Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Czech film coming to New Prague April 26, 2019

Singin in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

A DOCUMENTARY FOCUSING on 45 years of Czech culture and heritage in my region of southern Minnesota is coming to Czech country next weekend.

 

Source: New Prague Area Community Education Facebook page.

 

The film, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, shows at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the New Prague High School Auditorium. General admission tickets for the event offered through New Prague Area Community Education went on sale earlier this week.

For more background on the film co-produced and co-directed by noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom and Daniel Geiger, click here to read my previously published post on the documentary.

Also click here for more info, including ticket info.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Singin’ in the Grain” documentary celebrates southern Minnesota’s Czech heritage April 2, 2019

Singin’ in the Grain promo photo from Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival website.

 

HERITAGE. WHAT’S YOURS? German? Irish? French? Scandinavian? How about Czech?

 

Clarence Smisek, photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The heritage, history, stories and music of the Czech people of southern Minnesota focus a documentary, Singin’ in the Grain—A Minnesota Czech Story, debuting on April 6 at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. I spoke recently with noted Minnesota filmmaker Al Milgrom who co-directed and co-produced the film with Daniel Geiger.

 

Mary Ann Kaisersatt, left, and Jule Franke make prune-filled kolacky at Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery, a small town which calls itself the Kolacky Capital of the World. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In our 45-minute interview, Milgrom shared his excitement about this documentary with filming spanning from 1974 until just weeks ago and centering on the communities of Montgomery, New Prague, Lonsdale and Veseli. All hold a strong Czech heritage well known in this area of Minnesota, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state. Milgrom calls this regional Czech culture a hidden treasure and wants others to expand their knowledge of Minnesota’s cultural identity by viewing his film.

 

The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church photographed during the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Eddie Shimota Band performs at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

The film’s storyline follows the Eddie Shimota, Sr., Polka Band and three generations of the Shimota family. But this documentary is about much more than a single family or a single band. The filmmakers showcase the Czech culture and heritage via the Veseli Ho-Down, an annual event at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church; Montgomery’s Kolacky Days; New Prague’s Dozinky Festival; St. Paul’s Sokol (Czech-Sloval Protective Society) Hall; music from groups like the Czech Concertina Club; and much more. Even via an interview with two bachelor farmers from Union Hill.

 

Kolacky, a fruit-filled Czech pastry, were among the many ethnic baked goods sold at the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Although I’ve not seen the film, I am familiar enough with the area’s Czech culture to understand the background of this film. I recognize Czech surnames. I’ve eaten more than one kolacky, attended the Veseli Ho-Down complete with polka mass, heard area Czech bands, visited Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery…

 

Photographed at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s film covers the Czech heritage, efforts to continue traditions, generational assimilation, symbolic ethnicity and more. He noted, too, the evolution of Czech music from polka/folk to more gypsy-like with a beat differing from Old Country style Czech.

 

The New Prague Czech Singers perform in their mother tongue at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Music is integral to Singin’ in the Grain, a take on Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Milgrom describes a scene of locals working in cornfields, polka music pulsing in the background. That visual and audio alone are enough to interest me in the film.

 

The New Prague Czech singers perform at the August 2011 Veseli Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Milgrom’s interest in this culture sparked when he was a child growing up in Pine City among many, as he calls them, Bohemian kids. His high school band played Czech folk songs. And when his interest in photography and then filmmaking developed, so grew his appreciation of Czech filmmakers with their unique take on filmmaking that included a wry humor, he says.

 

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

It’s easy to embrace this experienced—he’s pushing age 97 with more film ideas in the works—documentarist’s enthusiasm for Singin’ in the Grain. Audiences, he says, will have a lot of fun watching this film packed with music and dancing. From Veseli, which he calls “a hidden little town somewhere in the hills,” to New Prague and places in between, Milgrom has spent nearly 50 years working on this film, gathering 100 hours of footage now condensed into this 109-minute documentary.

 

A mural in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While the film debuts this Saturday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Festival at St. Anthony Main Theater, Milgrom hopes to eventually bring the documentary to rural southern Minnesota, to communities of strong Czech heritage.

 

FYI: The April 6 showing of Singin’ in the Grain is sold out, but tickets may still be available for a 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, screening at St. Anthony. The documentary also screens at noon on Thursday, April 18, at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, Minnesota.

