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Free Range films return

The heat is finally breaking this late Friday afternoon on another 90-something degree day in Carlton County. The dry, hot summer has the poplars yielding, yet it still seems far too early for downed yellow leaves to be dancing along the roadsides on a drive to a barn in rural Wrenshall. A persistent wind has kept the day from being totally oppressive, and it is quite pleasant on the grounds of the Free Range Film Festival a few hours before the first of two 7 p.m. showings of short films last weekend.

The air is less conducive inside the 100-year-old barn. Festival co-founder Annie Dugan and festival director Mike Scholtz are making final touches, including a late change in the audio system. But the movement of the two, and the trickling in of volunteers, is languid.

A walk around the barn - which lies on property once owned by Dugan and partner Janaki Fisher-Merritt and now occupied by Dugan's parents, Sandy and Betsy - provides the sense that one is in the backdrop of a Wyeth painting. There is a late-summer riot of wildflowers and grasses and native plants all around.

Dugan says there was some not-typical trepidation about all things getting up and running. There hadn't been films shown here in more than a year. Like most events in the world in 2020, the festival did not take place during the heart of the pandemic.

Judging whether to have the festival this year came slowly, Dugan said. As the Covid-19 levels subsided and vaccinations ramped up, it was decided the festival was a go, albeit in August rather than the customary late June.

A child, Helen Webster, is admittedly bossing Scholtz around as he cleans the antique popcorn maker. Webster came with the now handful of volunteers who have arrived and in turn have exited cars after long drives from metro areas and deeply inhaled country air. That's the lure for Free Range, they say - a chance to get out in space.

The volunteers make their way to the Dugans' house through amazing wildflower beds. Betsy and Sandy have set up tables and chairs in a clearing in the backyard. It's tradition to serve a meal - shredded pork sandwiches and slaw. And desserts, the favorite being a frozen blueberry slurry atop an exquisite crust. Annie Dugan seems to not be joking when she says getting a taste of the treat is her favorite part of the festival.

Greg Cassidy and Donovan Williams from Minneapolis and St. Paul are chatting up people in front of the barn. They are the veterans of Free Range. Cassidy went to his first festival in 2005 and hasn't missed one since. It's special, he said, because of the unique setting but also the ability to see more work from regional filmmakers than other festivals he attends.

Cassidy said the setting allows for more appreciative interaction with artists and attendees - regular people, he said, not just diehard film buffs like himself.

Fisher-Merritt is back on the grounds after taking a shower at the homestead down the way at the Food Farm. He said the festival was well-timed, since a dearth of water to spread on the plants at the farm meant he could concentrate on prepping for the festival.

He and Dugan have decided to open some doors and loft windows to get some air moving in the barn. There are three theaters: in the main loft upstairs, on the ground floor between old milking stanchions, and in a side extension of the barn that allows for outdoor seating.

Williams and Cassidy bring their own chairs and usually plop themselves upstairs. On Friday, they found it more comfortable to watch outside, where you didn't need a mask and the wind was keeping things pleasant.

Dugan was at the ticket stand, which is really just a place to greet people with a program and a tip jar that suggests a $10 donation.

The crowd was comparatively light, she said, but that was OK. The festival was on, and that's what mattered. Two filmmakers were on hand for discussions after the showings. Others had made plans to attend but scuttled them as Covid-19 concerns have risen yet again.

Dugan later said that every year, after the Saturday showings, she, Scholtz and others make an assessment on whether to have another festival.

"The consensus is that it is a go for the end of June next summer," she said. "The folks that did come had a great time."

On Friday, Scholtz could be found in the upstairs loft, motioning to the projectionist and telling him that things were a go for shortly after 7. Dugan was still outside, greeting latecomers. They all settled in as the first short film flickered on the three screens.

Cassidy was aglow, his face echoing words he uttered earlier. "It's good to be back."