'Local artists, local stories': Film industry takes shape on Iron Range
By bringing an educational workshop to the Minnesota Discovery Center, documentary filmmaker Matt Koshmrl is opening up the medium to a new cast of creative locals.
CHISHOLM — Demonstrating how to light a scene, three budding filmmakers shifted equipment around to judge its best effect as Matthew Koshmrl eyed the activity.
“Do you remember what you say when you turn on the light?” Koshmrl asked last week inside the Minnesota Discovery Center’s large conference space, where last fall, Koshmrl, 34, conducted an eight-week documentary filmmaking workshop that maxed out at 20 students.
Blank expressions yielded an answer from the instructor: "Striking."
“You want to let the talent know when the lights are coming on,” Koshmrl explained.
An experienced filmmaker, Koshmrl’s name surfaced in December as the St. Louis County Board was deciding on whether to approve a filmmaking incentive program intended to lure film and TV productions to Duluth and the Iron Range. The board unanimously adopted a program worth up to $1 million that will reimburse productions filmed in the county up to 25% for money spent locally on expenses such as local labor, food, supplies and lodging.
Koshmrl’s name was used to bolster support for the program. Since moving to Chisholm in 2019, he's been a guiding light for the industry, someone who's doing his own work here, while also inspiring and helping others to make films.
“He is a very important piece of the whole puzzle,” Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office, told the board. “To have someone of that caliber here with such a good heart to want to teach others — he’s definitely a gem in our community.”
Koshmrl’s parents are both from Chisholm, though he’s never lived in the Iron Range community until now.
He resides where immigrant miners used to live, in what was a dormitory above Valentini’s Supper Club, which is partly owned by an uncle. His feature documentaries can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. When he's not working on his own projects, his main job is doing the cinematography work on other people's films.
Koshmrl has done work in South Korea, Austin, Texas and Antarctica, for which he received the Antarctica Service Medal from the U.S. Congress. The work he did there, about the process of discovering dinosaur bones, plays at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
His computer desktop features scores of files containing film footage — long, captivating takes delivered by his skilled eye. He refers to filming as his research. The story comes together mostly in editing, he said.
When he was working on his most recent film, 2019's “Land of My Father,” which documents a dispute between Japan and South Korea over a sacred island territory, his thoughts drifted back home.
“Even when I was in Korea, I was thinking about films I could make in northern Minnesota,” he said.
He’s currently visiting and revisiting local beef cattle herds to tell the story of that industry. He’s filming it from the animals’ perspective, and says it's a film that will feature little dialogue.
“I grew up hunting and fishing,” Koshmrl said. “It always made me think about where my food is coming from.”
His part in the local film scene has expanded since he moved to Chisholm to include co-directorship of the Duluth Superior Film Festival, which was postponed last year due to COVID-19 and he expects to resurface in 2021.
His goal is to cultivate a thriving independent film scene in northern Minnesota — one capable of taking advantage of county incentives.
“I’m more interested in creating a place where local artists can tell local stories — giving them access to not just education, but equipment and a network of others,” he said.
To that end, Koshmrl joined with the Discovery Center to raise $30,000 to buy eight Apple computers with editing software, and three digital cinema cameras.
Last fall’s documentary filmmaking workshop — eight three-hour nighttime sessions — was an easy pitch, enthusiastically received by the Discovery Center, which houses historical Iron Range archives, a research center and features a movie theater.
“We have so many unique stories here on the Iron Range that we can tell and that are dear to our mission of preserving Iron Range history,” said Donna Johnson, Discover Center executive director. “I see this as being a long-term goal of ours — all the infrastructure is here and it’s underutilized. It’s a way to keep bringing life to what we do already.”
Johnson said Koshmrl’s experience and what he’s creating “blows my mind,” and that putting the two of them in a room together creates endless ideas.
The documentary filmmaking workshop produced 12 films, which were screened in the Discover Center theater. Koshmrl plans to create a section of the Duluth Superior Film Festival to include student films like the ones produced in his workshop.
Seraphia Gravelle, 39, and Nathaniel Coward, 45, made a 3-minute film about racism on the Iron Range for use with their organization, Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness.
The short features Coward seated in a diner , talking about how servers will sometimes fail to fill his empty cup when circulating through the dining area.
“I’ve been on the Range for over 25 years and there’s subtle racism that people don’t see, and if you’ve never experienced it you wouldn’t know it was here,” the film begins, with Coward addressing the camera. “I see it all the time.”
The film ends with his cup being filled by a server whose face is unseen by the camera. It's a powerful moment in an impressive debut.
“I had zero experience in filmmaking of any kind, but by the end of the first class, I walked out of here with so many ideas of what could be accomplished,” Gravelle said.
Another newcomer, Steve Solkela, used the class to film a music video of his song, “Iron Ore.” In it, Solkela, 24, roves through some of his favorite Iron Range locations, carrying his accordion and singing into the camera with a gang of Rangers following and singing backing vocals.
“I went through college without a laptop,” Solkela said. “I really came here to try to learn the technology. I’ve got a decent amount of creative energy and creative talent.”
The filmmakers agreed that Koshmrl’s instruction made their films look “classy,” and, indeed, the films share an air of professionalism.
“One of the things I really love about community education classes are that it really attracts a wide demographic of people,” Koshmrl said, describing his oldest student as being in his late 70s and the youngest 16. The majority were in their 40s and 50s. A waiting list of others is lined up for the next class sometime in 2021.
He’s taught the class in places as far off as Zimbabwe, Africa. He referred to the class in Chisholm as “an incredible cohort.”
“I’ve taught this class about a dozen times,” he said. “This was one of the best classes I’ve had. Everyone was engaged and took it seriously, and was very sensitive to each other.”
One of Koshmrl’s first films was titled, “The Poachers,” about a group of 10 men, including family, who bought a hunting cabin decades ago. It’s about friendship, time, change and what matters to people.
It’s the kind of north country story he’s helping others tell.
“It’s really cool to see people who have had an idea for a long time, and who've always wanted to make a film, develop it and create something with a lot of passion and excitement,” Koshmrl said.
He is working with Zeitgeist to bring the workshop, and the resources required to conduct it, to Duluth sometime soon.
The area is ripe with film festivals, scenic landscapes and the historic places Koshmrl finds captivating to film. But until Koshmrl came along, an education component was missing.
“It’s been fun to see people in our community explore filmmaking,” Johnson said. “They don’t always have the resources or money to invest themselves to dabble in it.”
Back at his office above Valentini’s, Koshmrl sifted through footage and talked about what’s possible.
“I’ve always found this to be a very inspiring place to be,” he said. “In Duluth and the Iron Range, there are so many interesting stories to be told — with a lot of talented people already in place to do that.”