Milgrom’s credentials include founding and serving as artistic director of U Film Society and co-founding the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and much more.

Daniel Geiger also has an extensive film background with work on feature films such as Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain and more.

CLICK HERE to watch a short clip from Singin’ in the Grain.

CLICK HERE and then click here to read posts I wrote on the 2011 Veseli Ho-Down.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

No need to wonder about the power of this movie December 14, 2017

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IF EVER THERE’S a current movie everyone should see, it’s “Wonder.”

And for me to state that is noteworthy. “Wonder” is the first movie I’ve viewed in a theater since 2011. Yes, I really have not been inside a cinema since I last saw “The Help,” another memorable movie, six years ago. Most movies don’t interest me. Too much violence and genres that don’t appeal to me. I prefer movies with a message, with a purpose other than to simply entertain and with content that moves me.

“Wonder” fits those criteria.

Based on the New York Times bestselling book by R. J. Palacio, “Wonder” tells the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, born with facial deformities and entering school for the first time after being homeschooled. As you would expect, Auggie faces incredible challenges, including bullying.

This film shows the real-life psychological harm of peer pressure and bullying to individuals and to families and then presents multiple ways people address it. And not always in good ways, just like in real life.

“Wonder” should be required viewing for every child, teen and adult. The book was assigned reading at my eighth grade great nephew’s Minnesota school, followed by a class field trip to see the movie. I applaud educators like those in Tristan’s school who realize the value in this film as a teaching tool and as an opportunity to open up conversations on differences, bullying, peer pressure, kindness, compassion and more.

As a survivor of junior high school bullying and even bullying as an adult, I understand this issue all too well. I refuse to tolerate bullying (and abuse) on any level. “Wonder” champions strength to rise and to overcome, making it one powerful movie.

 

FYI: If you haven’t read about the recent bullying of a young boy in a Tennessee school, then click here and read Keaton’s story. It breaks my heart. Decades ago, this was me. Crying. Suffering. Unable to stop the bullying. I was not bullied in the same ways as Keaton. But the bullying I experienced in junior high school hurt me. Deeply. Just like Keaton. This behavior needs to stop.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring the legacy of Burkhartzmeyer Shoes through film October 20, 2017

Burkhartzmeyer Shoes opened in 1949, starting first as a shoe and harness repair shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

ON A STREET CORNER in downtown Faribault, local icon Burkhartzmeyer Shoes still stands strong after nearly 70 years in business. That’s remarkable really considering the many chain and other shoe sources in today’s marketplace.

But the family members running this business through three generations also rate as remarkable, assuring its success. I know first-hand as I’ve shopped for foot wear at Burkhartzmeyer since moving to this community 35 years ago. I brought my kids here, too, leaving with shoes or boots tucked inside boxes tied with cotton string and an added bonus sucker.

 

Boots purchased at Burkhartzmeyer Shoes last year and ready for another Minnesota winter.

 

Burkhartzmeyer owners and employees understand the importance of great customer service—measuring feet, fitting shoes properly and always always treating each consumer with welcoming respect and kindness. Like a friend.

I know these shoe people—second-generation owner Buck; third-generation owners Bruce and Brian; and current and former employees Lanny, Dee, Sharon, Larry and Kaylyn. They greet me by name, ask about my family, form relationships that connect me to them and this place.

 

High school students and filmmakers Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Buck and cousins Bruce and Brian emphasize their warm relationships with customers and more in a recently-released film about the Burkhartzmeyer family legacy produced by area teens Samuel Temple and Logan Ledman. This also remarkable pair craft “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV.” Via research and interviews, they present insights into local businesses, people and places that broaden my appreciation for Faribault.

Samuel and Logan nailed it in their Burkhartzmeyer film, taking the viewer through the progression of the family business starting with original owners Ferdie and Martha Burkhartzmeyer to second-generation owners, brothers Al, Putz and Buck, to current owners, Bruce and Brian. While the longevity impresses, the stories impress even more.

 

I pulled this shoe box from my closet with the Burkhartzmeyer Shoes label attached.

 

A common thread of hard work, adaptability and outstanding customer service—the business also offers shoe repair and pedorthics services—weaves through the storyline. But so does the kindness. Brian, son of the only remaining third-generation owner, honors his father, Buck, with these words: “He has the gift of caregiving…and kindness.” Specifically, Brian references his dad’s visits to care center residents, including family matriarch Martha, who died weeks short of 108 years. Buck still makes these daily visits, now to friends.

