Frozen River Film Festival Maintains Strong Commitment to Regional Identity and Documentary

Picture of a volunteer pass from the Frozen River Film Festival
A volunteer badge from the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota.
My first time volunteering for a film festival introduced me to rural festival culture and helped me perfect my octopus impersonation.

In February 2017, I volunteered for the information desk at the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Winona nestles among the bluffs along the Mississippi River. Sugar Loaf, a unique bluff on the National Register of Historic Places, contributes to a mountain town feeling. This rural community of about 27,000 hosts multiple other festivals throughout the year, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

Celebrating its 12th year, FRFF programs only documentaries in order to bring global issues to local audiences. The Hunting Ground, Do Not Resist, Life, Animated, and In the Game topped this year’s feature-length documentary offerings. The programmers balance these international documentaries with strong commitments to supporting regional identity and community.

The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
The program cover for the Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, Minnesota
FRFF involves multiple venues throughout the city, including Winona State University, the historical society, the public library, and local businesses. I staffed an information table located in the university’s science building, which also housed two theaters, an open performance space, and food vendors.

That location — not to mention the festival itself — proved a hub of activity. Saturday featured a volunteer fair for area organizations and programs, and local musicians performed both days. Volunteers I sat with named all of the familiar faces they knew from attending the other area festivals.

FRFF recognized both state and local identities with its programming. Five documentaries appeared in the “Minnesota Made” category. For examples, The Seventh Fire examines gang cultures on a Minnesota reservation, while Iraqi Voices breaks down stereotypes through stories of Iraqi people living in the Twin Cities.

Local identities also received attention. One special session included works about two prominent historical figures. Directed by Mary Farrell, The John Latsch Documentary explored the life of this Winona businessman and philanthropist who donated sizable tracts of land for preservation and parks, including one that now bears his name.

The other work-in-progress screening in that session honored Minnesota politician and poet Gene McCarthy. Along with clips, the session included a question-and-answer session with director Bill Kersey, Kelle Green, and Mary Beth Yarrow.

A picture of Sugar Loaf Bluff with a frozen lake in the foreground. An ice fisherman walks to his shelter in the foreground.
A view of Sugar Loaf Bluff in Winona, Minnesota. Despite 50-degree temps, people still fished on the frozen lake as others in shorts jogged around it.
The line for that event started to form about two hours before the doors even opened. Many people brought individual tickets just for that event. The room reached capacity quickly, and ushers turned many people away. Individual ticket-holders turned away received refunds, fortunately.

Working the information booth provides much opportunity to observe happenings such as these. It also involves a lot of pointing as part of answering questions about where to find venues, food, bathrooms, audience voting, and festival personnel. All that pointing in all of those directions makes you feel like an octopus after a while. In all, it was a great experience.

And despite the 50-degree weather that weekend, people still fished on the frozen lake while others jogged around it in shorts. Aside from FRFF, I don’t think you can get much more Minnesota than that.