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First End of the Road Film Festival a smashing success

Ely Echo - Staff Photo -
OPENING NIGHT at the End of Road Film Festival at the State Theater in Ely. Photo by Chris Ellerbroek.

by Nick Wognum

Ely’s End of the Road Film Festival was by all accounts a smashing success.

Held Feb. 9-12 at Ely’s Historic State Theater, the event kicked off with an Opening Ceremony Thursday night followed by the Ely premier of “After Antarctica,” a documentary about polar explorer Will Steger.

The End of the Road Film Festival took a crew of volunteers to make it a success, according to Jacob White.

“I couldn’t have expected such a good turnout. I expected people to come to see bigger films but there wasn’t a single screening we had that was poorly attended,” said White. “I think the community wanted to support the event.”

But it wasn’t just local folks who bought popcorn and filled theater seats. White said data from comment cards showed half of the people were not from the 55731 zip code.

“I was amazed at the people from Duluth, the Twin Cities, Chisholm and Grand Rapids who drove to attend and thought it was a great event and the theater was super high quality.

“Jordan Metsa from the Minnesota Discovery Center said it was amazing. He wanted to partner in the future with us,” said White.

While the final numbers are still being tabulated, White said the group is happy with the event’s financial outcome.

“The grant funding this year and the planning we made with the grant funding has always guaranteed we wouldn’t lose money on the event. We’ve received more income than we spent including grant funding,” said White.

The theater also did well with brisk sales at the concession counter.

“It was a great weekend for sales for the theater. I think with the momentum we have and the support we’ve received it shows us we can do this again for the future. We are planning to do it again next year. We want to do it and we’re starting to plan on it.”

White said the opening ceremony had two popular components, a drum group  of local drummers and singers from Bois Forte.

“They came over to play some songs and to start things off. It really acknowledged where we are and why we were there,” said White.

Ely Memorial High School graduate Matthew Janeksela gave an amazing rendition of the national anthem.

“Matthew brings a powerful shining beacon of light. He loves singing and performing.”

White then gave an introduction to the festival which he said was “just an opportunity to introduce the event and what went into putting this first year together and to set the tone for the weekend.

“People talk alot about job and I believe jobs in the arts are real jobs. We all consumer entertainment,” said White.

Next up Ely Echo publisher introduced “After Antarctica,” which followed the 1989 trip across the continent and included present day activities by Steger including his efforts to combat climate change over the years.

Following the movie, Wognum and Steger stood in front of the screen and held a 15 minute question and answer session.

During that time, Steger, 78, said he had another solo trip planned for this year.

Steger explained how the film came together and complimented film makers Tasha Van Zandt and Sebastian Zeck for compiling video and audio from the 1989 trip.

“I didn’t put in any input on what they should do. For five years I opened up all my archives. We came up here, we went to Antarctica, they came to the end of two of my solo expeditions. We had this bond of communication and trust. I felt the film was an active of love on the part of the film makers.”

Steger said the 1989 trip came in four or five times during the trip to film. He said the French crew did reel to reel with a boom mic.

“That film is some of the best documentation I’ve ever seen in the polar regions,” said Steger.

He said his photos, videos and journals are being stored at St. Thomas University and are in the process of being digitized.

“I have thousands of hours of film, hundreds of thousands of pictures, and stacks of journals. The genius of the film was they had access to all that and they were able to put this thing together.”

Steger said he was amazed when he first saw the film.

“I first saw it last April, they rented out the space here and John Ratzloff and I watched it alone in the theater and I was quite amazed on how they were able to put this together.”

Steger also complimented the film festival.

“The whole community chipped in and we have these beautiful facilities with two theaters and a lounge. It’s been greater than any of us expected,” said Steger. “I know the logistics and complications of working with 80 some films and just getting all that together on a four night extravaganza in cold Ely. It’s going to help launch our community, our Winter Fest and clear skies and get more people up here.”

Steger thanked the crowd for the standing ovation given to him that night.

“It’s really an honor to be here with all my friends and the community. You stood up and clapped, it really means a lot to me,” said Steger.

He said bought land in Ely when he was 19 and lived off the road for 25 years on Pickett Lake up the Cloquet Line.

“The biggest compromise I ever made was putting in a road,” said Steger.

Festival to return in 2024

White said having a packed house for opening night was a great feeling.

“I think a lot of people came out to see ‘After Antarctica,’” said White.

Two film workshops were held over the weekend as well, something White hopes will generate local potential film makers to get on the big screen.

“I heard a lot of excitement from local film people about the pitch competition to get funding. Hopefully maybe someone like Chris Ellerbroek or Mike Fitzgerald can take on making a film about one of our local heroes like Seraphine Rolando.”

White said he started working on the event in April of last year.

“I just jumped right in to see if we could realize a bigger vision. I invited friends I’ve worked with before to join the team. I  wanted people who have worked on organizing events in the community but most haven’t seen a film festival.  Without the team we put together it would  have not run nearly as smoothly. It was a huge community effort to pull this off and run as smoothly as it did.”

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