassy of Ecuador in London under threat of eventual extradition to the United States. Less immediate and urgent than her Oscar-winner “Citizenfour,” “Risk” continues the filmmaker’s investigation of the post-9/11 conditions of the widespread and largely unchecked illegal surveillance state and the often shocking countermeasures of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both of whom factor significantly in this film.

The principal portrait, however, is made of Assange, and the 2017 version presented by Showtime differs from the original cut that Poitras debuted at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Anyone with an interest in the ongoing saga of WikiLeaks presumably knows the broad strokes of much of the timeline presented in “Risk,” but Jim Rutenberg’s April 9, 2017 “New York Times” article offers an indispensable explanation of the substantive way in which the movie changed following its premiere. Rutenberg writes of how allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at “privacy activist” Jacob Appelbaum, a man with whom Poitras was briefly involved, triggered modifications to the film.

In “Risk,” Poitras narrates entries from what she refers to as her “production journal,” revealing ways in which she must constantly sort out issues stemming from the interpersonal relationships that have developed from the highly unusual circumstances of her years-long production process. A number of critics have voiced concerns about the kind of access Poitras has enjoyed with this circle of subjects, questioning the limits of journalistic objectivity, such as it is — especially in light of Poitras disclosing in the film her romantic relationship with Appelbaum.  

In the “Washington Post,” Alyssa Rosenberg asks several important questions, including “Should I interpret this disclosure as a blanket statement of belief in women who come forward with sexual assault allegations? Do I trust Poitras less for getting involved with one of her subjects, or more for her transparency? Do I see Poitras primarily as a journalist or an artist or something in between, and depending on which one I choose, how should this revelation make me feel about her work?” That last question won’t bother the viewer who recognizes all approaches to filmmaking — fiction, nonfiction, cinema verite, advocacy, editorial, journalism, etc. — as constructed texts.

Positions of visual philosophy and moviemaking ethics aside, Poitras manages a feat of penetration most documentary filmmakers would envy. Assange’s transition from sprawling countryside estate to the narrow, cell-like compartments of the embassy is fascinating, especially when the typically icy and unflappable celebrity works out with a personal trainer in a space the size of a large closet or agrees to be interviewed by Lady Gaga. “Risk” ends by bringing the viewer up to date, fleetingly, on the terrifying saga of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Poitras concludes this particular story prior to revelations that Assange and WikiLeaks provided direct advice, help, and support to the Trump campaign, and then lied about doing so. Perhaps that tale will be told in a future film.    


One of Us

One of Us

Movie review by Greg Carlson

On the occasion of the Netflix release of “One of Us,” veteran filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady shared with writer Kate Erbland some of the self-imposed “rules” to their formidable approach. The documentarians indicated that potential subjects must offer rare and special access. They also make sure that the content includes “observational, verite material” along the order of high-stakes events unfolding in the here and now. The directors expect that the “characters be different by act three.” Participants in the film do not see footage during production and are not allowed “any editorial input.”      

“One of Us” follows three individuals who have left or are in the process of leaving the strict community of New York City’s Hasidic Jews to which they once so inextricably belonged. Etty, no longer willing or able to suffer physical and emotional violence at the hands of her husband, fears the loss of her seven children and struggles with the potentially catastrophic financial burden of a protracted court battle in which the deck appears to be stacked against her. Teenage Ari yearns for knowledge of the greater, wider world. He gushes about the singular thrill of exploring Wikipedia. Finally, Luzer has tested the waters in Los Angeles, where he hopes to find work as an actor (his passion born from clandestine viewings of forbidden movies).

The emotional weight of the film — and its most chilling drama — resides in the sections focused on Etty. Etty (her last name deliberately withheld) attends a support group called Footsteps, but it becomes clear as time passes that defiance of the Hasidic leadership is a seemingly Sisyphean endeavor. As David Edelstein points out in his essay on the film, the Hasidim “…do not believe that secular laws should affect them.” The portrait of Etty emerges as the film’s centerpiece, and she alone could easily have sustained interest for an entire feature.  

