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10 Films to Inspire

These Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival movies will make you dream about what could be.

"Captains of Zaatari," one of the films at the 40th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). All photos courtesy MSPIFF.

For the past few years, I've written a roundup of films at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). I've curated by genre, family content, films with a strong fashion sense, etc. This year, I decided to focus on why I love MSPIFF in the first place: It's inspiring.

In the festival's 40th year, it features more than 170 works from 57 countries, May 13 to 23. The documentaries show fights for justice in our own backyard ("Say His Name: Five Days for George Floyd") or across the world ("9 Days in Raqqa"), but they also highlight everyday profundities ("Oaxacalifornia: The Return") and the magnificence of nature ("After Antarctica"). The non-documentaries cover every genre ("Balloon," "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet," "My Donkey, My Lover, and I," for starters), and if the protagonists don't compel you, the visions of their creators will.

Most of the films are available for streaming May 14 to May 23, but some have special outdoor screenings or Q&As. While not all of these stories may have happy endings or have the traditional, feel-good motivational arc, here are 10 picks to inspire:

"Captains of Zaatari," documentary

In the world's largest camp for Syrian refugees, teenagers Fawzi and Mahmoud dominate the soccer team. While Fawzi has dropped out of school, though, Mahmoud is still devoted to his academics. When Qatari sports academy representatives visit the camp, will either be able to impress the scouts enough to find a way out?

"Downstream to Kinshasa," documentary

Nine survivors of the Second Congo War still bear injuries, and now they're traveling down the Congo River to receive the financial compensation that the government has promised them for years. Director Dieudo Hamadi includes their journey, protests, and cathartic musical theater performances in this documentary, which went on to receive awards such as the TIFF 2020 - Amplify Voices Award special mention.

"Dream Horse," family drama/comedy

This U.K. film is based on the true story of Dream Alliance, a race horse bred by small town bartender, Jan Vokes (Toni Colette, as seen in "Knives Out," "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Sixth Sense"). Insert dark horse puns at your leisure; Dream, and the community who supports him, are aiming for the stars.

"Here We Are," family drama

Aharon and his young adult son Uri live a secluded life, but when Uri's mother says Uri should live in a specialized home due to his autism, Aharon takes Uri and runs. As they travel together, Aharon will have to truly figure out what is best for his son in this award-winning Israeli movie. (For another flick about a father's love, watch the Serbian film "Father," which is based on the true story of a man walking across the country to appeal for custody of his children when the local administration may be corrupt.)

"Lily Topples the World," one of the films at the 2021 MSPIFF.

"Lily Topples the World," documentary

SXSW 2021's grand jury prize documentary feature follows domino artist Lily Hevesh as she creates (and collapses) dozens of sculptures around the world. Want a preview of her work? Follow the link for her 10-year anniversary video.

"Mekong 2030," anthology

Five short films from five different nations—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam—visualize what the Mekong River could be like in 10 years. The stories span a light-hearted road trip, a dystopian future, magical realism, and more, but they all reflect what the river has meant (and could mean) to those around it. The film won best feature narrative at the 2020 Dilli International Film Festival.

"Shorts: Activism," anthology

With some fiction and some true tales, these shorts look at a conversation between a CEO and an environmental terrorist, an Indigenous-led ceremony that brings people across Arizona's desert, and more. Two of the documentaries focus on Black men killed by Minneapolis police: "Ignited States," which follows the protests after George Floyd's death, and "Never Turn Your Back to the Wave - The Travis Jordan Story," which looks at how one family is fighting for justice.

"Summer of Soul," documentary, outdoor screening May 13, available to stream May 13-15

MSPIFF's opening presentation is Questlove's documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Over six weeks, performers like B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sly the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and more were 100 miles south of Woodstock, sharing the power of music. The film has won Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize and audience award.

"Wishlist," drama, comedy

In a premise that crosses "Thelma & Louise" with "The Bucket List," this Spanish movie follows the impromptu road trip of two women who meet at their cancer appointments, along with one of their friends.

"Writing with Fire," documentary

In a northern province in India, its lowest caste women dare to start their own news network. With little support from others, they investigate injustices large and small. The documentary won Sundance 2021's world cinema documentary special jury award, Impact for Change, as well as the audience award for world cinema documentary.


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