My family, too, experienced Burkhartzmeyer kindness, in 2004. At the time, Buck’s Faribault High School class awarded a scholarship to a graduating high school senior. When my eldest daughter didn’t receive the scholarship, Buck felt so bad he asked her to stop by the store for a new pair of athletic shoes. He wanted her to have good shoes when she left for college. Buck was there waiting, fitting my daughter’s feet. I’ll always remember that kind and caring gift to my family.

 

Al Burkhartzmeyer, known locally as “Mr. Downtown” for his welcoming spirit in the community (especially downtown), was instrumental in getting this historic 1915 clock restored on the Security State Bank Building. Following Al’s 2012 death, significant memorial monies were directed toward the restoration in a project undertaken by the local Rotary.  A devoted Rotarian, Al was once honored for 50 years of never missing a Rotary meeting. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I expect many others can share similar stories about the Burkhartzmeyers. They are a generous family, rooted in faith and hard work and a strong sense of community. They have swept floors, stocked shelves, put shoes away, measured feet. Through their care and compassion, they have made Faribault a better place and us, their customers, better people.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a similar long-standing business in your community that offers quality products and outstanding customer service?

FYI: Click here to watch the 1855 film on Burkhartzmeyer Shoes.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Sweet Land, the musical” proves as memorable & moving as the film October 13, 2017

The program cover from Thursday evening’s performance of “Sweet Land, the musical.”

 

SEATED ONLY ROWS from the intimate stage in an historic Faribault theater, I felt part of the set, part of the scene, part of the story that unfolded before me in “Sweet Land, the musical.”

What a gift to see this St. Paul-based History Theatre performance right here in my community, in the late 1800s Newhall Auditorium on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. I appreciate that History Theatre, through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, is touring this show in Greater Minnesota. Even though I live only an hour from the Twin Cities metro, I don’t attend theater there due to cost and, well, the hassle of driving and parking. Tickets for the Faribault performance were only $20.

 

A promo from the “Sweet Land” film website.

 

I walked into Newhall Auditorium with high expectations. Ali Selim’s independent film “Sweet Land,” upon which the musical is based (and rooted in Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”), rates as one of my all-time favorite movies. Filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, the setting of wide skies and land, naturally draws me in.

But it is the challenges faced by German immigrant Inge Altenberg, come to America in 1920 to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik, that make this story memorable and especially relevant today. As I listened to character Pastor Sorenson warn, “She (Inge) is not one of us,” I reflected on how we welcome, or don’t welcome, immigrants to Minnesota.

 

Faribault native Ann Michels in the lead role of Inge Altenberg alongside Robert Berdahl as Olaf Torvik on-stage at the History Theatre. While the movie was filmed in the Montevideo area of southwestern Minnesota, the musical sets the story farther north in the Park Rapids/Hubbard County area. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.

 

I was especially pleased that the History Theatre performance did not deviate from the film storyline, following it right down to the cup of coffee brewed by Inge and which the pastor declared too strong for his liking. Details like these are important because they connect with the audience in a relatable way.

Performers also connected via music. A musician even stroked a cello (or maybe it was a bass; I’m uncertain) to mimic the moo of a cow during a barn scene. Music from a violin, piano and, surprise, an accordion, and more followed the storyline plot from fast-paced and dramatic to soulful and reflective.

I felt the intensity of emotions in Inge as she struggled to learn English, in Pastor Sorenson as his voice boomed suspicion from the pulpit, in Olaf as he battled to hold his feelings in check.

My nearness enhanced my experience, especially during a softball game when actors moved off the stage, so close their gloved hands nearly touched audience members. As the musical progressed, I saw sweat sliding down performers’ faces.

During an apple pie making scene, I almost expected the scent of cinnamon to waft through the theater. While it didn’t, I caught the nuances of the interaction between Inge and her neighbor. When Inge called the pie strudel, Brownie corrected her. “No, apple pie.”

That’s the thing about this story, this film, this musical—seemingly subtle exchanges prompt the audience to think, to ponder whether the coffee someone brews really is too strong or whether it is our reactions that run too strong.

