Front Row Seat: Ely festival to showcase Northland movies

The End of the Road Film Festival kicks off Thursday, with over 75 films and a particular focus on locally made movies. It's being held in association with the annual Ely Winter Festival.

Two figures in thick protective blue-and-orange snow covering stand astride a heavily laden sled in a snowy landscape. Further figures and sled dogs are visible in the background.
"After Antarctica," a documentary about polar explorer Will Steger, is featured in the End of the Road Film Festival.
Contributed / Tasha Van Zandt

ELY — It's only fitting that the northern edge of the Northland, site of so many spectacular films and photos, is finally getting a chance to see a generous selection of the independent movies made here and elsewhere.

"We knew that there is a lot of talent in the state, and a lot of activity happening in the independent film industry," said Jacob White. "The opportunity to see a lot of that work doesn't usually present itself in Ely. You'd have to go down to Duluth or down to the Twin Cities or some other place to see independent film."

Ely's State Theater.
Ely's Historic State Theater in February 2019, following Blake Freking's victory in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Brady Slater / File / Duluth News Tribune

White is director of the newly minted End of the Road Film Festival, running Thursday through Sunday at Ely's Historic State Theater and the Greenstone Cinema. Over 35 filmmakers will be on hand as 75-plus feature and short films play to eager audiences.

"We've got over 200 passes going out, which is amazing," said White, referring to the all-inclusive festival passes; tickets to individual features and short film blocks will also be sold. "Couldn't have even hoped for such a good turnout."

The film festival is being presented in association with the annual Ely Winter Festival, which kicked off last week and runs through Sunday. "There's just a buzz and an energy in the air," said White. "That's always the case with the Winter Festival."


"I love the idea that Ely has a film festival. There's a lot of creative talent up there, and it's just expanding the interest in film across the state," said Riki McManus, chief production officer at the Upper Midwest Film Office. "They've got some great filmmakers coming. I think it's going to be a really nice festival, and combining it with their Winter Fest up there is a great idea."

White grew up in Tennessee, first came to the Northland for a Boundary Waters expedition when he was a teenager, and moved here full time in 2018. He said that through his video production company, White Pine Productions, "I produce content for small businesses and nonprofits that I partner with, to help them tell their story and get it out there to their audiences."

Jess Morgan has written a love letter to Duluth through a collection of poetry set to be released March 30.
Find something to do this week in the Northland.
The boy born in Duluth as Bobby Zimmerman will be celebrated with nine days of concerts and conferences in May. An organizer says next year's event will likely be more concise.
The Show Study class, led by director of education Courtney Laine Self, invited adult learners to follow the development of "Into the Woods."
Members Only
Fifty years ago Sunday, Duluth broke ground for the construction of a permanent train museum at the former Union Depot.
The theme for Finland's festivities is "St. Urho 23 and Me." Floats in the parade Saturday will incorporate the theme.
"Twin Portals" is Duluth's D&D live-play podcast. The group of improv folks, actors and a musician get together monthly to play and record their characters' adventures.
Twista will join the pop hip-hop hitmaker known for singles including "Low," "Right Round" and "Whistle."
“For anyone who is into local food and music and art and culture, it’s a fun way to dig a little deeper,” said Jason Wussow, of Wussow's Concert Cafe.
Find the right Northland celebration for you.

The idea of an Ely film festival has been in the air for the past several years. The Historic State Theater, which dates to 1936, was purchased by Alley A Realty in 2014 and subsequently renovated.

"People were talking and just imagining all of the different types of things that could come to Ely. Live music, theater, maybe a film festival," said White. "I had been hearing that idea floated around for some years now, and really was inspired by a lot of the momentum in the film industry in northeastern Minnesota to apply for our first grant to do our own film festival."

Legendary polar explorer Will Steger will participate in a question-and-answer session after one of the festival's opening night features, "After Antarctica." Tasha Van Zandt's documentary tells the story of Steger's remarkable career and his concern over climate change. An afterparty will follow, at the Boathouse Brewpub and Restaurant.

Person standing in snowy, mountainous landscape wearing reflective ski goggles and helmet.
"Spirit of the Peaks," a film about a Hunkpapa Lakota skier, is playing in the End of the Road Film Festival.
Contributed / Micheli Oliver

Friday is designated Indigenous Students Day at the festival. "We have a series of films playing that are by made by Native filmmakers," said White. "'Spirit of the Peaks' is a film that comes from a skier out west and his relationship with skiing and his identity and how his Indigeneity ties into his experience as a skier. It's very inspirational."

Over 100 students from several area schools will attend that 10 a.m. screening, said White. Some will stay for additional programming including a block of Indigenous shorts and the feature "Bring Her Home," about missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. That feature will be followed by a panel discussion, performances of healing songs and a "community learn and discussion" at Ely Folk School.

Indigenous American woman crouches on the bank of a body of water, touching her hand to the water, creating visible ripples.
Mysti Babineau, an organizer and advocate, appears in "Bring Her Home," one of the selections at the inaugural End of the Road Film Festival.
Contributed / Michael Phillips

Other musical performances at the festival will include a Saturday night show by local favorites Rich Mattson and the Northstars and a Friday acoustic set from a duo called The Bergamot. The members of that New York City band are also the filmmakers behind "State of the Unity."


"They made this really beautiful documentary about their journey by car across the United States in 2016, when there was so much hate and division going around," said White. The film expresses "their message of unity and how important it is to be able to hold different worldviews and to connect with folks that are different than ourselves."

A light-skinned woman and man sit together on a couch with a guitar case. They nuzzle noses, with the man lightly holding an acoustic guitar.
Jillian Speece and Nathaniel Paul Hoff, who perform as The Bergamot, will perform and present their film "State of the Unity" at the End of the Road Film Festival.
Contributed / Shenaye Tylene

Another highlight, said White, will be Saturday's matinee screening of a movie called "Musher." Understating matters somewhat, White said that "we have a very active musher community in Ely and the surrounding area." The film focuses on four women mushers preparing for the CopperDog race in Michigan.

"Top Gun: Maverick," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "The Muppet Movie" and two Minion movies will be projected at Leif Erikson Park in July and August.

Other programming at the festival will include a Saturday morning presentation by McManus and her UMFO colleague Shari Marshik.

"We're going to present on what it's like to film in Minnesota," said McManus. "I think this is going to be great for us, because we haven't met many of the filmmakers that are going to be presenting there. Not all of them know the story of why it is a very good time to take advantage of the incentives that we have in our region."

"It's a great time of year to visit Ely," said White. "We're excited to start a new event and hopefully attract a new demographic of people to Ely, for arts programming, who then might see what other cool things are happening and be interested to come back next year."

For a complete schedule and ticket information, see

People in northern Minnesota love music, and they love sled dogs. It was inevitable that the two would eventually come together.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
What To Read Next
Get Local