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ISSUE 119 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/11/2005

Film glorifies simplicity

By Jason Zencka
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 11, 2005

“I don’t think my way through movies. I feel,” Minnesota film director Ali Selim announced to a full theater of St. Olaf and Carleton students, professors and Northfield residents this Saturday after an advance-screening of his most recent film, “Sweet Land.” It was a statement that played well with his audience.

His film, inspired by Minnesotan writer Will Weaver's short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” dutifully follows the tribulations of Inge, a German mail-order bride who immigrates to rural Minnesota after the First World War to marry Olaf Torvik, a tight-lipped, but decent, Norwegian farmer.

Needless to say, much of the Northfield-based audience brought their own emotional baggage to the screening. Students’ comments during the question and answer session consistently referenced favorite grandparents.

Selim was brought to Northfield through the engineering of Brittany Larson ‘06 with the cooperation of the St. Olaf and Carleton Film Clubs.

“I think ‘Sweet Land’ is a beautiful film, aesthetically, historically and emotionally,” Larson said. “It is so much deeper than so many of the commercial films being churned out these days. I appreciate its slow pace , its sentimental pull, and its reliance on facial expressions to say what words cannot.”

“Sweet Land” is Selim’s first feature-length film after a long and celebrated career in commercials. While he was glad to receive the enthusiasm of the regional crowd, Selim was quick to note that the film’s appeal goes beyond the parochial.

“It’s a quirky love story,” he said, noting its success in the festival circuit on the East coast.

Selim answered questions regarding the film’s cinematography, its thematic content and the experience of filming in Montevideo, Minn.

The main attraction of the afternoon, however, was the film itself. With steady performances from the romantic leads, an enviable supporting cast featuring Ned Beatty and Alan Cummings, careful and lovely visuals and a sincerely developed story, the film had little trouble winning the favor of the crowd.

Which is, all things considered, a formidable accomplishment for a sentimental picture like “Sweet Land.” The film’s folksy and pastoral love story, told in multiple flashbacks and without irony, could easily have been made as a Hallmark special with exceptional production values.

Instead, Selim made it into something better. The film is not brilliant, but it is bold in its own, quiet way. It is a beautifully shot independent film that does not rely on a flashy or ostentatious visual style. It is an affecting story of love and death that adeptly skirts the maudlin or overly-sentimental.

Though large portions of the film’s dialogue are in German or Norwegian, Selim’s refusal to use subtitles gives the interactions between the two leads an organic feel of something captured instead of constructed.

Above all, the film is a work of art that has enough confidence in itself to rely on the strength of its own story – an ostensibly simple tale about prejudice, the language of memory and the slow but diligent approach of love.

While none of the film’s themes are developed to their full potential, the film’s sincerity and careful composition effectively override any devastating formal critique.

This is the kind of story we think of as being “nice” – the kind we like to hear from the people we love. Its sensibilities are honest, deliberate, and heartfelt. This kind of niceness is something that we can always use a little more of, even in Minnesota.

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