 

FYI: “Sweet Land, the musical” is showing at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, and at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center in Worthington at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 15, closing out the tour to communities in Greater Minnesota.

The lead actress role of Inge is played by Faribault native Ann Michels, who gave an outstanding performance to an appreciative hometown audience. The musical is part of the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series offered at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. This marks my first time attending a show here and you bet I’ll be back. The Vienna Boys Choir comes to the historic Faribault theater at 7:30 p.m. on November 16.

Special thanks to my husband, Randy, for gifting me with tickets to “Sweet Land” for my birthday.

 

“Peoples of Faribault,” an enlightening must-see video August 4, 2017

High school students Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple produce “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV” in Faribault. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

THEIR APPRECIATION FOR LOCAL HISTORY shines in the videos they produce. But it’s more than a passion for Faribault history that drives Samuel Temple of Faribault and Logan Ledman of Northfield. The 16-year-olds strive to make viewers think via the videos they create for Faribault Community Television.

 

Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Nearly two years after their first of 11 history episodes aired, the teens tackled their most extensive project yet—a 40-some minute video titled “Peoples of Faribault.” I watched the show this week and am impressed by the research, the content and the clincher ending that challenges viewers to consider how their choices affect Faribault’s identity as a community.

Negative local perceptions of his hometown prompted Samuel to co-produce a video that counters that negativity. He and Logan do that through the art of entertaining, informative and thought-provoking storytelling. Their work is top-notch professional as they address issues of ethnicity in their latest and most lengthy film.

 

This prize-winning photo which I shot at the International Festival Faribault in 2012 reflects the cultural diversity of our community.

 

It’s no secret that Faribault has struggled with accepting newcomers. And newcomers have struggled to adapt. But Samuel and Logan put it all in perspective by tracing back to the town’s 1850s beginning and progressing from there. They cover the ethnic groups of the Dakota, French-Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, Czech, Germans, Irish, Latinos, Cambodians, Chinese and Faribault’s newest immigrants, Somalis. Each group faced issues of assimilation and rejection, the two discovered through extensive research and interviews.

 

This sculptor of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Samuel summarizes the reason each group came to Faribault in one simple statement: “Everyone was looking for a home, for a wide array of reasons, and each found it in Faribault.”

Looking for a home. It doesn’t get more basic than that. But behind those four words are specifics such as war, famine, pursuing the American dream and more. It’s all covered in the film, for each of the featured ethnic groups.

 

Many Somalis now call Faribault home. I took this photo at a 2015 car show in historic downtown Faribault.

 

While researching for the video, the producers began to see a pattern. Says Logan in an email response to my questions:

“Issues of racism, cultural conflict, and discrimination came up in our work for this video. It ended up being a consistent pattern; the town’s response to newcomers was, initially, consistently negative. Over time, though, as new Faribault townsfolk left a multi-generational mark on the community, there was a parallel, consistently positive final acceptance of those newcomers by the town. This was a pattern that repeated itself across every group we looked at, and it’s a pattern we see repeating itself today.”

 

Bashir Omar. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Bashir Omar, a 10-year Faribault resident who serves on the Faribault Diversity Coalition and who works as a cultural liaison in the public school system, offers primarily praise for Faribault in comments aired in the “Peoples of Faribault” video. Although he says people fear the Somali culture, he’s always felt welcomed here and has not been targeted because of his Muslim faith. “Faribault has been a great town,” Bashir says.

 

Samuel and Logan narrate from the front porch of the Alexander Faribault house, home to town founder Alexander Faribault. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Not all newcomers have received the same warm welcome, an issue Samuel and Logan sensitively address through narrative and interviews. They also spoke with a local historian/author, city official and author/English as a second language educator and collaborated with sixth graders from the Cannon River STEM School to create family trees. Town founder Alexander Faribault, son of a part Dakota woman and a French trader, for example, faced discrimination when he befriended the Dakota, according to historian Larry Richie. He reveals in the video that Alexander died a despised and broken man. “We gotta learn to accept others,” Larry says.

 

A flag ceremony during a past International Festival featured national anthems and information about the countries from which Faribault residents have originated. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In their research, the filmmakers learned a few things about Faribault that surprised and unsettled them. I asked. For Samuel, the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Faribault, including a mass gathering at the Rice County Fairgrounds for a state convention in 1924, left him feeling queasy. He noted, too, the Klan’s strong anti-Catholic (in addition to anti-black and anti-Jew) sentiment. For Logan, discrimination against Germans especially during the world wars came as a surprise. In the video, the term “enemy aliens” is linked to Germans.

