Photo by Chris Rogers Sara Enzenauer is the new executive director of Winona’s Frozen River Film Festival. “Having a documentary-only film festival in a community of this size — it takes a special community,” she said.

Frozen River's new leader



It was a couple hours before showtime and nothing was working. Sara Enzenauer and Lyle Blanchard had just lugged a theater-sized, inflatable screen and a bulky audio system up three flights of stairs only to discover that the blower needed to keep the screen inflated was nowhere to be found and the sound system did not work.

Enzenauer and Blanchard were tasked with setting up one of the venues for Frozen River Film Festival’s (FRFF) first ever “Films by Bike” event in La Crosse last fall. The event was meant as an outreach, a chance to show La Crosse dwellers how cool Winona’s film festival is, but a stream of cyclists expecting to watch a documentary on Icelandic surfers would soon be disappointed unless Enzenauer and Blanchard could figure something out fast.

Enzenauer eyed up a crossbar meant for hanging backdrops above the stage, Blanchard recalled. The two of them rounded up a couple ladders and draped the inflatable screen from it, pinning it to the bar with industrial-sized clothespins. Then, Enzenauer managed to set up the venue’s sound system to replace the one they had hauled upstairs, Blanchard said. “I’m not a technical guy,” the FRFF Board member continued, “But, ‘Yea, Sara!’ She took control of it, knew what she was talking about, and took care of it.”

When everything was going wrong at Films by Bike, Enzenauer had a “we’ll-figure-it-out, let’s-do-this mindset,” Blanchard said. “I just realized here’s someone who is going to roll up her sleeves and make the festival better,” he added. On May 1, Enzenauer will take over from Crystal Hegge as the festival’s executive director. “Frankly, I think she’s going to be a really dynamic member of this community in a leadership role,” Hegge said of her successor.

Enzenauer knows what attracts people to FRFF because she was pulled in herself. The Winona State University (WSU) mass communications and film studies graduate went to her first FRFF film because her professor was offering extra credit. Then, interning at the festival seemed like “a fun way to get a few credits.” Fast-forward a couple of years and she was spending hours hunched over a computer screen as FRFF’s technical director, reviewing every single one of the festival’s 80-some films for technical glitches. She watched the documentary “Salam Neighbor” eight times to make sure the version that won this year’s Grand Jury Prize was free of digital miscues. “The festival has sort of quietly become a passion of mine,” Enzenauer said. “It’s not something that I thought was a passion until a couple of friends of mine were making fun of me, ‘Gosh, you’re always doing stuff with this Frozen River Film Festival.’”

When she was not filming commercials at La Crosse’s WXOW TV station, Enzenauer also helped to coordinate the festival’s screening committee — a 12-person group that narrowed a list of 160 film submissions down to this year’s 80-film lineup. “It’s really daunting,” Enzenauer said, both of the number of films to be reviewed and the tough decisions about what to include and what to cut. FRFF uses a three-star scale to help encourage reviewers to be decisive. “[It] forces people to say ‘didn’t like it,’ ‘liked it,’ or ‘this has to be at the festival,’” Enzenauer said.

By the time the festival rolls around, Enzenauer has already seen all of the films, many of them more than once. Sometimes, she went to screenings of films she loved just to hear what other people’s reactions were. Describing one woman who was inspired to take immediate action after seeing a documentary at the festival, Enzenauer said, “It’s stuff like that we live for — that people watch something and want to create a change.” She added, “Having a documentary-only film festival in a community of this size — it takes a special community. You have to have a community where people want to be challenged.”

Hegge is not going away from Winona or FRFF. The outgoing executive director has been with FRFF since its founding in 2005, and she has managed the festival since 2009, working alongside FRFF’s late founder Maggy Jacqmin. Hegge plans to more or less switch jobs with Enzenauer — working part-time as the festival’s program director. Hegge said she wanted more time to help her parents. “My plan is to focus on our family business in light of my father’s diagnosis with cancer,” she explained. 

It is great to have a new executive director who understands FRFF and to have Hegge stay involved going forward, Blanchard said. “In my opinion it couldn’t have worked out any better,” he added.

For future festivals, Blanchard and Enzenauer both talked about wanting to create more opportunities for people to have in-depth discussions about films. WSU’s Science Learning Center atrium acts as a central gathering place for festival goers to meet each other, compare what films they took in, and chat about the issues they raised. That is a strength for the festival, Enzenauer said, but setting up “break-out spaces” where people could have roundtable discussions or longer question-and-answer sessions after films could enrich the festival experience. FRFF leaders were excited about opportunities for the festival to host more activities year-round, and Enzenauer was particularly interested in getting even more Minnesota films in the lineup.

“I really believe that things like FRFF and the other festivals in our community are the things that help us remain attractive and relevant to the next generation of leaders in our community,” Blanchard said. He added of Enzenauer, “She’s sharp, and she’s that next generation of leader … This is what we want to see not just in Frozen River Film Festival but throughout the city of Winona.”

FRFF will host an encore screening of “Salam Neighbor” and a meet-and-greet with Enzenauer this Sunday, April 23, at the Winona County History Center, 160 Johnson Street, in Winona. The meet-and-greet starts at 3 p.m. in Wanek Hall, and the film will be shown at 3:30 p.m. There will be a cash bar. Tickets for the film cost $5. It is free with an FRFF 2017 premier pass. More information is available at


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