For so many audience members, “One of Us” gets close to something that would otherwise be foreign, hidden, and obscure. And yet, the filmmakers locate universally human desires and experiences to which anyone can relate. Overt vilification of the leadership within the patriarchal structure of Brooklyn’s orthodox community is withheld, although the vast majority of secular (and scores of religious) viewers won’t require much persuasion to imagine that the treatment of Etty, Ari, and Luzer is brutal and unfair.

One of the most intriguing scenes in the film records an interaction between Ari and an older community member at a playground known to be a popular hangout for youngsters who like the location’s free wifi access. The elder, unknowingly providing Grady and Ewing with the title of their film, asks Ari, “Are you one of us?” The question is sincere, since Ari has cut his payot but still wears a yarmulke. The exchange is a vivid demonstration of just how difficult it can be for a member to leave as well as a specific reminder of the painful feelings of abandonment and rejection that accompany the liminal state when one is neither completely in nor completely out.



Movie review by Greg Carlson

On her biggest canvas to date, filmmaker Dee Rees paints a vivid picture of two American families in “Mudbound,” a deeply satisfying drama based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. Adapting the screenplay with collaborator Virgil Williams, Rees skillfully weaves a tale that dissects and addresses race, war, poverty, alcoholism, adultery, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other substantive themes. She does this with tremendous confidence and focus, retaining the novel’s multiple narrators and infusing each significant character with the fullness of human contradiction and complexity.

The two principal groups of relatives, one black and one white, are linked together by their commitment to a tough patch of cotton farmland in the Mississippi Delta in the years surrounding World War II. Both clans, the McAllans and the Jacksons, face hardships and humiliations, but the specter of Jim Crow additionally burdens the latter. Sharecroppers always a step or two behind the poor McAllans (for whom they labor), the Jackson family is led by Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan). The land they work has been purchased by Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who moves with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his noxiously racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) into a spartan hovel with no running water.

In his review of the film, Justin Chang notes, “The radicalism of ‘Mudbound’ thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.” This balance is achieved not only through the physical proximity that binds the Jacksons and McAllans despite the social conventions of systematized segregation that prevent anything approaching open affection or neighborliness, but also through the rich details of the unspoken rules of behavior in the Deep South. Chang also remarks that Florence “commands more authority and respect in her household than Laura does in hers” — another example of the highly detailed way in which Rees explores the intricacies of gender.

The two matriarchs are additionally connected to one another in ways specific to womanhood. Florence is simply not in a position to say no when essentially conscripted to come work for Laura following a whooping cough scare. Outwardly less demanding than either of their husbands, the women find ways to assist one another that carefully exist within strict, unspoken guidelines. But as Emily Yoshida astutely notes, “Without the aid of institutionalized slavery, and seemingly without knowing it, Henry and Laura have completely co-opted their neighbors’ lives,” which in one sense is even more insidious than the visible, open racism spewed by Pappy.

Rees directs all the members of her talented ensemble to uniformly impressive work. Garrett Hedlund as Henry’s brother Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Florence and Hap’s son Ronsel — the two men who see combat — eventually move to the center of the action. Both return to the United States following military service, and their unique and peculiar experience, accompanied by firsthand knowledge of instant, brutal death, allows the pair to form an unlikely friendship. Loyalty to kin brings them home, but in a very real sense made achingly tangible by Rees, it’s too late: the bigotry, ignorance, and narrowness of the community suffocates these two souls, and the longer they remain on the farm, the more the stormclouds of tragedy gather.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird SR

Movie review by Greg Carlson

With the critical phenom “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig makes good on her stated desire to “offer a female counterpart to tales like ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Boyhood.’” A shimmering coming of age chronicle featuring another tremendous performance by Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird” is steeped in a kind of nostalgia for the recent past without ever knuckling to the overly familiar. Ronan’s smart, original Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is an heir to Molly Ringwald’s unforgettable 1980s heroines. And like Andie Walsh and Samantha Baker, Ms. Lady Bird projects that exquisite mixture of sharp-tongued wisdom and frustrated naivete.  