 

I photographed this sign on the front desk of Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

“Faribault is not immune to hate,” Samuel says in the film and then adds this in an email to me:

“Gathering information about the adversity that quite literally every group has faced put in perspective a single truth: accusing any one nationality or ethnicity or religion or group of people of having evil values, or being the root cause of problems in a community is wrong across the board; if we want history to look back on us favorably, we must live by that without exception.”

 

We learn from our past, looking back. This photo shows the back of the Alexander Faribault-Dakota sculpture at Faribault’s Heritage Park.

 

To read those words written by a 16-year-old inspires me and gives me hope. He and Logan are right. We can preserve our heritage while moving forward. We can learn from history. We can choose to focus on the positive, knowing that our choices affect our identity as a community. The choice is ours.

 

FYI: Joining Samuel and Logan in creating “Peoples of Faribault” are friends/musicians Sam Dwyer and Chase Ingraham of Northfield. Sam has also created original music for past episodes of “1855: A Faribault History Series.”

To view the “Peoples of Faribault” video, click here.

You can also see past episodes of “1855” that cover everything from the Fleckenstein Brewery to the Tilt-A-Whirl to local WASP Elizabeth Wall Strohfus at this same link.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“Peoples of Faribault” images are courtesy of Samuel Temple

 

Take two: A second look at the film “Sweet Land” & immigration issues February 6, 2017

sweet-land-envelope-copy

The letter Inge received from Olaf, in the fictional film Sweet Land.

She is not one of us. We speak a common language. We have a common background, a common culture. She is not one of us.
#

We have to be careful about this sort of thing…German nationals. German nationals engage in prostitution. They harbor dangerous political convictions. Are you aware of the Espionage Act of 1916?
#

English only in the church. English.
#

You’re German. It’s a bad influence. You’re German. It’s a disruption to my community. You make coffee that’s too black.

She makes good coffee, not like the women in church.
#

I was fearful of her differences, but I was hopeful she could join us on our path….Do not allow your good lives to be poisoned by these two.
#

This is German food?

No, just food.
#

You don’t have the papers.

sweetlandposter_mini

Promotional from Sweet Land website.

LAST WEEK I REWATCHED Sweet Land, an award-winning independent film released in 2005. The movie, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” and filmed on my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, rates as a favorite of mine.

sweet-land-farmhouse-copy

Olaf Torvik’s home on the prairie. The film was shot in and around Montevideo, Minnesota.

I appreciate the early 1920s setting, the music, the story and, now, its relevancy to today. The above dialogue comes from Sweet Land, which focuses on the challenges faced by Inge Altenberg, summoned to America by Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik. He expects a Norwegian mail order bride as do others in the community. But Inge is not Norwegian; she is German.

Thereafter, the conflict begins with “She is not one of us.”

The land and love shape the story.

The land and love weave into this story. Here Inge and Olaf dance on the prairie.

I won’t give away the plot, which includes a love story. But I will tell you that I watched the movie this time from a much different perspective, in the context of current day immigration issues in our country. Sadness swept over me.

Please watch this thought-provoking, conversation-starting film. It’s a must-see whether you make coffee that’s good, judged as too black or you don’t brew coffee at all. It’s still coffee.

FYI: Sweet Land, the musical opens April 29 at History Theatre in St. Paul. It runs for five weeks, Thursday – Sunday, until May 28. Will I go? I’d love to…

RELATED: Saturday afternoon a sizable crowd gathered on the Rice County Courthouse grounds in my community for a peaceful protest. Please click here to watch the video, Faribault, Minnesota Immigration Ban Protest 2-4-17, posted by Terry Pounds. Faribault is home to many immigrants and refugees, including from Somalia.

A photographic exhibit of refugee children who fled Syria, leaving everything behind, is showing at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Photos for Where the Children Sleep were taken by award-winning Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman. In order to increase community access to the exhibit, the ASI is providing free admission on Wednesdays in February. The exhibit runs through March 5. Where the Children Sleep launches the Institute’s 2017 “Migration, Identity and Belonging Programming.”

Review © Copyright 2017 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling