41 North Film Festival: Connections Near and Far

Panelists discuss film in 2017
Panelists discuss film in 2017
Panelists on indigenous rights discuss issues raised by the film "Sami Blood" at the 2017 41 North Film Festival.

The 41 North Film Festival, which features more than 20 films, along with filmmakers, special events and music, opens its four-day run on Thursday at Michigan Technological University's Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

What may seem far away is often closer than we think. Arizona mining history tied to our own industrial past, health care providers in a rural area much like the Upper Peninsula, and undocumented Dreamers in a new film by Keweenaw-native Heather Courtney (Where Soldiers Come From), are among the highlights of this year’s festival.

Now in its 14th year, the 41 North Film Festival, Nov. 1 to Nov. 4, brings award-winning independent films, and some of the fascinating individuals who create them to the Keweenaw Peninsula. The festival, which is free and open to the public, begins Thursday. While this year’s films focus on a variety of topics from solar-powered flight to the bizarre world of industrial musicals, as always, there are films that will be of particular interest to Copper Country audiences.

A Tragic and Complicated Past

Described by critics as “a ghost story by way of a documentary,” Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17” looks at a former copper mining community’s attempt to grapple with its tragic and complicated past. A brutal act of retaliation against labor organizing efforts in 1917, still haunts the town and defines the relationship of the community to its ancestors. Although Bisbee is 2,000 miles from the Keweenaw, the Bisbee mining district was built by men from Calumet, Michigan. The Calumet and Arizona Mining Company, which cooperated with the other companies in orchestrating the ruthless events of 1917, had officers with close family ties to our local copper mines. It is a story that will be both new and familiar to those interested in local mining history.

“Bisbee ’17” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 3). Following the screening there will be a Q&A and panel discussion with the film’s director Robert Greene (via Skype), Sarah Fayen Scarlett and LouAnn Wurst from Michigan Tech’s Department of Social Sciences and Jo Urion Holt from the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Also of particular interest to Keweenaw audiences, is “Copperdog” (working title) which follows four women mushers and their dogs as they train for the annual CopperDog 80/150. Director Laurie Little and cinematographer Justin Jones (CCM ‘12), will be in attendance for this special work-in-progress screening of their film. Some four-legged special guests will be on hand as well.

Health Care in a Rural Area

Set against the backdrop of the physician shortage and opioid epidemic in rural America, “The Providers” (2018) follows three health care professionals working in a remote area much like ours. With intimate access, the documentary shows the transformative power of providers’ relationships with marginalized patients, raising as many questions as it answers about health care challenges facing rural communities today. Dr. Leslie Hayes, who is featured in the film, will join Ray Sharp from the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department for a discussion following the film—screening at 2 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 3). Dr. Hayes was recognized by the White House in 2016 as a Champion of Change and is married to Michigan Tech alumnus David Rich (CS ’86). “As happens almost every year,” says festival director Erin Smith, “we have an unexpected and serendipitous connection with one of the films. I had already booked ‘The Providers’ when the director found out about the Michigan Tech connection with Dr. Hayes.”

Heather Courtney and the Dreamers

While many in the Keweenaw may feel far removed from the hardships of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students profiled in “The Unafraid,” they are certainly familiar with one of the filmmakers. The 90-minute documentary is the latest work by the director/producer of the award-winning “Where Soldiers Come From,” Keweenaw native Heather Courtney.

As in “Where Soldiers Come From,” Courtney and co-director Anayansi Prado, delve deeply into the lives and challenges of this country’s youth. “The Unafraid” follows the lives of three DACA students in Georgia, a state that has banned them from attending their top state universities and disqualified them from receiving in-state tuition at any other public college. Shot in an observational style over four years, this film takes an intimate look at the lives of Alejandro, Silvia and Aldo as they pursue their right to education and fight for the rights of their families and communities.

Smith says, “Heather Courtney is the kind of thoughtful and committed documentarian who is able to bring us close to her subjects because of her profound respect for them. In her hands, huge, often polarizing issues like war or immigration become grounded in the experiences of people who help us imagine their more subtle and complicated dimensions.”

In addition to the screening of their documentary at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 2), Courtney and one of the students from the film will participate in a question and answer session. A reception for them follows the event.

STEM in the Spotlight 

This year, 41 North will screen five films delving into history, issues and accomplishments relating to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) innovation.

The featured films look at high school students competing for an international prize (“Science Fair”), an early Silicon Valley startup (“General Magic"), internet censorship (“The Cleaners”), the first photograph of the moon taken from space (“Earthrise”) and the first solar-powered flight around the world (“Point of No Return”).

“Documentaries can bring important context and perspective to our understanding of STEM fields and their impact on the world. The films this year tell both celebratory and cautionary tales that should be both inspiring and thought provoking,” says Smith.

Following the showing of “Science Fair” at 7 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 1) there will be a discussion featuring a panel of STEM educators.

A Little Something for Everyone

With more than 20 films to choose from, the 41 North Film Festival offers a little something for everyone. However, Smith challenges festival goers to choose at least one film that doesn’t seem like something that would interest them. “After every festival, one of the things I hear the most is how surprised someone was to discover that they loved a film that wasn’t high on their list. Use the festival as an opportunity to explore something new.”

A complete list of the films along with a schedule of events can be found at 41northfilmfest.org.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.