You needn’t have been in your teens around the turn of the most recent century to feel the tug of Gerwig’s beautifully realized period piece, but the filmmaker’s visual and audio selections will thrill viewers who acknowledge the lifeforce of the teenage soundtrack. From the drive-in platters of “American Graffiti” to the John Hughes-favored beat of sparkling British pop by OMD, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Smiths, the right song selection can cement the bona fides of a cinematic love letter. In Amanda Petrusich’s “New Yorker” essay “Greta Gerwig Somehow Redeems Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash Into Me,’” the author delivers a solid defense of the inclusion — in two key places — of the 1996-1997 song. That track, along with Justin Timberlake and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, walk the tightrope of ironic kitschiness and earnest affection.

Gerwig’s original, whopping 350-page script existed under the working title “Mothers and Daughters,” and the filmmaker gets tremendous mileage from ideal mom Laurie Metcalf as the tough-love matriarch holding everything together while the rest of her family members struggle to chart a positive course. Metcalf’s Marion McPherson applies her skill as a psychiatric nurse to the delicate homefront issues facing laid-off husband Larry (Tracy Letts) as he struggles to find work. The tug-of-war between Marion and Christine/Lady Bird is at the heart of the film, and conveys the depths of resentment and irritation (and love) between parent and child (Marion: “I just want you to be the very best version of yourself.” Lady Bird: “But what if this is the best version?”).  

Reading between the lines of Lady Bird’s anti-Sacramento application essay, the surprisingly forward-thinking Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) recognizes the student’s potential, and will go easy on her following a Bride of Christ prank that most movie nuns would never tolerate (the gung-ho coach recruited to direct the school play is treated much more broadly). Gerwig mostly downplays the private parochial school angle, shifting focus to Lady Bird’s education in romance. Scenes with hot-list actors Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are highlights, and if Lady Bird wasn’t so utterly and completely captivating in all her other elements, you might wish to see additional interactions with the flawed beaux.

Gerwig launches many of the expected devices of the classic teen film: dual suitors, should-I-stay-or-should-I-go college choices, a mistreated best friend (complete with righteous forgiveness/make-up opportunity totally rocked by the awesome Beanie Feldstein), alcohol-related rites of passage, prom dresses, virginity-loss experience, and so on. The director, however, casts a sympathetic eye on the lot, making “Lady Bird” a sumptuous exercise in personalizing and particularizing the universal.

The Florida Project

Florida Project

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sean Baker’s gorgeous “The Florida Project” skitters and scampers like the attention span of its tiny protagonist Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old wonderer/wanderer who lives with her mom in a sketchy motel imaginatively named the Magic Castle. Situated on the fringes of Disney’s Orlando empire, the Magic Castle houses many souls who may be down but are not entirely out. Resident manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the caretaker who takes care — a decent human being often acting as the enterprise’s Saint Christopher, watching out for the itinerant, temporary inhabitants who pay their rent in cash.

Baker expands on the mesmerizing qualities he brought to 2015’s “Tangerine,” his breakout feature that transcended the buzz of being captured entirely on a trio of iPhone 5s smartphones. This time, the eye-popping 35mm motion picture photography by Alexis Zabe heralds the saturated muchness of Moonee’s point of view. Along with the novelty architecture of Orange World, Twistee Treat, and the tourist trap souvenir shop adorned with a massive wizard, the vivid landmarks that populate “The Florida Project” reflect the make-your-own-fun curiosity that is juiced more than a little bit by the lack of adult supervision.  

In an interview with Max Cea for “Salon,” Baker’s longtime collaborator Chris Bergoch explained that he pitched the movie’s premise to Baker after he spotted “kids playing whiffle ball in a motel parking lot, at the edge of the busy highway” while on his way to visit his mother in Kissimmee, Florida. Bergoch, who co-wrote and co-produced “The Florida Project,” recognized the juxtaposition: children unable to afford the Magic Kingdom were experiencing an equal amount of merriment. That spirit translates to the movie: in one hysterical scene, “punished” Moonee and her friends take just as much pleasure cleaning up a vehicle as they did spitting on it.

“The Florida Project” is one of the best films of the year, and in their roundup of top titles for “Vulture,” critics David Edelstein and Emily Yoshida echo the sentiments expressed by Bergoch: an “insistence that joy, no matter how fleeting, be accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status.” Bobby’s unflappable stoicism never veils his genuine concern. In one scene, he chases off an interloper who exhibits a potentially predatory interest in the Magic Castle children, but Bobby is equally committed to the welfare of his guests in the day-to-day grind of broken ice machines, power outages, and police visits.    

Deep into the film, when things are looking particularly bleak for Moonee’s mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), Bobby claims that he doesn’t want to be Halley’s father. As the limits of Bobby’s benevolence are challenged, “The Florida Project” builds to a sensational climax. A brilliant piece of editing and story construction that begins with a simple shot of Moonee in the bath is equaled only by the film’s astonishing final minutes, a guerilla-style, fair use exclamation point that for some viewers will call to mind “Escape from Tomorrow.” Baker’s ends, however, speak to a different agenda, and “The Florida Project” joins the list of great movies in which the innocence of childhood crashes into the hardships of growing up.   


Wonderstruck 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Putting to good use his affinity for period detail, filmmaker Todd Haynes tackles Brian Selznick’s 639-page “Wonderstruck,” with a screenplay adapted by the author. Weaving together a pair of New York stories that take place half a century apart, Haynes exploits the most cinematic possibilities of Selznick’s visually inclined novel. Many movie fans will respond favorably to the movie’s dialogue-free homage to silent-era entertainment, a major component of the film aided by Carter Burwell’s terrific score, Edward Lachman’s stunning photography, and Mark Friedberg’s lovely production design. Others will cozy up to the twinship of the compound narrative — even if the surprise that links 1927 and 1977 is figured early and easily.

In 1977, twelve-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) loses his ability to hear when a lightning strike jolts the telephone line. His mom (Michelle Williams) has died in a car accident, and Ben yearns to track down the father he never knew. Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) skips out on her guardians and makes her way to the theatre where movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) rehearses a play. The ensuing structure of the film carefully rhymes, echoes, mirrors, and parallels the two strands until they inevitably intersect in the final act. Moore plays more than one role and Haynes marks another rewarding collaboration with his longtime friend. Williams, however, is painfully underutilized; one keeps hoping she will feature in flashbacks that never materialize.

That cross-cut approach works effectively, although a minor pang of disappointment may settle once the action eventually centralizes the 1977 adventure. Both Ben and Rose, for reasons that come to be explicated, are magnetically drawn to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The allure of publicly exhibited artifacts and curiosities assumes a position of thematic prominence as the story unfolds, and several characters work in some capacity or other in the realm of institutional curation, collection, and/or design.

The museum as motif works its charms, and echoes of “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” resonate here much as they did in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Equally as valuable is the manner in which Haynes builds a subjective experience that takes the viewer inside the perspectives of Ben and Rose. The soundscape, the score, and the lengthy stretches in which few words are spoken especially complement the 1927 world inhabited by Rose. Simmonds, like the character she plays, is deaf. “Wonderstruck” is sound-designed for audience members who can hear. But Haynes admirably and capably projects dimensions of Rose’s experience.  

“Wonderstruck” ultimately works better than “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 2011 take on Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Both films, however, labor overtime to instill a sense of awe that might rely too heavily on plot mechanics and technical showmanship than on richness of character. They are also highly reflexive valentines to cinephilia, and “Daughter of the Storm,” the movie-within-the-movie that features Moore’s Mayhew as a Lillian Gish-like presence dealing with peril ala “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” and “The Wind,” flickers to life with such intensity, one longs to join Simmonds in the audience to screen the entire thing.     

The Mission of Herman Stern Director Art Phillips Interview

Stern Herman

Interview by Greg Carlson

On Tuesday, November 14 at 7:00 p.m., the Fargo Theatre will host a screening of “The Mission of Herman Stern,” a documentary chronicling the remarkable humanitarian efforts of the North Dakota businessman and founder, in 1924, of the Greater North Dakota Association.

Beyond his economic entrepreneurship and civic engagement, Herman Stern helped bring 125 German Jews to the United States, and that remarkable story resides at the heart of Art Phillips’s new movie.  

