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John Lamb, Published February 28 2010

Fargo Film Festival: 'Kells' of the ball

In its 10-year history, the Fargo Film Festival has grown in size and scope, but not as much in celebrities. Gawkers looking to spy big shots visiting for the festival need not worry about whiplash – there won’t be any stars to spot.

Instead, Margie Bailly, executive director of the Fargo Theatre, says viewers would be better served watching the real stars – the movies up on the big screen.

Festival organizers are happy with the focus of the event being the films on the silver screen, not the random celebrity on the street.

But one of the stars shining brightest at the festival, which starts Tuesday night, is getting big buzz in Hollywood.

Shortly after it was accepted into the Fargo Film Festival, the animated feature “The Secret of Kells” was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature. The Oscar winners will be announced March 7, just four days after it is screened at the Fargo.

Festival organizers feel that “Kells’ ” national exposure, and that of other animated and experimental offerings that can be overlooked at other festivals, could boost the profile for the Fargo Film Festival.

“I think it’s huge,” Bailly says of the “Kells” buzz.

She says the nomination “shocked Hollywood” as a relatively unknown film up against big-budget major releases like “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Coraline” and “The Princess and the Frog.”

It’s the story of an Irish boy’s search for berries that make ink to be used in the Book of Kells, a hand-illustrated manuscript and an Irish national treasure.

The mostly hand-drawn movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival a year ago before getting a wide release in Europe. With the exception of a week-long run in Los Angeles to qualify it for the Oscars, the film hasn’t hit American theaters.

“This, in essence, will be a premiere because it doesn’t hit the distribution circuit until March 19,” Bailly says.

10 years and growing

The Fargo Festival doesn’t get to premiere many features before a wide release, and while organizers are hoping for a bump from the Oscar nomination, they also see the animated and experimental genres as stepping stones to grow the festival.

“My hope is to expose F-M to what is going on globally in the world of cinema,” says Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson, a co-chair for the festival who also served as a judge for the animation category.

In the four years she’s worked on the festival, she’s seen a growth in both the quantity and the quality of submissions in both animation and experimental categories. As a result, the festival has shown better work and therefore attracted better work year after year.

“It’s really hard to get filmmakers to submit if they do research and say, ‘This festival doesn’t seem committed to the work that I do, so why should I submit my work to them?’ The more the festival supports all kinds of different artists and work, the higher caliber of work we’ll end up getting.”

“I really want to bring (in) emerging voices and concepts and young, hungry filmmakers,” Bailly says of the festival’s goals.

The filmmakers who accept invitations to the festival take part in panel discussions and other interactions with the community.

Bailly is particularly excited for Angela Steffen, writer, director and animator of “Lebensander,” which won the Best Animation award in the fest.

The German’s trip to Fargo was co-sponsored by Concordia College, where she’ll talk with Greg Carlson’s filmmaking students.

Carlson, describes the 6-minute hand-animated German film, about a girl who studies a leaf to learn a lesson about life, as “luscious.”

“She’ll have a chance to promote her work, and I’ll have a chance to have her speak to my students,” Carlson, chair of this year’s animation committee, says of the win-win aspect of bringing in filmmakers.

“We’re not trying to compete with Sundance or Cannes as far as bringing in distributors,” he says. “Filmmakers don’t come here hoping their movie will get sold.”

“Our goal is not to bring Sundance here, or Cannes, or any of the other festivals. My goal is to bring something to this community that enlightens and informs and entertains. If stars happen to follow that, terrific,” Bailly says, adding that star power can detract from films themselves.

“If Robert Redford wanted to show up, I would meet him with open arms,” she added. “But he wouldn’t need me to pay his way.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533