The event is free and the public is invited.

HPR film editor Greg Carlson talked to director Art Phillips about the making of the movie.


Greg Carlson: How did “The Mission of Herman Stern” get started as a feature documentary project?

Art Phillips: I first heard about Herman Stern’s rescue of 125 people from Nazi Germany when he received the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider award from Governor Jack Dalrymple in 2014.

I knew some of Herman’s accomplishments as a North Dakota business leader, but I didn’t know that he saved people halfway across the world from the Holocaust.  This was a North Dakota hero story that needed to be told.  


GC: Along the way, how many interviews did you conduct for the show?

AP: The documentary contains nine interviews, including three people who were saved when they were children and one interview with a man whose family was saved. He was born after they came to America. The story blends current interviews with archival footage and primary source documentation.


GC: How long have you worked with co-producer/writer Carl Oberholtzer?

AP: I first worked with Carl on “The Road to Little Rock” documentary, which was released in 2013. This was the story of how North Dakota Judge Ronald Davies ruling in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas provided great urgency for the desegregation of public schools and the course of civil rights in America.  

Carl is a former North Dakota high school history teacher and currently an education instructor at MSUM and NDSU. He has numerous awards and honors including the Gilder-Lehrman Preserve America North Dakota Teacher of the Year in 2006 as well as the U.S. Presidential Scholar Awards Program Teacher Recognition in 2003.

We work extremely well together because we both agree that these documentaries teach lifelong lessons to not only students but to also to adults. Carl was involved in the script process and reviewed the rough cuts during the editing process. We worked on the research together for the last two years.   


GC: Were the educational lesson plans developed simultaneously with the documentary?

AP: The educational component of the production was there at the very beginning. We wanted this documentary to have an accompanying lesson plan for North Dakota high schools that was similar to “The Road to Little Rock” educational project. Both the documentary and lesson plan were being produced at the same time.


GC: You drew on a substantial collection of resources for historical records, both near and far.

AP: We used a number of resources for the documentary from all over the country including photographs and film footage from the Stern family, letters from people in Germany to Herman Stern, which we had to translate, writing about their situation back home and archival footage of Germany during this time.  

We are not only telling Herman Stern’s story of rescuing 125 refugees, but we are also telling the story of what was going on in the world at this time. This was very important because we needed to tell the story of not only how hard it was getting people out of Germany, but also how hard it was to get people into a country at that time.  


GC: Have you always been a student of history?

AP: I have always loved history, especially when I was in high school. And I really love historical movies about people that made a difference. That is what drew me to Herman Stern’s story.

Here was a man in Valley City, North Dakota who not only was running a business (Straus Clothing), he helped start organizations in his community and state, including the Greater North Dakota Chamber, United Way, Boy Scouts, and the Valley City Winter Show — and also recused 125 people from Nazi Germany. It is an amazing story that shows character, leadership, empathy, citizenship and selflessness.  


GC: Congratulations on the movie and your continued accomplishments.

AP: It was a real honor to work on this project and it has been life-changing for me. Herman Stern shows us that just one person can make a difference in other people’s lives. It was such a privilege to get to know and interview the people that were rescued by Herman Stern. I plan to keep it touch with them for years to come.

North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival Director Sean Coffman Interview

Awake (1)

Interview by Greg Carlson

An impressive collection of visual art and fiction and nonfiction movies, including “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” (pictured above), can be seen by the public during the inaugural North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival. HPR film editor Greg Carlson talked to organizer Sean Coffman about the events.


Greg Carlson: For people who may not know you, can you describe your background and your role as executive director of the Human Family?

Sean Coffman: The Human Family is a new 501(c)(3) in North Dakota, founded in March of 2017.  The mission of the organization is to promote human rights and social justice issues through film and art. Our goal is to educate, engage, and facilitate discussion in our communities around local or worldwide human rights issues.

My role as Executive Director is not unlike the role of Executive Producer or Producer on a film set: I identify the various projects we’ll create or support, establish those project’s budgets, find and establish funding, and assemble the creative team to help bring those projects to life.


GBC: This is the inaugural year of the Human Rights Film and Art Festival. How long has the planning taken?

SC: We started planning the festival in November 2016, so a year ago. We made the announcement in December 2016, and started accepting submissions in February of 2017.

The genesis behind the festival was the media documentation taking place during the peaceful resistance at Standing Rock. There was such an influx of still photography, documentary video production, and art creation that we recognized the need to provide a forum for these filmmakers and artists to share these stories so they weren’t lost to time or other distractions.

In this part of the country, there isn’t a regularly held film or arts festival dedicated directly to human rights and social justice. The closest is in Boulder, Colorado or Chicago, Illinois.


GBC: The lineup of movies features stories that range from the regional to the international, past and present. How did you and your team go about finding and programming the films?  

SC: I think the need for a forum to share these stories was proven to be true, because the filmmakers found us. We established a submission portal for films on Film Freeway for filmmakers to share their work. Inside of a few days, submissions started to come in from around the world.

In the end, we had 118 submissions from 29 different countries. Over 76 hours of content was shared from narrative, documentary, experimental or student filmmakers working in human rights.

This year, the films selected for the festival include the deconstruction of stereotypes for individuals with mental or physical disabilities, LGBTQ rights and discrimination, women’s rights and cultural discrimination, stories of refugee experiences and discrimination, human and civil rights violations, and discrimination and violence towards Native American culture.


GBC: Which movie are you most looking forward to seeing with an audience?

SC: That’s a tough one. My personal favorite is India’s first LGBT silent film and the jury’s choice for Best Narrative Short, “Sisak.” For me, the film embodies the definition of cinema. The writing and storytelling, the cinematography, the score, the acting, the directing, the human rights message; everything about this film is so incredibly well done.

In terms of seeing with an audience, I’d have to say “No Reservations.” Screening Friday evening, the film takes a satirical approach to the issue of corporate oil companies and oil transfer pipelines. The film swaps the narrative, and has an indigenous oil company putting an oil pipeline through a suburban white neighborhood. It’s poignant, relevant and intentionally humorous as the narrative works its way through the important topics specifically impacting North Dakota today.

That same evening is the discussion “Reflections of Standing Rock,” and filmmakers Myron Dewey, Floris White Bull, and Margaret Landin will be part of a panel moderated by NDSU professor Dr. Michael Yellow Bird. As the year anniversary of the the peaceful resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline takes place, this will be the first time filmmakers have been gathered in Fargo to share their experiences from the front lines of the resistance. I think it will be an incredibly powerful and important evening for everyone.


GBC: What is the human rights issue you think about the most?

SC: Globally and locally, the issue I think about most is humanity’s inability to learn from its past. We are continually persecuting and subjugating individuals on the basis of their race, creed, culture, religion, sexual identity or political affiliation.

Even in the nearness of some of the most horrific experiences, we continue to make the same decisions, to demonize individuals for the same reasons. We’re talking about genocide. We’re talking about internment camps. We’re talking about breaking agreements with our indigenous brothers and sisters.


GBC: What inspires you?

SC: I’m inspired daily by the human rights and social justice activist working to ensure that the protections afforded by the United Declaration of Human Rights are provided.

In North Dakota, I’m working daily with individuals who are giving everything they have — time, resources — to ensure that other people have what they need. In today’s current political climate, that’s a rare thing.

And an unintentional byproduct of the festival is the friendships I’m making with filmmakers from around the world. I’m talking with people from India, China or Iran on the phone, and we’re able to find common ground through art.

United Arab Emirates filmmaker Dia Zaiem, whose work “Forgotten” will screen on Wednesday evening, said to me, “The fact that this film has been accepted in the U.S. shows that politics can’t limit the art.”

There’s a lot of work that takes place to make a festival like this happen, but knowing that we have the power to influence understanding between cultures and nations through the power of art… that’s humbling, and it makes the effort to create something such as this festival totally worth it.


The North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival will be held November 15-17 beginning at 7:00 p.m. each evening at the Fargo Theatre. Single day passes are ten dollars each and all-access and full festival passes are also available.

The complete lineup of movies and events, including film award winners, can be found at